Transitioning into Consulting and Promotions with Aija

AMA interview with Aija, a seasoned consultant sharing her career journey and experiences. During the show, Christie and Aija give mentoring advice provided to an individual that recently found out she didn’t get promoted and is exploring her career options.

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We will be doing a segment that I call AMA, Ask Me Anything. For those that are new to the show, AMAs are virtual fireside chat to where I get a chance to connect with others and they shared their journey and their profession and catch us up to what things they’re doing and what’s on their mind. One of my mentees reached out to me with a career situation that I’m sure the audience may know someone’s going through something similar. I’m going to ask my guest to weigh in on that situation. Let’s see if she can give my mentee some more advice.

Interview with Aija

With that, I have the utmost pleasure of connecting with Aija.

I’m excited to be here as well, Christie. Thanks so much for the invitation.

I’m super excited to be with you as well. Maybe you can give us a little bit of insights in terms of how you personally decided to go into consulting. Give us a little bit of your background.

My journey and my path into consulting was not a straight line. I started out in a consulting firm but I was more working from an operations perspective. I had an accounting degree and I worked on contracts and I worked with partners in terms of revenue optimization. How to properly staff engagements and things of that nature. I work more from the engagement operation side initially and it was a very repetitive role. Every month I was doing the exact same thing from the first was this closing down the engagement economics or the month and preparing for invoicing and working with contracts to manage where we were in terms of period of performance and budget.

I did not enjoy it and an opportunity came up with the same company to transition into the client-facing side, to work as a financial management consultant. I was super excited about that because it did allow me the opportunity to leverage both my accounting skills, but it also would give me the opportunity to be client-facing and working on more diverse and more varied project activities. That’s how I ended up in consulting. Started out from an engagement or a revenue optimization perspective and then moved to client-facing financial management consulting. From there, I went from the company that I was at, which was a targeted. It was more focused on government consulting and then I moved into the big four space. When I moved into the big force space, fortunately for me, I was able to expand my skill set beyond just financial management and I then began to work and process improvement as well as program management and that’s where I am now.

I’m in the program management area from mostly focused on helping clients either bring new solutions to their organization, whether that is IT solutions, stand up, new organizational competencies to establishing new functions within the organization and things of that nature. Program management is where I am now.

You went from the up side of the house, which are good skills. When you think about how to run a practice or how to run an engagement, that’s really important to feel that. You went from that, gone more into more of financial management piece and transitioned into profit improvement, and now program management. When you think about that journey, has it been everything you expected it to be in terms of what you thought it was in your mind?

I definitely thought it was sexy. I definitely thought coming from the up side of the house, I thought that it would be, “You’re going here this week, you’re going to be working with this type of client.” Big deals and the timeline on an engagement will be shorter, high burn. I didn’t expect that. I expected that it would be a lot of hours. I definitely probably came missing consulting when it was definitely from the consulting side. The government side of it, the programs and projects are much longer. That was different from what I expected. We were talking about two-year plus engagements out the door, the contracts with for two years. The contract was four or five-year engagement. That was not what I expected, but the hours is what I expected. The rapid learning was definitely what I expected and what I’m grateful for. What you did on Monday, three months ago will be so different from what you would do a whole quarter later or what you would know and your comfort level with a certain topic would be so different in that short amount of time. That was unexpected, but definitely I’m grateful for that and appreciated that about the work because it kept it so different and so interesting.

MECE 03 | Consulting and Promotions
Consulting and Promotions: Sometimes it balloons a little differently than the way I planned it.

Whereas coming from op, I knew what I was going to be doing every day of the month for the most part because it was routine. It was on a financial cycle. We closed the first suit assist. We reopened and we continued with business and definitely the difference was how you come into work and the issues of the day drive what you focused on and that was less expected. Coming into consulting, we have a scoping statement; we have a statement of work and we’re told this is what we’re going to be doing. Sometimes it balloons a little differently than the way I planned it. I feel like it always is different than what affected you know. Part of it was different. That part was different for me because I’m so used to it. Maybe it was my financial background, five plus five is ten. If you said that you were going to make x amount of dollars, that’s what I expected. Whereas in consulting the statement of work, it starts out one way and again you could be doing something different by the end of that. That part was a little different for me was that everything was not as black and white as I thought it would be. We have a contract.

