In response to a request from my good friend Khaled Kteily over at the Management Consultants Network, I am writing about the impact my consulting background has had on my startup endeavours. This is the first post in a two part write-up. Here, I focus on the benefits of moving from consulting to startups.
After two years spent as a management consultant at McKinsey, serving mega-companies, on mega-company issues, interacting with conservative executives, and otherwise leading a corporate life, I decided to take a 180 degree turn and join the startup world.
I’ll take this opportunity to share early insights and thoughts on the impact my consulting background has had on my current endeavours, and how it has shaped my thinking. In this first post, I will highlight how consulting prepared me to start a business. In the next post, I’ll look at how it made things more difficult, and I will wrap up with some thoughts on managing the transition.
How Consulting Helped me Start a Company
Three years ago, I accepted an offer to join McKinsey as a Business Analyst. Of course, I was thrilled and grateful for this opportunity. But I would only be saying half the truth if I didn’t mention that a part of me was worried; worried that I would brand myself solely as a business/strategy guy. I knew early on that I ultimately wanted to follow an entrepreneurial path. The engineer in me always wanted to keep tinkering and building stuff. I took the job, worked hard for two years, learned a ton, grew professionally, and came out the other end even more determined.
This is my account of how those years spent in consulting helps me today.
Taming The Unknown
A typical consulting engagement consisted of spending 3 to 6 months at a client’s, in an industry in which I had little-to-no prior experience, and I was expected to deliver high-impact high-value work. The bar was high; the deadlines short; the client occasionally hostile. In short, the working conditions were difficult.
The only certainty is that I never had all the information I wanted to make the best decision. Whether due to time-constraints, non-collaborative clients, or poor-quality / nonexistent data. So I learned early on – almost by necessity – to become comfortable with the unknown, to make do with what’s available, move forward fast, and deal with consequences later.
The most important element of dealing with the unknown is harnessing the power of the mythical ‘structure’ – a concept that is drilled into your head before you even begin your first consulting engagement. It’s one of those essential ingredients that permeate the consulting life. Structure allows you to take a cascade of incoherent information and break it down into digestible chunks, prioritize it, then discard the superfluous. In other words, it allows you to create order from chaos.
Unsurprisingly, structuring the unknown is a skill that has returned dividends in the startup world. Every day, I’m faced with multiple, often complex and novel challenges. Instead of research teams that can help provide highly-relevant data, I have the Internet: a massive dump of information, most of which isn’t useful. It’s easy to get overwhelmed – and sometimes I still do. That said, retaining a strong structure amidst this sprawling mess of data helps me move forward and make the best decisions I can today.
Navigating The Human Element
Consulting is not just about data; there is inevitably a powerful human element that can make or break an engagement, a relationship, or even a career. Learning to manage the ‘human element’ is a key skill that consulting firms help you develop – and it’s important that you do, because dealing with difficult people can lead to some of the most stressful situations in your career.
Compare that to facing a technical problem: in these situations, I can sit in front of my computer and labor away indefinitely. It’s just me, my computer, and time. I can undo errors, skip a few hours of sleep to gain more time, run my work by coworkers, etc. None of this is available when I face another individual in a negotiation for example.
Suddenly, there is such a thing as making an error I can’t undo; I only have this hour to get to an agreement; I can’t interrupt the meeting to phone-a-friend; etc. Simply reading about how to prepare for such situations is not tremendously helpful. I needed real world experience to improve. Luckily, consulting gave me more than enough occasions to do so. I’ve had the opportunity to sit across the table from C-level executives more than twice my age, and interview them one-on-one. This is important, because when a VC is grilling me on my startup for example, I feel infinitely more capable because I’ve dealt with similar situations before.
In consulting, stress is a daily companion as I’ve highlighted above. From tight deadlines to difficult clients. Long work hours lead to less sleep, which in turn make me less able of handling stress. And that stress inevitably leaches into my personal life. You can see how this can lead to a dangerous downward spiral.
I’ve been in and out of that spiral several times. My greatest takeaway has been recognizing the importance of investing in myself first. At its core, this means taking care of my body and mind. As work became more hectic, and without noticing it, I started neglecting both: sleeping less, eating poorly, and not being active. That left me functioning below my potential, to say the least. And it affected the quality of my personal, professional, and social life.
I realized then, that I had to be selfish before I could be selfless. I had to prioritize taking care of myself. And that in turn would return dividends in all other aspects of my life. You can’t help others before you help yourself.
Today, I recognize when throwing more work hours at a problem may seem like the right choice at the moment, but is counter-productive in the long term. I continue to be faced with similar challenges but am now armed with a very different attitude thanks to my trials in consulting.
This is the first post in a two-part write-up. In the next post, I will look at the flipside, how consulting made things more difficult, and I will wrap up with some thoughts on managing the transition.