It isn’t easy running a startup; nor is it any easier to run an entrepreneurial team at a large company.
Consultants-turned-entrepreneurs Jackson Boyar and James Lu Morrissey know both stories well. Before co-founding international mentorship and cultural integration support network Shearwater, the two were Associates at global strategy consulting firm L.E.K. Consulting.
Entrepreneurs can learn a lot from management consultants who frequently encounter complex business issues, collaborate with different teams and take a structured approach to problem-solving.
Here are three important things they learned as consultants which prepared them to build their own business.
Getting comfortable with uncertainty
With each new case Boyar and Morrissey were staffed on, the two had to learn the entirety of their client’s capabilities, industry and issue. Difficult was the task of coming up with a solution, especially since the problems they faced were among the company’s most difficult and were completely new to them. Despite the uncertainty that came with each client engagement, Boyar and Morrissey learned to embrace new problems and industries in an effective and comfortable manner.
“In consulting we learn how to quickly and effectively ramp-up on new industries and problems,” said Morrissey, “Seeing the key issues in the midst of mountains of data became an acquired skill.”
“Consultants ride a similar rollercoaster as entrepreneurs because consultants also encounter more problems than they originally set out to solve,” added Boyar. “There’s always more to learn, too.”
It’s safe to say that you won’t immediately have answers available when problems arise. Yet it is important that you remain calm and think logically through the issue in order to come up with the best solution.
Working with multiple personalities
Few professions expose you to as many different leadership styles, working personalities and teams in such a short period of time. Yet the success of every project or campaign depends on strong interpersonal collaboration.
As a consultant, with each new case, you always find yourself working with a new team often composed of people you have never worked with before. As part of the case, you also end up working with the leadership and management teams from the client company. At some point, you may even need to interact with vendors and customers.
“Consulting is an ideal place to learn about different management styles. On each case you are exposed to new team dynamics and leadership styles. At L.E.K., I worked with around 14 different case teams and this helped me quickly learn how to effectively build and manage a team. These skills have been incredibly valuable in my startup,” shared Morrissey.
“After receiving a new case assignment, within hours, my fellow team members and I learned about each other’s strengths and weaknesses and proposed ways to work together to ensure client success,” noted Boyar.
A structured problem-solving approach
The key to a consultant’s success in a client engagement is typically a hypothesis driven approach in which new information constantly serves to prove or disprove the evolving hypothesis. Since consultants begin cases armed with limited information about the client’s situation, they must learn to ask targeted questions to extract the most useful points and to work off of assumptions to identify high level issues.
“The most challenging – and rewarding – part of being a consultant was the variety of problems you were faced with,” says Morrissey, “and we were successful in coming up with impactful recommendations because we outlined important steps to take in our approach, included contingency plans, and knew how to pivot our hypothesis in reaction to new data.”
As a case progresses, consultants make sure to gather valuable quantitative and qualitative data and then conduct analysis of their findings. By the end of a case, they are able to derive insights from data – rather than just a hunch – to provide the most meaningful recommendation possible.
Unlike consultants, entrepreneurs are not as thorough in their problem-solving approach. Consultants only move forward with a recommendation if the data and a logical argument support it.
For entrepreneurs, the time required to do careful analysis does seem like a luxury, but there are certainly advantages to taking a step back and thinking before acting.