It’s incredible when you’re in the throes of the business versus looking in from the outside in. It definitely is a different lens. How long have you been in consulting? How many years would you say?

I would say consultant directly, probably about twelve to thirteen years. I’ve taken some breaks out of consulting. I want to try industry and I’ve always come back to consulting always. I worked for a healthcare analytics company for example, and that was an experience. I was like, “I’m ready to maybe do something that is more stable where I can have some more predictability in my schedule. I know I will be home every single day versus the traveling that I do now.” It just was not a fit for me. After a short amount of time, I realized the variety of the work is what drives me and so being in a role where things were predictable Monday to Friday, it was not a fit for me. I felt stagnant and I felt, in some respects, that I was pushing myself to maintain my skill set. We know in consulting, you grow, or you go. That’s a different dynamic to have to operate in and so I definitely was like, “Let me get back into consulting and be more challenged.” It is more difficult, but it is more fulfilling for me.

I love that you grow, or you go. I’m going to start using that line because it’s so true. It encapsulates the lifestyle. You have been in consulting for quite some time. What would you say is the one experience that shaped your values and how you do business today?

There are a number of things that have shaped my values, but one thing that sticks with me and something that I even use now to share with others is being empowered as a woman and that sometimes we can fade to black. We can decide to work around the exterior of the room instead of the interior and being fully present in upfront and being visible. I would say there was an instance when I was a senior consultant, not at the firm that I’m at now, but at another firm and at the time I was working on performance improvement. This is when I was working more with a financial organization to do some balance scorecard, developing metrics and recreated this whole framework. My team and my senior manager and a couple of team members are going to be having a conference call with a client. In preparation for that call, my team and myself, we’ve done a lot of work just to pull together the presentation materials, have some comps or comparative information from other organizations that will be relevant.

A lot of times clients ask for, “Who else is doing this? What metrics are they looking at it?” We’d done a lot of background research to provide that context and during that conference call, I expected that I would have more of a speaking role in my senior manager at the time. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. I’m thinking that he was just not certain or felt comfortable leading the call. He led a lot of that discussion and dialogue and I found myself using instant messenger and I was feeding him things to say to the client, prompting and popping him via instant messenger. I was trying to get him to look at it and he was looking at me for certain pieces of information and I’m giving him that input. Our partner wasn’t present for the full call but he was in and out of the room at the time and then afterwards, he didn’t pull me aside in terms of admonishing me or criticizing, which is saying, “I know that you know this information. I know that you have a good command of this data. You were giving someone the information, I want you to take that as an opportunity.” There was a way for you to say, “Let me just help you out here. Let me just add the sewing.”

Meaning the manager who was on the call and then you be the voice because that is how you begin to establish trusted adviser relationships. He coached me through that whole scenario, but the point there was that as women and even more junior resources need to know that if you know the information and you have a command of the information, you should look for opportunities to be face the boys. Be the person who is presenting that you are not doing yourself any favors or even your engagement team any favors by sitting in the background. Opportunities are given when we step up and when we speak up. Just find ways to do that, to be confident and not shy away from those opportunities. That’s something that definitely shaped my values. I always want to be prepared but when I’m prepared I also want to look for the opportunity to influence them, to speak up, you make sure that your voice was heard. That’s something that was very critical in that feedback from that partner. It definitely helped shape me. How I tackle those types of scenarios going forward and as women, we sometimes choose the path to knowingly unconsciously take that action. That is something that I’ve definitely struggled with is knowingly and consciously taking the action.

You hit on some key components of what I call being a great consultant. In my book, I have a manifesto of what a great consultant looked like and you hit on two points. One of them is that every day you get to decide what type of consultant you want to be, and how do you take control of a situation of things that are, especially if it’s within your control. That’s a great lesson. It’s good to hear that you had an opportunity to learn that, which is great. 

To your point, those things that are in our control and that that’s the best that we can do right to when things are in our control. To recognize that and take some action that furthers that opportunity that allows us to either grow helps us to help the clients when it’s within our control. We definitely should keep our eyes open for that.

