Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Project Sinking

Doesn't look like the client wants to be swayed after all...we've been sitting around all day, waiting for developments, with the partner and the manager running in and out of secretive meetings with ever gloomier faces. Personally I'm down with a whopping cold, so just hanging out is fine with me. Can't decide whether I'd rather do that in my fake mahogany hotel room or in the neon-slash-plastic office suite though. One thing I have to say though, if this project blows up I won't be too sad. Had a first carefully noncommittal chat with staffing...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Saturday Night Life

Saturday night, in the (to the regular readers of this blog) by now well-known flyover state where the project is located. After the PL ran away (the latest I heard through the grapevine is that she is about to quit altogether), after the client summoned me as her inofficial replacement to a private meeting where he asked the Big Meaning Of Project question (see Thursday's entry), and after the Manager, who is the main reason for the PL's hasty departure, got wind of that meeting and promptly scheduled another one with the entire team for Friday six p.m., it became clear very swiftly to all of us that the term 'weekend' now refers to either a time in the not-yet-so-very-distant past or in the very-very-distant future. Yup: our dear Manager, using very harsh terms and a very loud voice, advised the team to cancel all weekend plans until further notice if we cared at all about our job.

The problem is, it's really not the team's fault, I don't think, that the project is going badly. In fact, it ISN'T even going badly. It's just that a core team member ran away, which freaked out the client, and things took their evil course from there. So here we are, on a Saturday night, in the office. Wish I had brought more underwear for the week to come (remember, no convenient laundry facilities around here). The hope is, and it's really the only hope right now, that our show of dedication will sway the client. Dubious strategy, for a team of management consultants. Don't you think?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Awkward Questions

Rule of thumb for the aspiring consultant: you know that your case is in dire straits if your client requests a private meeting with you, on the occasion of which he really has just one simple question:

'Do you think this project is worth the money we are spending on it?'

Ahem. He didn't ask this in a menacing way. He just seemed to want my honest opinion. And of course, if you have half an idea of what your pitch and kickoff presentation were about, you'll have no difficulty in burying the man under an avalanche of arguments. But if you have half a brain you'll also know that in most cases, it's really not that simple. There very often IS a legitimate question as to what value management consultants can add.

In the case of this project, as I've said in the past, I think our team actually is doing something worth while. It consists in a combination of temporarily supplying additional managerial capacity and spelling out a few truths that are known within the company anyway but that nobody is in a position to defend. Problem is, neither of these things is what we are officially being paid for. We are paid for breathtaking out-of-the-box thinking, radical cutting-edge analysis, etc., etc. So what do you say?

My client's question was obviously motivated by the turmoil our project has generated of late (eloped PL and all that). So I was able to temporarily shirk the question by saying that once we are back in our regular routine, no doubt progress will continue to be made. But will it? It's not good if your PL runs away. And it's not good if your client nurtures doubts about the point of the entire enterprise. Stormy seas ahead.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Project Leader, anyone?

Oopsidaisy. All of a sudden I am getting an unexpected taste of what it is like to be project leader. Not that I am in real terms (not yet anyway - about six months to go before promotion, if I last that long and if the firm still wants me then). But since our PL fled the scene yesterday and hasn't been heard of since, and since I am the most senior team member below her, I find myself a) in charge of the more junior consultants and associates on the project, all of whom are confused about the current events b) the preferred contact of the manager, who is known to take no victims, and c) the man-in-charge as far as the client is concerned. And the client IS concerned. I would be too if a key member of my expensive consulting team simply decided to take off in a moment of crisis. So I currently find myself in the middle of a weird kind of Bermuda triangle. A couple of shark fins emerging from the choppy waters. And the night is young, and the phone is ringing, and I have to be off. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Team Crisis

Oh dear oh dear. Our PL abandoned the project today to fly back to the East Coast for a crisis meeting with the partner on the case. My guess is she'll ask to be assigned to a different project, on the grounds of unbridgeable differences in leadership between her and the manager in charge. What these differences boil down to, among other things, is that the manager is a company-wide known (insert your favourite expletive) and she has been shielding both team and client from him to the best of her abilities. Well, no more. As of today we are without a PL. And looking around me I discover that I am now the most senior team member below the manager! Which means I may have to abandon my hitherto cultivated attitude of serene detachment. As the manager told me today: 'I see you in the lead now.'

