Getting To The Partner Level
A Practical Guide for Management Consultants
© 2016, CMC Today & Nitin Kumar, FCMC
I have recently counselled many people on what it takes to get to a Partner level in the consulting profession. While firms may have different titles like Partner, Principal, Senior Managing Director, Partner, MD or Vice President, the fundamental aspects on what the profession demands remain the same. There could be variables like business cases, pecking orders at the Pre-Partner levels or promotion/admission policies of various firms, but those barriers are temporary for the most part. Understanding what it takes to get to that level, succeeding as one or changing firms at a Partner level requires fundamental understanding of some core aspects.
My advice is based on 18 years of senior line management experience in the industry, running large consulting practices, managing several hundred professionals across three very different global consulting firms, the great advice that I have received from leaders and mentors over many years. Having experienced this process three times in my career in different flavours, I have been able to form a multi-dimensional view on how it works. The fundamentals of the process are generally the same across many of these firms, the rigor, discipline, integrity and structure of the process has minor variants at best. It is about time that I codify this into a somewhat defined body of knowledge that aspiring Partners in consulting firms can benefit from.
1. Path To The Partner Level – Core Ingredients for Success
The Promotion or Admission Process
As mentioned before, the fundamentals of the process remain the same in all firms with minor variations. The attributes and demands from consulting leadership are remarkably consistent across the profession. There is no doubt that this process can be time consuming and personally demanding. It is natural for the onlookers to question your sanity, levels of commitment to yourself and the firm as you go through the rigorous Partner process. People do often wonder if the rainbow at the end is actually worth this effort.
The table stakes for making it through the ranks and becoming a consulting executive (whatever be the title in the firm) is a demonstrated track record to sell complex consulting services to very senior client executives. Please remember there is life beyond table stakes i.e., building an enduring practice for the firm based on client leadership, thought leadership, people leadership, firm leadership and market leadership.
The Five Pillars – Being Well Rounded Consulting Leader
There are multiple areas needing consistent development before you are ready to take on the Partner role (or the title). Now this is not everybody’s cup of tea, but it is what a firm expects from its Partners who are expected to take it to the next level of greatness and achievement. Typically consulting firms invest a lot in coaching, training and development of its aspiring leaders, some of these attributes cannot be learned through classroom training – working with and following great leaders is what teaches you these attributes and qualities.
At times people can still demonstrate excellence across many (not all) dimensions and can add substantial value to the firm. Most firms have created Partner equivalent senior track for these very valuable senior level resources, however it is a call driven by judgement and personal aspiration by the individual if they believe and can convince the firm (and themselves) of growing into full Partners one day or continuing to add value being great at multiple areas of the aforementioned pillars.
Personal Brand – Your External & Internal Identity
The consulting world is very different today from the era of double digit growth attributed to market tailwinds and spectacular valuations. In order to succeed in today’s tough and very competitive economic environment, you need to be known for something i.e., a positioning which is unique, compelling and distinctive. This positioning needs to be equally strong and consistent internally (within the firm) and externally (the market). The critical success factor is for your passion, current capabilities and aspirations to be very visible in the positioning.
Branding is the art and science of communicating this unique positioning i.e., helping people understand how you can create value for them. Branding is more than just who you are and what you do, it is about articulating how you can help solve complex business problems. When personal branding works, people reach out to you for the solutions of the specific business issue you stand for. If you are not the first call by clients and colleagues on these business issues, then your personal brand needs enhancement, amplification or both.
Actions for starting a personal branding process:
- Identify a list of hot business issues in your specialty of focus be it client, industry or competency
- Identify common threads between these business issues and come up with themes
- Test this theme in the market with social media, close colleagues and professional advisors, people who know the firm and you well. Also with people who know you and your firm less well
- Scan social media, conferences, thought leadership and the market to understand how other consultants are positioning themselves on these themes
- Covert you brand into a one sentence value proposition and a two minute elevator speech, refine this every month to keep the brand fresh, developing and evolving
The Network – Strength, Not Breadth of the Network Matters
Your network is where you communicate and amplify your brand, building an effective network allows you to “pull and push” your value proposition from and to it. A common misconception is that a network is about extensive reach and quantity of the people you know, this is the biggest myth you will have to deal with, you really want people committed to you.
