The First Year in Consulting

Life doesn’t always turn out how we expect it to, it would be boring if it did! Your career as a consultant probably hasn’t turned out exactly as planned either. Consulting is a rewarding career, but if you remember your first year you likely faced many challenges and had to make some major adjustments. As you guide your consultants through their first year, you must keep in mind the challenges and adjustment period that you also went through.  If you do not, you may form some misconceptions about your younger members, which might negatively impact the way you support their development, or how they support you. To help you combat this at your firm, we’ll discuss some common themes that young consultants may experience in their first year, and how you, or your firm, can best support them. After all, the support you provide the first-year consultant will have a positive impact on the way you can leverage their capabilities.

Maintaining Motivation in a Learning Environment

There’s no question about it, consulting isn’t like every other industry. It may be a surprise to many, but something that is rather unique is the lack of a structural hierarchy associated with the organizational chart at many consulting firms. Working in such a structure (or lack thereof) may require an adjustment period, especially for people who worked in other industries where they were overseen by a manager. This structure may be intimidating to the new consultant because they will be quickly tasked with work that they have little to no experience doing. This is an excellent opportunity for growth, but growing pains are to be expected. Sometimes that first-year consultant may be delegating tasks to senior consultants or may even be assigned to a lead role on a project. In such circumstances, it is important for you, as a senior consultant, to strike a balance between supporting the first year with advice or enablement opportunities, while also giving them the space to figure some things out on their own. Such an environment allows a young consultant to expedite their growth to reach their full potential while providing them a safety net.

That safety net is important and necessary for young consultants due to the high level of expectations that come with doing client work. By engaging consulting teams, clients are making an investment into their own business and expect those results to pay off. This requires attention to detail and holistic thinking from the consulting team members. Admittedly, this pressure can be a big adjustment for the newest consultants on your team. Further, the pressure felt by young consultants can be exacerbated by how quickly projects progress and move forward. Again, in such a setting there are huge opportunities for growth, but you must support the young consultants work and lead by example to ensure their development continues, and that the work delivered to the client is valuable. This challenging environment requires adaptation, but that can only be achieved through enabling, and supporting the young consultant, while also providing an environment where they are able to add value to the client. It is important that the environment created is motivating and makes the young consultant feel like their work is valuable. Though it may take some time, they likely want to leave a good impression and make a positive impact immediately.

Truthfully, this isn’t a realistic expectation for a consultant in their first 12-18 months, but it is an important motivator. This is especially true of the younger generations that are coming into the workforce and the Professional Services Industry. Making an impact through their work is hugely motivational for them, however they must be made to understand that they can make a positive impact through learning. The first few years as a consultant are all about learning, which may be frustrating to some as they may not feel the importance connected to the work that they are assigned. If possible, try to assign young consultants with work that promotes specific areas of development, while avoiding high-risk scenarios and situations. This allows the consultant to focus on their development, while also ensuring client success. A method to this might be to assign the consultant with client work to be done in the background, which you will review, and then present or share with the client. This keeps the consultant engaged and motivated by working on something meaningful, while also protecting them from a potentially difficult client interaction that they are not ready for.

As you can probably tell, we believe that keeping the consultant motivated and engaged is very important, however, much of that responsibility should be taken on by the young consultant. To help them achieve this, try to create an environment or set the expectation that they ask questions to understand how a low-risk, developmental task is connected to the bigger picture. Understanding how a task is moving the project forward can help bring meaning to the work being done by the young consultant, which helps them to see the positive impact that they are bringing to the project. Again, making an impact does not happen overnight, so realistic goals and expectations must be set, and agreed to by you, and the young consultant. This will serve as a motivating factor for them and will prove to them that their needs are being looked after at your firm.