Muchas gracias. Expect future entries here to be short and sweet until further notice.

Monday, September 17, 2007

PL Sinking

Oh dear. Crisis time. Top management is not satisfied with the way our project is going. That means a brush-off for our youthful project leader, who doesn't take it lightly. The team doesn't really know what's wrong. The steering committee meeting last week went well enough, after all. And our PL has put a lot of work into convincing the client to let us continue into the implementation phase. So it's really hard to guess what the issue is. I'd imagine that applies to the PL herself. She's been fighting for composure all day. I could tell. Hers is not a fun job right now. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Spoiled Saturday

Looks like it was a bit premature of me to think that I got off lightly this weekend. You know how consultants have these nice mobile phones and/or blackberries, generously provided by the firm? It's so that they can always be reached, 24/7, regardless of what they are up to. I was in a coffee shop this morning, at about noon, meeting a few friends I hadn't seen for ever. That's not because they aren't so very good friends, and it's not because they make themselves scarce: it's because of me and my bloody job (see a variety of previous posts). So we have just gotten our lattes when the company phone rings. It's my project leader (you know, the woman I was telling you about earlier). She has the decency to apologise for the disruption: but as it turns out, our client, the guy in charge, the one who has to sell our project within the company, has been ordered to attend a meeting extraordinaire with members of the board of directors. On Monday morning, first thing. Reason's not quite clear, but it doesn't sound good. So he needs material: summaries of what we've done, successes, to do's, and so forth.

'Sorry, guys', I say as I grab my bike helmet and gulp down my drink, 'have to be off'. They can't believe it. Tell me that I can't let the firm treat me like a slave. Tell me I have to assert my independence. Tell me this is against the Geneva Convention. Yeah, I say, and am gone, heading straight for the office. Whence I have just emerged, nine hours later. One of my friends called a little while ago with an urgent question: 'Why on earth are you putting up with this?', she wants to know.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Office Friday

The idea is that you spend Monday through Thursday wherever the client may be, work really long and hard (which really often isn't all that big of a deal because there's just nothing else to do anyway in the isolated part of the world that your client is located in), catch the last plane home on Thursday evening and have a nice easy Friday in your home office - show up at 9:30 or ten, fill in your expense sheet for the week, go for office lunch (provided by the firm), exchange a few stories about the week's adventures, prepare a few things for Monday, go home at five, take a nap, start the weekend. When this works out, it's a really nice routine, and you are so much more likely to forgive the client his unforgivable location if your Fridays are spent at home.

When they aren't, it's really hard to suppress a foul mood. And over lunch on Friday those who did make it back in good time always have a few words of sympathy for those who didn't. 'Bob? Oh, still stuck in Tennessee I heard. He's with that crazy PL who doesn't let his teams go home on Thursday as a matter of principle, even if there's absolutely nothing to do.' If you are part of such a conversation, you are well advised to take a mental note of that PL's name, just in case staffing ever tries to match you with him (or her - women can be just as bad). Sounds suspiciously like someone on a mad power trip, which happens. And such persons ought to be avoided at all cost.

Or you come across colleagues who did make it home in time, just to be suddenly bombarded, at about four p.m., just when they were beginning to think about going home, by desperate emergency requests from freaked-out partners, PLs or CEOs. Poor souls. I myself made it back yesterday night and was out of the office today by 5:30 p.m. Not too bad.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


There's this widely shared sentiment among members of the consulting crowd that our pay hasn't kept up with what competing jobs offer. That's mostly investment banking, hedge funds, and so on. Up until three weeks ago everyone was going on a bit about that. Not that we're not earning good money: but it isn't as outrageous a paycheck as what one might make at a hedge fund, and those people don't travel nearly as much as we do.