A wide but weak network will not help much, it is about the strength and individuals who care about your passionate involvement in their professional careers. You want well respected, credible and sought after people in your network, who can also put their individual networks to work for you as needed. This is however a two way street and you want to have individuals who you can help and make a difference to as well.
In my experience, networks have not been about social media, teleconferences and being part of email distribution lists, it is about a professional community driven by personal engagement and commitment. Winning the networking game is all about connecting world class players (remember what Phil Jackson did), you want to aspire to do for your network what Phil did for basketball. The strength of your network is judged by how many people have skin in the game; ask yourself how strong your network is?
Four questions to stress test your network quality:
- How many Partners will stand by you and fight for your cause?
- How many of your peers are dejected when you are not promoted or admitted?
- How many clients feel that you could be “wronged” if the firm does not get you past the finish line?
- How many staff people feel disappointed on your not being or making the Partner level?
The Network – A Good Network is All About Stars
When you build your network, focus on the stars – people who can inspire you and raise your game. Do not waste your time on the people who do not have the drive, create negative energy or will not be around for the long term. Take some time to qualify your network and get comfortable with where you are and what work needs to be done.
List down the people who matter in your professional network, code them i.e., green for top advocates, orange for the positively optimistic, yellow for the neutrals and red for antipathy. If the grid is not vibrating green, the network needs work.
Networks need to always create value. The sources of value generally come from the variety of the players in the network, their level of influence in the firm, their own individual networks and their own market presence.
Let me also reiterate that walking around the movers and shakers is simply not enough, at times we have to do a lot more to engage people and demonstrate what you can do for them to covert and keep them as strong allies. Strong networks build over time but can fade away quickly if you do not nurture and maintain them through constant engagement and exchange of value.
Clients – Client Relationships Are for Life
Often times we hear that client relationships need to be strategic not transactional, in my view these need to be way beyond just strategic, they need to be thought of as lifelong commitments. Given our busy schedules and the velocity at which we travel from client to client, it takes more than a conscious effort to maintain client relationships with the same consistency, rigor and discipline. The typical pattern is to bid for the work, make the sale, deliver the goods well and take off to the next client. We say our goodbyes and hope you get a call when from the client when the there is a need again.
At times, we try to maintain these relationships through social engagements and ad hoc phone calls hoping they are encouraged to call us sooner than later. If we find out that competitor were hired and we did not get that call, we are disappointed and wonder what went wrong.
If you are not prepared to invest and nurture relationships for the long term, be prepared for disappointment. Our clients are all as human as the rest of us and “out of sight” is often “out of mind”. It takes a lot more to stay “top of mind” if the only interaction is occasional and not actively engaged working for them.
Scalability – Great Chefs Do Not Have to Cook Every Meal in Their Restaurants
Always remember, in consulting firms performance equals reward, but it is progress that equals promotion; people are never promoted into Partner level just for good performance. It is based on the belief that you will help grow the pie and that really means what you do is scalable and sustainable over a period of time, one engagement or one account wonders often don’t go very far succeeding in their elevated roles.
Sustainability comes from the ability to remain grounded in the solution of fundamental business issues and not getting frequently distracted by the latest consulting buzzword. Scalability also comes from leveraging yourself and the firm more, building methodologies, developing people and reducing some of the ‘artistic’ elements of the solution and ‘bespoke’ delivery aspects. The “hot idea” of today with no legs is not sustainable and if you are in the critical path of every project, it is clearly not scalable.
The very same approach applies to your clients as well, they need a sustainable solution in place and if this solution cannot work effectively without you then it is not in the best interest of your client.