Balancing Individual Needs and Firm needs

Looking after the developmental needs and agreed upon goals of a young consultant are just as important as looking after the needs of a client or the firm. After all, a firm is its people. With that said, all are very important, and this must be displayed to a young consultant as it will help them identify the importance of the work that they are doing and deal with potential conflict. They must understand that clients are investing huge resources and need help; that the consulting firm must meet specific metrics to stay open; and that all individuals at the firm have their own set of career goals and developmental needs which will carry them to promotion. Why must they understand this? Well, for one, they need to know that their needs are important to the firm, because, again, it is a motivating factor. And, second, they need to understand that everyone’s needs are important, and they must be able to consider the different perspectives and efforts that go into driving client outcomes, maintaining a strong firm, and developing strong teams. The challenge here for the new consultant is handling scenarios when their needs may be at odds with the needs of others, whether it be a client, the firm, or another team member. It takes patience, compassion, and empathy, but also requires them to focus on themselves. The first year is a great time for a consultant to learn that when all these needs are considered and looked after simultaneously, the best possible outcome is achieved. Ideally, you are helping them become a great team player and proving to them that this will be beneficial in the long run.

With that being said, becoming a great team member is not inherently easy. It may be very difficult for new consultants, because they are used to college group projects, which they likely had to do on their own. This is especially true of the generation that is now entering the workforce. The phrase, “not in my job spec” has become common, but this is not always a bad thing. As a mentor, you should view this as an opportunity to connect with them and show them the importance of their individual work and how they can take that and contribute their capabilities to the team environment. Again, this will help them to see the impact that they are making on a project, while providing for their developmental needs. As we know by now, this is the recipe for motivation, but it includes one other element that is important to remember while working for a consulting firm. We are always working in teams, but these teams are constantly changing and with that, so are team dynamics. There are sure to be clients and teams that are more collaborative and easier to work with than others, but there is always a need to develop connections. Helping the new consultant flex this team muscle will help them make better client relationships in the future and will mitigate the risk of feeling isolated (an unfortunately common sentiment due to the nature of the consulting industry). Enabling a new consultant develop connections and an affinity for working in teams is one of the most important needs to be met in their first year.

Accounting for Generational Differences

Lastly, as alluded to in the previous paragraph, you must consider who the newest class of onboarded consultants will include. This generation of employees is different than past, and to promote their development, this must be recognized. Millennials and Gen Z’ers desire (and in some cases expect) a healthy work-life balance. This desire for balance can be difficult for consulting firms and mentors to navigate, but for a first-year consultant it could make all the difference. You must remember, the work of consultant is very difficult and young consultants are challenged in many ways in their first year on the job. A few tactics to help them feel balance include, the acknowledgement of effort and progress, consistent wellness check-ins, project timelines to show when a break is upcoming, or firm-wide HR initiatives. A key to all of this is to make sure that the new consultant is not drowning in work and is provided with the necessary support to deliver good work and develop. You should welcome them reaching out and be sure to stay in consistent communication. As a mentor, how you act and treat your new hires is paramount.

In conclusion, guiding and supporting first-year consultants through their initial challenges and adjustment period is crucial for their growth and the success of your firm. The unique structure of consulting firms requires young consultants to quickly take on tasks and responsibilities, which can be intimidating but also presents opportunities for growth. Balancing support and autonomy is key to fostering their development. The high expectations associated with client work can add pressure and it is important to create an environment where young consultants feel motivated, valued, and connected to the bigger picture. Assigning them low-risk tasks that promote specific areas of development can help them see the impact of their work. Realistic goals and expectations should be set, and their needs should be considered alongside those of clients and the firm. Encouraging teamwork and helping them develop connections will aid their success and mitigate feelings of isolation. Additionally, recognizing the needs of the new generation of consultants, such as work-life balance, and providing necessary support and communication will contribute to their overall well-being and development. Ultimately, as a mentor, your actions and treatment of new hires play a vital role in shaping their experience and success within the consulting industry.

Written by: Dean McMann

More from this Author

About the Author: Dean McMann is a Founding Partner at McMann & Ransford with 35+ years of experience in consulting and professional services.  He is a sought-after expert and speaker on topics of: B2B differentiation, professional services best practices, and overcoming commoditization.  In addition to his extensive experience in the Professional Services space, Dean also serves on the board of various non-profit organizations.

Leave a Reply