The complaints have subsided somewhat now that hedge funds have become a lot less attractive employers all of a sudden. But there's still this nagging sentiment that the firms we work for command such outrageous rates, there's little overhead (considering that expenses get charged to the client separately), and so we ought to get a bigger cut. Not saying I necessarily agree. Not saying I necessarily disagree either. Opinions out there?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Have a good weekend!

Really odd how people say that on a Thursday morning. I always wonder what this sort of wish is all about. Probably just a manner of speaking, but then...the fact that on the fourth out of five work days people start referring to the end of the work week suggests that what's keeping them alive is the thought that the drag of work will soon be over, for a little bit at least.

The really worrying thing is that this sort of message actually does cheer me up. 'Almost done!', I think when the guy in the coffee shop wishes me a good weekend on Thursday at ten a.m., fully aware though I am that I have another twenty or so working hours ahead of me before I'm off duty. Sort of suggests my job situation is less than ideal after all.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Implementation Dread

Now that we're in the last phase of our project, the question is whether we'll get to do the implementation too. It's not always the case that theory and practice are kept separate in this way, but in the case of our current project they were, maybe to give the client a chance to get rid of us if we didn't live up to expectations. Actually it may not always be such a bad idea not to let the theory guys do the implementing: top-notch consultants typically are much better at analysing and finding out what's wrong than they are at fixing the problem. Also they are so ridiculously expensive.

But our partner is drooling whenever the topic of implementation comes up. He wants it, and badly. The team, less so. Much less so. In fact, I can already imagine my colleagues' frenzied attempt to convince staffing that really the implementation phase counts as a new case which is in desperate need of fresh blood. In which case the staffing merry-go-round will creak into noisy action once again. See below.

Sunday, September 9, 2007


And off we are again to the Provinces. Even though consulting is famous for sending its employees wherever the customer may be (and it doesn't matter whether it's Sydney, Australia or Sydney, OH), not every project is as inconveniently located as this. Hence, on Sunday nights it's hard to suppress the thought, Why Me?

Yeah, why? Ask staffing. Towards the end of each project there's this placement routine familiar to everyone in the business. The nice person from staffing calls and asks, very nicely, what project you'd like to work on next. If you have any consulting savvy at all, you'll start by pointing out that a) the last three assignments were in places no educated person could find on any map, b)the topic had nothing, but nothing whatever to do with your preferences and expertise, and c) the promised four weeks turned into four months each time. Staffing person will say, with a voice dripping of honey and goodwill, that she (in my case) knows and that she'll find you something really good this time by way of compensation.

Great, you say cunningly, I'd like something in consumer goods, how about media. About six weeks, so that I can take my holiday in time. And ideally in (wherever you're located).

You'll like this, says staffing person sweetly. I've got exactly the thing for you. Steel industry. Michigan. About four months, but possibly half a year.

How's that got anything to do with what I want?, you scream.

It's all I have, says staffing person. Start next Monday. Sorry.

Then reactions vary. Some suck it up and suffer in silence. Some keep bothering staffing, every day, weeks after the project has started. Some lodge a complaint with a partner. Some, after too many experiences of this sort, decide to quit. The threat of which has, if the person in case was good, in some rare instances magically produced that desired media project. Or so rumour has it. I haven't seen it happening myself.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


It's been a short week, in a fun place, crowned by a halfway successful presentation: not too bad, all things considered. And the team didn't have to go to Nowhere Land for once. Makes you realize how big a disadvantage the consultant's constant travelling actually is. And I'm single (sigh). Imagine what happens if you are in a stable relationship (or, worse, have a family). Your kids WILL go to that nice private school. But they won't have a very clear idea of what the person who pays for it looks like. Not such an appealing prospect. And I think it's a main reason why management consultants last an average of something under three years on the job.