Presence – Develop Insights, Never State the Obvious
Develop presence and deliver insights – insights are those nuggets of information people usually do not see in their business when operating with the status quo.
If you had fifteen minutes with the CEO of a corporation, how would you spend your time ? I have personally never believed that we need to waste a lot of time speaking about introducing the firm, the qualifications, your cool logo and all the great things analysts are saying about the firm. It is a lot more productive to deliver insights and provocative ideas on how they can adopt new business models, transform the business and create incremental shareholder value. If you really want to make an impression on senior client executives, make sure you have something really thoughtful to say and if you get their attention you have plenty of time to speak about that cool logo your firm has and why you are the best firm in the world to help them!
The very same approach applies to your clients pitches as well. Taking a 20 plus slide deck focused on “services that your firm offers” in the best possible format is a true non-starter.
Do you homework on the business, develop a point of view, take provocative ideas and differentiate yourself with insights.
2. Establishing The Foundation
Foundational Elements – Preparing for the Journey Early Enough
Building the foundations, even a few years out in the Partner pipeline process, is vitally important if getting to this level is your career aspiration. The earlier you recognize this and start working towards it, the easier the journey becomes towards the end. The first step starts with recognizing yourself that this is where you want to go and the second step is making people aware of this aspiration. Very often people push back various essential elements of the preparation until they are within a couple or three years into the pre-Partner level. Things do not have to wait that long, it is important to start accumulating the skills, network, exposure, experience and demonstrating certain attributes right at the Manager level or even before.
In this section, I will focus on some of the areas that will help differentiate you from the pack. Ability to deliver high quality engagements, having skills in demand and being utilized is taken for granted. The mere fact that you can crank was very visible, which is why you got promoted to Manager or whatever pre-Partner level title equivalent in your firm. Now, it is about how to build a good platform. Here are five things which can start differentiating you early enough in your career:
Getting Tactical – Understand, Plan and Execute
Reach out and seek opportunities to lead complex engagements. Complexity can be dimensioned in several ways e.g., global or
multi-location, difficult problems, creative thinking, client dynamics etc.
Delivering a few stand out engagements on any clients is very different from delivering a “me too” engagement on even the most high profile clients of the firm.
Generate ideas for upcoming business issues, team with others, participate and more importantly contribute to thought leadership. Thought leadership needs to be “close to cash”, not just an academic idea which becomes a fantastic academic masterpiece on the website.
Create a network of peers externally, network after hours – spot the rising stars in the industry and develop genuine interest in what they do. Make allies, give them ideas and help them grow. Today’s rising stars are tomorrow’s top executives.
Quickly graduate from supporting proposals to participating actively in proposals and then leading them.
Bulletproof the Foundation – Accumulating Experiences, Not Checking the Box
The critical questions needing answers are:
What can make you “practice famous” in one year?
What can you do to become Firm famous?
What 1-3 things will you be known for - which become synonymous with your name in 2-3 years ?
How can you demonstrate unique aspects extending the senior leadership (being additive, not undermining) – this needs to be specific and unique to you?
How can you generate new client traction, more specifically identifying opportunities, courting prospects, leading bids, closing sales, delivering results and winning add on work – think about how this will all work monetizing your unique skills
Recognize and develop your market leadership style early on i.e., Are you more effective on brand based, expertise based, relationship based, community based or thought leadership based ? Each of these are important skills , there is no right or wrong – varying the execution tactics based on your style and comfort zone is important. The business development playbook for brand based selling does not scale to relationship based selling.
3. Succeeding as a Consulting Partner
It is all about being well rounded, well respected and developing the ability to balance
Becoming Partner Starts the Next Stage…
Getting to the Partner level is commonly construed as the career destination, in reality this is the beginning of another journey of professional development with larger responsibility and accountability. Someone at the Partner level is expected to be a thought leader, develop new ideas, cutting edge solutions, deliver excellence, develop people and bring in new business to the Firm.