You’ve been in business for some time that you had a chance to get out of consulting and see something different. That’s another thing that younger consultants typically not always think they have that option that you could leave and come back, which is cool about our profession. You can always come and go. I don’t think a lot of professions do you have that type of you have that type of flexibility, but I say take advantage of it. Looking back now, what advice would you give your younger self knowing what you know now? 

The advice I would give my younger self is definitely take more risks. Lead hard engagements definitely younger self will have the energy, put some of those more difficult engagement. Those engagements that give you more visibility. Those engagements where you can get in and get your hands dirty. Take more risks and do those don’t always fall for the or always take the safe route. I had this conversation with a mentee a couple of years ago and they spoke of going back to school. They were going to be going back to school towards the end of the summer, but there’s an engagement should they take on before leaving? “Do I want to coast through my summer or do I want to do this engagement that’s going to make me work?”

I say take the engagement, it will help you. That’s going to make you work. You’re going to be going to school and yes, please. Definitely take a break before you walk back into the doors at school, but at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with building up your toolkit. You’re going to use those skills even in school. It will be nice that everything is not a struggle even in school. “I did government consulting and when I finally made the leap and starting to win private sector, commercial consulting, why didn’t I do this before?” That’s what I say to myself. Take those risks. If it scares you, you probably should be doing it. I try to do that in my daily life now. There’s certain things where people ask me to do it but I don’t want to do that. Then I say to myself, “Why is it that you don’t want to do it? Is there a fear? Then you need to do it.” That’s how my role is that we confront our fears. Take more risks.

I totally agree on taking risks because there’s so much you get from the risk and sometimes build it up in our heads. We put all this stuff in front of it. We don’t give ourselves the chance.

There are terrible scenarios about these things. What’s going to happen if I do it and it doesn’t work? If you fail, what you learn is so much more from your failures than you do your successes.

Based on your experiences now, what would you say makes a great consultant? 

In terms of what makes a great consultant, it definitely is the ability to connect with people. I know sometimes people might be expecting a technical answer for that type of question, but a lot of the soft skills are what makes a great consultant. The ability to listen and once you’ve listened and digest it, then ask the right probing questions, but that’s less skill and it is more about connecting with people. Being able to hear what they’re saying, but also to hear what they’re not saying, to get them to talk to you. Sometimes you can be more successful with a client if you understand what their individual motivations are, “What’s in it for them? What are they looking to get out of this particular engagement? What are they trying to take their career?” Some of those things you need to be able to connect with people to get to those answers. That’s what makes a good consultant is the ability to step back from the situation and look at things objectively that way.

I understand that you have a blog. Tell the audience a little bit about your blog and what’s up with you right now.

My blog is BossChixNetwork.com. It came out of a desire to help women craft their path or define their journey. How did I end up in consulting? What have I learned along the way? I thought sharing that information among women would be helpful is something that my friends and I often talked about how I deal with this situation at work, what should I do about this, how do I have difficult conversations with colleagues or managers.

I wanted to create a forum where that was something that we’ve talked about, but it wasn’t in an unapproachable way. It’s not heavy on business speak. It is plain-spoken. I worked very hard to make it conversational tone things in a way that super approachable. That is not overwhelming. We’re not going to talk about or I don’t generally talk about, this theory or that theory. I like for it to be much more digestible than that and so it’s a blog where we talk about career, we talk about life, we talk about it and in a very ordinary, everyday way. That’s robust. In March, I did a 31-day goal-getter challenge. We got a lot of good feedback about that and it was to tackle things like creating a personal board of directors. Making sure that you have a mentor and then when you have a mentor. Make sure you’re a mentor to someone else. How to share information, how to become a trusted by sharing relevant information with clients and people in your circle of influence and things like that.

That’s what the blog is about. It’s not all that heavy. I also have a travel series coming up. Where to go this summer with your girls, where to go with your family and where to go with your day. Career lifestyle is the thing that I tackle and I’m dealing with and things that the everyday woman is dealing with and the everyday professional career woman is dealing with. We try to talk about it. Those topics from different angles.

I love your blog. It helped me gain clarity. I was always looking forward to it. To everyone, definitely check out BossChix Network. You can share it on Twitter, Instagram.

