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.