But three years is still a long time, so why do people do it? Obviously, the money's good (though not as good as it once was), one learns a lot, one is in an ideal position to eventually land a cushy position in management. But the main motivator for consultants in the top firms is something quite different: no ordinary industry job offers quite the same mix of excitement, speed, variety of challenges, and eclectic assortment of colleagues. After you've tasted this, almost everything else will seem stale by comparison. And so, despite a lot of moaning, we soldier on.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A Bit of the Good Life

Since yesterday's Steering Committee Meeting took place in the big fun city where our client's headquarters are located, and since my firm has an office midtown, we decided to work from there today. So we went out last night, pretty extensively actually, enjoying a spot of nightlife, and all showed up rather under the weather this morning. I have to say that it IS fun going out with my team. You get to know your coworkers really really well on an assignment like mine, and if you click with them you do connect. I've said that before, but junior consultants can actually be very fun people. Our PL, the one who was in tears last week, came out too. She has definitely relaxed a bit now that that meeting is over. We'll see how long the peace lasts.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


One thing I still haven't quite gotten used to in my three consulting years is stepping in front of top management - and that means, people who often will have spent successful decades in a business I'd never looked at prior to the project - and telling them what they ought to do. It always amazes me that they are willing to listen. I can't possibly have anything approaching their experience or inside-out knowledge of the company. What do they think I can contribute that they couldn't provide themselves?

If you've ever been on a big consultancy's website, you know the official answer: out-of-the-box thinking. A fresh perspective. Sharp analytic intelligence. The latest b-school savvy.

There might be some cases, not very many, in which this isn't entirely false. Sometimes a company's top brass just isn't very capable. Sometimes they are so deeply caught up in their stuff that they don't see the bigger picture. Sometimes they have vested interests. But mostly our services are useful (if they are) for different kinds of reasons. What we do, mostly, is either of two things. We may spell out inconvenient truths that are generally known but that nobody else is in a position to defend. Or we simply provide short-term managerial capacity. Not very glamorous, but that's what it boils down to. And that's why these guys listen to us.

They were fairly quiet at our steering committee meeting today. No gushing compliments, but nobody got shot down either. I think we did okay.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Last Minute Antics

Steering Committee Meeting tomorrow. A gathering of fifteen client VIPs who want to see whether their hard-earned cash has bought them results, and who won't be shy to express their disappointment if they think it hasn't. It's the third such meeting on the case and the penultimate one before we go into implementation (if we do). So they will be expecting pretty solid progress. And nice slides. In the old days, the consultant drew up a more-or-less legible hand-written draft, and the team assistant was left to make a slide out of it. Officially we are still allowed to work in this way, but very few of the younger people do. By the time one's produced a draft that makes sense and has explained it to the assistant, one has pretty much designed the thing on Power Point oneself. So now the assistant's job is more about constructing an optically coherent presentation out of the various modules' contributions and making sure it all conforms to the company's guidelines.

Visual coherence is one thing, content-related consistency quite another. It's really not easy, in a big project with a variety of modules, to produce a tidy argument witout loose ends. We've had several meetings during which we tried to string it all together. Tomorrow it'll become clear whether we succeeded.

Of course we didn't get our stuff done in time for the staff in the print room, who go home at six, to do our photocopying. That means we're in for a few hours of xeroxing fun before bed. Actually that's not too bad. I've seen projects where panic-stricken associates were loading red-hot presentations straight from the printer into cabs that then raced straight to the client's headquarters. You thrive under pressure? Then this is your job.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Weekend In Sight!

It's late, and we're not done for the day. My estimate is another three hours or so. That'll make it 2:30 in the morning. Not bad, considering this means the team will get the weekend off. Finish tomorrow in the early afternoon, head to the airport, be home by seven or so. And be done until Tuesday. The relief is almost palpable around here. Everyone's already in Long-Holiday-Mood. That's something I really like about consulting: the sense of accomplishment after a long hard week, with a break ahead (even if it's just three days). You feel that you've actually achieved something, that you've earned your paycheck.

