Last week, I completed 2 years at Cengage Learning, a disruptive Ed-Tech company and the third largest digital courseware and textbook publisher in the US, as the Director of Sales Operations and Marketing Strategy. 2 years provides sufficient distance to step back and reflect on the experience in my first job post-management consulting.
One of the biggest selling points of a strategy consulting job during MBA are the unparalleled exit opportunities; that’s accurate if of course you are willing to be challenged beyond your core skillsets as a consultant. If management consulting was about pulling back to the 20,000 foot bird’s eye view, your first job post will bring you straight back down to Mother Earth. In all the best ways!
Having specialized in the Ed-Tech space at both BCG and Parthenon, building a nascent internal strategy team at Cengage with the Chief Strategy Officer, seemed like a good fit. From designing the Go-To-Market strategy and successfully launching Cengage Unlimited, the first ever ‘Netflix for text-books’ like subscription model saving students $60M in material costs to critical post-merger integration work upon the Cengage and McGraw-Hill merger announcement earlier this year, what a ride it’s been!
Sharing with you 7 Lessons from my first job post-management consulting.
One — You can’t just make final recommendations and leave. Upon proudly presenting recommendations on my first strategic project, the CSO’s first question to me was, “These recommendations are good. But where is the execution plan and who will lead this?” If consulting was about the ‘Why & What’, industry is about ‘Who, When & How’. While consulting gives you the luxury of critiquing not-so-obvious business flaws for clients, providing high level strategic recommendations, and calling it a day, industry roles in addition often require you to think deeply about feasible execution plans, post-implementation challenges and continued efficient operations for your company.
Two — Real companies’ business problems are truly complex. One of the major frustrations I heard from folks in consulting was the inability to get their hands dirty with execution, implementation, and operations. One was not privy to post-engagement decisions made by the C-suite or PE firms, unless it was in the news. ‘So X did invest in Y start-up’ or ‘Z finally launched in said emerging market’. Now, being on the other side, I realize that real companies are extremely labyrinthine and mired in complexity. Reality is far stranger than ppt decks and excel sheets. Despite all the consulting structure you throw at the maze, things still seem messy, entangled, and the ‘answer’ is never as obvious. Unlike crafting an elegant final read-out deck, as an insider, the complex work begins post recommendation.
Three — Autonomy in projects can be both a boon and a bane. While as a consultant you rely heavily on your partner/staffing manager for your next project, industry work is mostly self-driven and gives you the autonomy to create a niche and your personal brand. Day-to-day operations and ensuring 100% up-time on systems, keep employees from taking a big picture view. As an ex-consultant the one transferable skill I employed consistently was to ask a LOT of questions! With multiplex legacy IT systems, elaborate hierarchical processes, and confusing internal metrics lacking a single source of truth, even simple questions are powerful. ‘Why are these systems designed a certain way?’, ‘Can we tweak processes to be more efficient?’, ‘How might we think differently?’ Basic questions quickly translate to key projects you are on-point for. Be careful of course to stop asking more Qs, before you answer the earlier ones!
Four — Be patient with the pace of progress and decision-making. If the time-scale in consulting was ‘Can you get this to me by yesterday??’, industry is closer to, ‘Take a few weeks to think about it…’ Deliverables in consulting are forever high-priority, especially in Private Equity due-diligence projects and clients are looking for an answer ‘right now’, which primarily dictates the time-pressed deadlines. Even though consulting trains you to churn out deliverables at lightening speed, in Industry crafting the problem statement itself could take weeks if not months. Industry veterans force you to slow down, be deliberate about making assumptions, ruminate over major decisions and consider long term vision and strategy. Especially since implications of your work will be cross-functional; and bringing Marketing, Product, Technology, Sales, Finance and every other team on the same page often takes time!
Five — Respect the depth of expertise built by industry veterans. Post consulting, a ‘Jack of all trades’ approach is hard to shake off. The breadth of knowledge at a superficial level across multiple industries served me well in consulting. I knew enough about the aviation industry, or nuances of the Healthcare system, or online direct-to-consumer beauty, to be dangerous. But industry veterans have honed expertise and mastery over topics which is built only by repeated practice, for years on end. They have seen systems, processes, people evolve and pivot from inception to current state. And know the details of everything that went down in between. While it’s impossible to match the level of expertise they have gained, it’s absolutely important to learn from it. I have found immense value in diverse ways of thinking, non-linear, super-focused, delightfully unstructured, and at times unlearning consulting ways.
Six — You won’t make as many points on hotels/airlines. After a jet-setting consulting life-style you are most likely looking for a gig that’s more sustainable in terms of travel and predictability. You can say goodbye to building compare and contrast spreadsheets about credit card that give you the most bang for the buck. Without the Monday-Thursday travel, you won’t make nearly enough points on airlines, hotels, car rentals, and other consumer services in turn losing premium status across the board. But what you get in the bargain is a deeper connection with your colleagues in the office, face time with key stakeholders in the company, and actually living in your home that you pay so much in rent for. Not a bad deal, huh!
Seven — Life now has considerable weightage in the work-life equation. For better or for worse, we are a society that takes immense pride in our overbooked calendars, false sense of indispensability and work identity. If it were not true, why would the first question from a stranger be — “What do you do?” In order to answer this Q reasonably, most of us are headed close to burnout. Working 80-90 hour weeks in consulting is a well advertised fact at B-school, and most of us willingly choose it to fast-track business learning and skill building. While, consulting has been a game changer, operating at the same pace year over year is not only all-consuming, but also not for everyone. No wonder consulting firms have an attrition rate only matched by investment banking. In contrast, industry roles have a more predictable work-life cadence. You are usually not working every single weekend, no-email/slack vacations seem more possible, and aspects like health, interests, hobbies, friends, family, self-care can be prioritized. I had to be reminded by my post-consulting job that work, while a meaningful, is only a part of what makes up a full life.
Disclaimer: As always, these lessons purely reflect my personal experiences in consulting vs. industry and will absolutely vary based on a larger sample set.
All cartoons are from my doodles on LifeOnAPost-it.
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Originally Published on LinkedIn.