Although once in a while you do come across with people with a Partner or equivalent title who are capable only of excellence in sales or delivery or are pure thought leaders; it is evident that such individuals do not command the same level of respect and professional progress as a more well-rounded leader. Well rounded leaders have the ability to generate followers internally and in the market place following their ideas and innovative practices. Many times they are sought after by clients who have specific problems than the sales focused individual constantly in “push” mode or the thought leader purist lacking passion or skills for delivery.
Succeeding as a consulting executive is all about balancing priorities. In my mind the Partner role involves several aspects of leadership in the market, with clients, of people, the firm leadership and finally thought leadership. The best consulting executives that I have worked with are the ones who quickly understand the balance i.e., what to emphasize and what do de-emphasize at a given point of time. Very few of us can be effective across all these dimensions at all times, hence this balance is critical to succeeding in this role.
The Pillars of Success – Multiple Dimensions of Leadership
Client leadership consists of creating client value by helping client executives recognize and address strategically significant business issues in a structured and systematic manner. Client leadership is more than just producing big revenue numbers and high fees; it is about providing clients with advice, insights, tools, methodologies and resources very customized to their specific needs in accelerating their speed and minimizing risks when transforming their business. If this is done well and you can establish credibility then revenues are a natural outcome. Most newly promoted Partners tend to start their journeys with client leadership, as roles expand and broaden it is still very important to never lose sight of this competent of success.
Market leadership is all about driving your visibility to the external market from an intellectual and civic perspective. This can include serving on boards of non-profits, professional associations, getting certified in the right areas, taking pro bono projects, participating on charity and giving back activities and engaging audiences intellectually on social media.
Integral part of this effort is how we speak, act, write and deliver our presence in the marketplace.
People are the Heart of Everything
Management Consulting business models are very apprentice-oriented ways of operating. Partners have the responsibility to train and develop our staff and fellow Partners (where applicable) by engaging them on a continuous basis. One of the things that I love about my consulting career is the “sponsorship” around people and their careers with a vested interest in their success. Leaving behind a legacy of building great careers has the same joys of building a lasting business – after all people create business value.
This is more than just coaching – it is about passionate attachment to people and ideas. It is about taking ownership of an individual’s professional success and attribute success and failures to both the individual and the “sponsor”. Think about the sponsor as the co-owner of the career path along with the individual, this is a lot easier said than done and requires a very concentrated effort and by the way, one can never fake this or view this as a check in the box activity. We work with incredibly smart people and they will immediately see through this.
People leadership includes serving as a role model, imparting ongoing counsel, training and mentoring people on the job and developing consulting skills by challenging them to strive for the next level. A very important aspect of people leadership is to be a proponent and champion of the ‘sponsorship’ culture within the firm.
The Firm – Success Means asking Yourself “If this was my own firm, what would I do today”?
Growing the Firm profitably is the very core outcome of what we do, demonstrated ability to apply the right leverage to drive engagement economics is a key to profitable growth. Increase in unit values or stock price with attractive opportunities for the professional growth of our staff and attract the right level of talent to the firm is integral to firm leadership. Other core attributes of firm leadership include ensuring we are making the right investments, allocating resources appropriately, operate collaboratively, manage internal change with minimal disruption and running financial matters well.
Always remember: you are a Partner in the firm first and your practice, region or sub–practice comes second. Hence, first and foremost do right by the firm.
About the Author
Nitin Kumar is a global executive and management consultant with 19 years of leadership experience in start-ups, turnarounds and high growth environments with full P/L responsibility. He has held executive roles such as Consulting Partner, CEO and Business Unit Leader within TMT (Technology, Media and Telecom) industries. Nitin has built and scaled large consulting practices from its inception into multi-billion dollar firms with experience in sales, delivery and innovation in 70 countries across 6 continents.
He is a known speaker, thought leader and author in the M&A world and enjoys connecting with people and solving complex business problems. He currently serves as the global leader for the Technology sector in a large global consulting firm and drives up and down the 101 highway in the Silicon Valley serving his clients.