On that note, see you next week. The only vehicle I'll be using for the next few days is my bike - no airplanes, no taxis, no rental cars. Can't wait!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Steering Committee Preparation

Things are sort of frantic right now. We've got a steering committee meeting next week. That means we will be presenting to top management - the guys who took us on board, essentially, who pay our bills and whose careers depend on our performance. So the pressure is up, and it's amplified by the long weekend ahead of us. Since nobody is particularly attracted by the idea of spending Labor Day out here in Nowhereland, we are all working round the clock. It's actually quite amazing how good we can make our stuff look. I do think we have results to show, but half of a project's success is in the presentation. PowerPoint, here we come! The tricky bit is not to show up with a 150-pager (believe me, I've seen it happening). Fifty slides max, with a few well-chosen backups: therein lies the art. About five days to go...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Group Hugs All Around

Today was de-compression day. Partner came by and apologised to PL, who in turn acknowledged she might have been over-reacting. But the general lovefest won't last: as soon as the going gets tough again, we're in for the next treat. That's because neither the partner nor the project leader are very good at communicating with one another, or at crisis management for that matter. My prediction is that the PL will be in search of another job before this project is over. I'll keep you posted...

Monday, August 27, 2007

Consulting Careers

It's not unique to consulting: the qualifications that get you the job are not those that make you good at what you are supposed to be doing a few years down the road. Scientists may be appalling lab managers, for instance. First-rate journalists can make horrible editors. And great consultants have been known to morph into awful project leaders. Take my case. Without going into details (this is covert consultant talking after all), my current PL used to be a super-efficient associate and consultant. I knew her back then, and while I personally thought her a bit on the dull side, I had to admire the way she gathered and analysed information at breathneck speed. The way she compressed it into neatly designed PowerPoint presentations. The way she did all of this at three in the morning. I once asked her, over a cup of tea at the crack of dawn (and it was a Saturday as well) whether she thought our sort of life was worth having. Yes! she said. For what, so she reasoned, had she missed? A couple of concerts maybe. I went back to work after that exchange.

So now the woman is my project leader. Project leaders are in a unique situation. They are facing pressure from three sides: the client, the partner, and the team. It's a tough spot to be in, and one that your previous consulting experience does not necessarily prepare you for. It hasn't in the case of my PL. She is losing it, crumbling as we speak. The team witnessed a shouting match between her and the partner in charge today. The client was dissatisfied with the progress we had made, complained to the partner, who reduced the PL to tears. Well, almost. A few more weeks and we'll see her cry. I'm not looking forward.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Flyover Thoughts

I'll be off to the airport soon for yet another week of efficiency, competence, and professionalism. Not to mention the delightful lunches with client and friends and the shaggy carpets in my hotel. I just realized I haven't got enough clean shirts for the week. Aaaaahhh! This wouldn't be a problem in a civilized part of the world, but I'm not sure my client's location features a dry cleaner. I know for a fact the hotel doesn't.

One good thing about flying out Sunday afternoon is that you avoid the dreaded Monday morning rush. When my project location is a bit more accessible, I get up at 4:30 a.m. on Monday to catch the first plane out. Because I am mortally afraid of oversleeping, I then don't sleep at all on Sunday nights. Fitful dozing, with luck. It's gotten a bit better over the years, but I still show up completely exhausted, and not from hard partying over the weekend.

The airport experience at six a.m. doesn't help either. Long queues of men and women in grey suits, with grey voices and faces to match. They all look the same. Nobody smiles, nobody laughs. Grim determination abounds. It's obvious no-one is happy. And I think, something's gone badly wrong around here. If this civilization is going to the dogs, can't we at least have some fun meanwhile?

In virtue of all this, maybe my current project, in its godforsaken location, actually isn't that bad. Okay, so I have to sacrifice my Sunday afternoon to get there, but I'll be almost by myself on the plane. I'll whip out the novel I am currently reading (Magnus Mills, All Quiet On The Orient Express, highly recommended), not feeling guilty because it's Sunday after all. It's almost as if I was going on holiday.

Except that there's one nagging thought: feeling grateful for not having Sunday off is a sure sign of impending lunacy. Am I going bonkers? Am I????

Friday, August 24, 2007

Lunch Ethics (ctd.)

Dear Covert Consultant:

Your client is your friend. He is the hand that feeds you, the God you shall worship, the Power that Be. Without your client, you are a worm, a nothing, a zero. Without the ridiculously fat paychecks he keeps forking out for your pathetic efforts, you would be eating the dirt off the floor of the factory you are about to shut down. And you ask whether it is ethical to decline his lunch invitation ? This is not about ethics. It's about survival. Think again.