I’m on Twitter as @BossChixNetwork and Instagram @BossChixNetwork. We do have a Facebook page, Facebook.com/BossChixNetwork and then the actual blog is www.BossChixNetwork.com. Check us out and thank you. I’m glad to hear that you participate in the challenge. I’m going to package up the challenge as a one-pager. It’s putting all those tips together and allowing people to download that so that you can always have it handy if you want to circle back and refresh the challenge. I’m working on pulling that together now. We’ll have it up on the blog in the next couple of days.

MECE 03 | Consulting and Promotions
Consulting and Promotions: Make sure you’re a mentor to someone else.

You’ve provided some great insight or junior consultants to consider. I do have a dilemma that one of my mentees has reached to me about and in the spirit of consulting and brainstorming with our colleagues, would you mind helping me give her some guidance as well on the situation? 

Just for competence purposes, let’s call her Jennifer. Jennifer sent me an email and she said, “Christie, it’s been awhile since we have connected. I wanted to share an unfortunate update with you. I found out that I will not be promoted to manager and I thought I would. Apparently, I was on the cusp and I just didn’t make it. It was a devastating blow because I worked my tail off, but my leadership didn’t think that I did enough for the year. My counselor is useless.” That is not funny, but the way she said it, I couldn’t see her saying it. She’s all about her career and it’s not helpful unless it makes her look good. “My Plan B is to start looking for another job. I’m sure that if I go to another consulting firm, I will be able to go up as a manager given my years of experiences. I wanted to get your thoughts on if I should go look for another role at another consulting firm and you know, get that manager role or if I should stay and wait another year to get promoted or if I should just take this opportunity to do something different. Thanks Christie.” 

Given this scenario, I feel like as a consultant, I hear this at least a couple times a year where someone is up for promotion for whatever reason is a lot of varying reasons. For whatever reason, they don’t make it and then they’re so upset. They want to either leave or they want to go to another firm. I know for Jennifer, me knowing her for the last five or six years, that is one of her big end goal is to stay and make partner. She’s not one of those individuals that is in consulting just to get some really cool experiences in a short amount of time. She’s in it for the long haul. What advice do you think when you hear this scenario will come to your mind, Aija?

One of the things that comes to my mind with this scenario is being very intentional about getting a detailed debrief. Do not let this be a surface conversation where your counselor is just giving you your review and say, “Do you have any questions?” Probe, ask questions. What could I have done differently? What were the differentiators? What is it about my body of experience when this past year that was not enough? What was enough? Give me examples of the individuals who were promoted. What was inept? This is not the time to harp back into take it. You weren’t promoted. Find out from with as much detail as possible shat were the differentiators, what made the difference? It’s not your counselor who’s going to tell you, have a conversation with your engagement partner in your practice partner, whomever. Just find out what was lacking in terms of the support. I know at least for the company, for the firm that I’m with, you need partner support for that promotion and if you have partner support, most times it can happen for you. Just be very diligent about finding out why you did not make it this year. Not with a chip on your shoulder, but from the perspective of trying to learn more and do better and improve yourself. That’s the first thing I think is good. Get a detail debrief to the extent possible.

Then the next thing I would say is just considering that relationship with that counselor, objectively considered, you have the right counseling relationship. Counseling is a hard role to have as a counselor. I certainly understand the challenges of being a counselor and trying to juggle your own career and juggle clients. It’s hard. I’m very appreciative to my counselor and for those who sermon counselor roles to me, you know the person who may not be my counselor, but I still call them up and say, “Talk to me about this situation. I appreciate the time that they invested in those situations.” The objective is that counseling relationship is not a fit. This is the time to make a switch to a situation that will be more helpful to you, but I do understand that it is.

It’s hard to be a counselor. I had two counsels and sometimes I’m so stressed because you want to give them the right amount of coaching and support. It’s only a certain amount of time in the day. Be objective about it and make sure that you’re looking at it objectively if you want to change counselor relationships. Then also, and this goes without saying, make sure that you’re not just leaning on the counselor and the partner relationships. You need so many advocates sometimes to help you get over that hump. She sounds like she’s doing the right thing. She has an external mentor, someone who you know is outside and in certain giver objective perspective but also, she’s going to probably want more advocates at the table for her at the next round table discussions or whatever they’re called in at her farm. Make sure that you have more people to say, “It goes without saying she’s ready. She did this for me. She’s so ready.” It isn’t just one or two people’s opinion. It’s several people who can beat the table and say, “Yes, she’s ready.”

