The top 3 mistakes that junior consultants make

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Getting into top-tier consulting firms such as McKinsey, BCG, and Bain is hard. Yet, staying in without out getting fired early is not the easiest feat either.

In this article, I want to talk about the three most common issues that young consultants make that has the potential to end their highly prestigious career early. I also want to point out ways that can help you avoid these mistakes.

Let’s start, shall we?

Not being proactive enough

Consulting firms hire self-starters.

As a junior consultant, it’s important to take initiative and be proactive, day in, and day out. Examples of this are plenty:

  • Don’t wait for the client or your senior colleagues to give you specific tasks; instead, identify areas where you can add value and propose solutions.
  • Don’t wait until someone asks you about your progress or if you need help; rather, reach out immediately if you need help or have made a mistake. There is not time for dragging out anything on a usual engagement.
  • Don’t wait for someone on your team to ask if you have free capacity; rather, proactively approach your colleagues or manager and highlight that you would be glad to take on more work (only do this, if this is truly the case. Avoid getting burned out by always saying yes to everything).
  • Don’t wait for your manager to give you feedback; approach them yourself and ask about their opinion of your work and interactions.
  • Don’t be a victim to the team’s or your manager’s way of working; tell them beforehand about your specific lifestyle needs (e.g., going to the gym 2-3 times per week at a given hour of the day, etc.).

Lacking understanding of the client’s business

It’s important to thoroughly research and understand the client’s business and industry so you can provide informed and accurate recommendations. While you are not expected to be an expert on the client or the industry by your team and leadership, the client stakeholders usually don’t know this.

Hence, you need to get up to speed with a new client or industry quickly when starting a new engagement. Your firm usually offers plenty of resources for you to do this. How can you go about it?

  • Schedule calls with previous teams that have worked with the client and get their input on the client’s business, key stakeholders, results, and work of the past
  • Look through previous engagement documents with your client
  • Browse through your firm’s internal knowledge database for relevant articles and presentations
  • Schedule calls with firm experts for particular industries or functional areas
  • Read through the research output of your leadership team (your partners on the team)
  • Set up Google Alerts for your client and key competitors as well as the industry as a whole

Not communicating effectively

As a consultant, good communication skills are essential in order to communicate with your team and client stakeholders.

Low-performing entry-level consultants often have difficulty conveying their ideas and recommendations both in internal team problem-solving sessions and during client meetings. Make sure to listen actively, ask questions, and summarize your understanding to ensure that you, your team, and client stakeholders are on the same page.

Learn the tools of the trade from your peers. This includes the ability to communicate both verbally and visually in a clear and concise manner. Learn how to navigate client meetings and interactions by observing how your more experienced team members are doing it and asking the right questions to your peers.

Bonus: Delivering faulty work

Even though you are not expected to perform at the same level as a tenured consultant during your first months on the job, you need to deliver flawless analyses and charts. Triple-check the products you deliver to your team and the client. Go through your analyses and look for mistakes in logic and execution. Go through your presentations and look for mistakes related to your findings and recommendations. At this stage, it is acceptable to take longer for solving a question or creating a presentation, as long as you are transparent about your progress and ask for guidance if needed. However, it is an issue if you deliver work that is flawed or contains obvious mistakes, especially if it goes out to a (senior) client. A mistake once in a while is fully okay and even expected. However, new hires with repetitively faulty output would lose the trust of their team quickly and can find themselves in a tricky spot. The same is true if your team or the client get the impression that you are not fully familiar with the area you are working on or have issues explaining the data and your analyses. You are the content owner of your workstream and should know every little detail about it, especially when you are being challenged by a partner or a client. If in doubt, let your colleagues or project manager look over your work. If you make a mistake, do not let that get you down. Learn from it and do not repeat it. Always work with an end-product (usually slides) in mind that is readily client-sharable.

None of these points I discuss above alone would lead to you being asked to leave your firm. However, low-performers, who eventually are counseled to leave (as McKinsey calls it somewhat euphemistically), usually combine several of these mistakes repeatedly.

Make sure to avoid these mistakes in the first place, or quickly pick up on them and stop them before it becomes a career-threatening issue. Consulting firm’s will let you know when you are on the “watchlist” and many will help and provide special training to help you make a turnaround. If that fails, you will end up with their ask to leave.

I don’t want to scaremonger. The latter case is actually very rare and I would say that in the first two years as a junior consultant, less than 5% are actually asked to leave due to poor performance.

Now you know what to avoid when you are in, let’s briefly look at how we can help you to actually get in first.

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