Yours truly,
The Ethicist

Dear Covert Consultant:

Ms. Manners can only think of one polite way of declining your client's invitation. Work through the lunch break.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Lunch Ethics

Dear Ethicist,

I've got a problem. Every day (and I mean every day), my client asks me to join him for lunch. That's terribly nice of him, of course. It's just that I sit face-to-face with the man all day long anyway and usually have exhausted my small talk topics for the day by around 10 a.m. It's also that if I accept, I have to spend my precious half-hour off chatting with all his colleagues. It's also that I can't stand the meatloaf-and-potatoes-type food in my client's cafeteria. Salad bar? Dream on.

So the question is, is it unethical to refuse the lunch invite? My client might be hurt, but then I have to survive another month or two on this project, and if I don't get some private time at midday I feel I'm going to die.

Dear Ms. Manners,

If the Ethicist's answer to the above question is No, how do I refuse my client's lunch invitation without being rude? I don't want to offend him, after all. And I need him to say good things about me to my project leader. Please help.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

All Of My Friends

Friends are at a premium these days. For friends don't like friends who are never around between Monday and Thursday, who are too tired to go out on Friday and leave town again on Sunday afternoon. That leaves Saturday for everything and everyone, which is why 'everyone' may not comprise all that many people after a while.

So it's a good thing that I have some great colleagues. The stress is on some, of course, and there seems to be an inverse correlation between likability and rank on the career ladder, but it's generally true that few of your team members below Project Leader (beyond that the air gets a lot thinner) will turn out to be terrible. I've worked with people from all continents; I've debated star formation with a brand new associate and the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire with a Senior VP . I've gone running with an Iron Man contestant (don't ask how I felt afterwards) and gotten drunk with a former bartender (no, don't ask either). These experiences are a huge part of the reason why I am still in this business. Though of course I sometimes cannot help asking whether all this talent is not shamefully wasted on post-merger integrations and distribution strategies. You decide.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Office

One thing you need to realize when you interview for your job: you won't spend all that much time in the firm's fancy quarters in NY, LA or SF. Mostly, you will work from the client's site. And the client will give you an office. Not necessarily your own office, mind. Privacy is for lawyers and academics. If you are lucky, you get wedged into a cramped hole with your consulting colleagues. If you're not, you find yourself in the client team room. That means: constant surveillance, constant availability, constant display of competence. It also means: no web surfing, no bitching, no gossip, no private phone calls. On my current assignment, my desk is directly facing that of the middle manager in charge of the client team for our module. We have a choice of staring either at our computer screens or straight into one another's eyes. Good thing he finishes work at five p.m. sharp every day.

Believe me, we would both change the arrangement if we could. But the space was allocated by the CEO himself, who made it very clear that he wants the consultants to co-operate closely with his own people. He has a point, frankly. If we were left to our own devices, we'd run this project from home, fly in once a week and deliver a big thumping report at the end. That's the way this business used to work, and it's exactly what the CEO wants to avoid. Implementation is included in the deal, whether we like it or not (we mostly don't). And he knows how to make it happen. He should: he's an ex-consultant himself.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sunday Night Blues

It's Sunday. Here's the problem with Sundays: you've got a client somewhere you had never heard of before you started your project. Somewhere in the middle of the country. In a flyover state. In a town about a hundred miles from the closest airport. A town without a decent hotel, a decent restaurant, a decent bar. It takes six hours to travel to that town. And you have to be at work before your client shows up on Monday morning - not because there's something you absolutely need to do, but because it has to look as if you did. Hence your Sunday ends in the early afternoon, when all your friends are in the park. Or at brunch. Or maybe still in bed. And if you have been in this game for a while, probably they aren't really your friends anymore anyway.

I am a consultant. I've just arrived at my client's location and checked into a room that looks like Foreman's basement in That '70s Show. Smoked mirrors, fake mahogany and a carpet so thick I'm sure it's alive. The weekend is definitely over.