These are things that’s off the top of my head advice for her situation, those types of projects that she’s on maybe also make sure she’s taking on challenging assignments on those projects. Those are table stakes to me. It goes without saying that you should be doing these things but the extra things, the extra steps and making sure people can advocate for you.

It definitely is the detailed debrief, thinking about with a counselor, what to do there. I’m going to add a couple of other things. Before people decided to jump to a different firm, you got to recognize what that means. I’ve been in a situation where I got upset for various different reasons and have decided to leave a firm for one reason or another. Sometimes in the heat of those emotional decisions, we forget that leaving and going somewhere different means that you’re resetting the clock a couple years back. Because you have to now go into a new firm and you have to build a whole new, brand network credibility and that’s something that just takes time. While yes you can go to another firm at a different level at the level that you’re seeking to do. You’re competing with individuals that’s been at that from that to have those relationships and they have that visibility and you’re competing with them at the end of the year.

You got to come into the door, you got to come in guns a blazing, you got to come in ready to wrap up and run like a gazelle or a couple of years. Is it worth walking away from all the relationships you had, and you’ve built in the credibility you have? At your current state, 20% pivot, and I’m sure if you get the debrief, you understand what’s happening with your counselor. I’m sure with the 20% pivot and a focus, you’ll probably be promoted next year. There’s that piece. The second piece of that is there’s sometimes junior consultants are so in a rush to get promoted that we sometimes forget what that means. When I say that meaning to be promoted, you have to be already operating at the next level, all ready for two, three years it’s time for me to be promoted. I’ve been in this space I’ve been in this, in this role for two, three years, it’s time for me to be promoted, you should be asking, am I ready? I know manager means different things at different firms. The firm, she’s at it the past from I worked at in the past. That means that you’re running projects. That means that you’re able to drive delivery that means that you’re able to lead a team. Do you feel, you know, will be the questions Jennifer, that I would ask is like when you look at other managers and you look at what you’re doing today, are you doing the same work or is it that you think you’re ready to do that work.

That’s two different questions and these are two different things to consider. Then the last thing is this is long-term. This is what she wants to do, which is fantastic. Think about the culture. I would love to speak to her and about this, but I know in the past where she really enjoyed the culture of the firm even though it’s high-performing and it’s a lot of demand. She likes the culture and so that there’s something to be said about walking away from a culture you really like. Not the grass is not always greener, like the grass root, not the same at every burner. It’s not. 

The biggest part is fit for so many people is the culture piece. The work and a lot of cases can be the same, but it ends up being about the people in culture. If you found a culture space that works, that’s hard to find. I agree wholeheartedly.

It’s not the advice that she probably wants to hear, but it feels like from what you’re saying, it sounds like, “Take a deep breath. I know you are very upset. You know that you didn’t get what you wanted, learn from this. How do you learn from this? How do you take this as an opportunity to pivot, how do you take this as an opportunity to maybe have different conversations with your counselor or seek guidance from others and how do you do to make sure you’re not just making, doing something on reaction?” 

It doesn’t have to be there mentally. People gone up for promotion and did not get it in one and got it the second time they went up and they ask. They would tell you the same thing. That doesn’t just happen. Going from senior to manager, it can happen at any level. I know went up for partner the first time and didn’t get it right and turned around and did get it the next time. This is not something that is unique to you and it may not be the only time it has happened to people who are further along in their careers. Don’t take that to mean that the firm is not invested in you, it just means you may need more time. We may need more specific experiences, but you’ve got to find that out for.

Jennifer, if you’re in it for the long-term, in a twenty plus year career, this is nothing. Think of it long term hanging out. Then I would say definitely just make sure to take things to the next level so that you are being promoted. I would love to have you on the show when you do. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. You brought so much to the table. Folks, please don’t forget to check out BossChixNetwork.com.

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