AMA (Ask Me Anything) interview with Natalie, a seasoned consultant shares her career journey and how she has leveraged her consulting experience into a purposeful career in non-profit healthcare consulting. During the episode, Natalie and I provide mentoring guidance to an individual getting ready for a senior executive presentation.
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We’re going to do a segment I call AMA, Ask Me Anything. Essentially for those that are new to the show, it is virtual fireside chats where I have an opportunity to connect with other seasoned consultants that share their journey in the profession and just catch us up to on what they are currently doing. I also had a mentee of mine reach out to me yesterday. She’s got a big presentation coming up and wants some tips. I’m going to ask our guest to weigh in on ways we can help her. With that, I have the utmost pleasure of chatting with Natalie today.
Interview with Natalie
Natalie, thank you so much for making time to connect with me and being on MECE Muse Unplugged.
Thanks for inviting me. A pleasure to be here.
We’re super excited to have you. Before I get started, if you can maybe just give everyone a quick introduction of who you are and a little bit about your consulting background.
I’m based in the New England area. I work for a consulting firm for almost four years, mostly in the strategy and operations space, the specific focus around health industries. I worked with clients from the pharmaceutical space, hospital and health insurance mostly around strategy and operations. I had some subject matter expertise in customer experience, particularly in the area of digital strategy and how to reach customers, engage customers and consumers digitally through e-health and mobile solutions. My academic background, I have an MBA MPH from UNC Chapel Hill and the Public Health degree was in Health Policy and Management so that fueled a lot of my interest in informational background in the healthcare space.
Where did you do your undergrad again?
I did my undergrad at Wellesley College, and then I had a few years between that and grad school. I got some experience in.
I knew you did healthcare work. I don’t think I knew it was in the customer experience or the digital space. That sounds like pretty exciting work.
It was really exciting, pretty cutting edge. Digital was very new. When I was in consulting, it was at a time where people, companies were trying new things within social media, within the mobile space and building apps. My firm had recently acquired another firm that specialized in the design piece of mobile applications, so we got to do a lot of partnering together. It was a very exciting opportunity to learn.
I know you mentioned between Wellesley and UNC Chapel Hill, you did a little bit of abroad work. That’s a unique perspective that you probably brought to your consulting experiences. Maybe you can share a little bit about that.
Between undergrad and grad school, I worked for a nonprofit for about a year. It was focused on volunteer service, and it increased my desire to serve. I always wanted to do international work. My major at Wellesley was international relations in Africana studies. When I first graduated, I had applied to all of these NGOs and international development organizations, but they said I didn’t have enough experience. I said, “How am I going to get experience without getting experience?” I joined the Peace Corps and I served in Southern Africa in Zambia for three and a half years. That was where I started my health focus. I was one of the first groups of what’s called PEPFAR volunteers. It stands for President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. It was George Bush’s big initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa to fight HIV aids.
All the work I did was around HIV prevention, counseling and testing. I worked in a rural area for a couple of years and then had an opportunity to have a leadership role in the central location in the capital city of Lusaka which brought out management experience. I was able to translate that into things that the business world could understand. It was a very nontraditional background or set of experiences, so I had to learn how to communicate those and tell stories around those that were relatable to get into my MBA program as well as to get into consulting.
That’s such meaningful work. I’m so glad that you had those experiences. When you think about the years you spent in your consulting work, how were you able to make that transition? I know you talked about NGOs wanting more experience, how did you determine that consulting was the way? How did you navigate from Peace Corps to consulting? The chronological was undergrad, Peace Corps, grad school and then consulting.
Towards the end of my Peace Corps experience in the last year and a half or so is when I was working in the capital city. I was engaging a lot with the national government, Zambia, and the leadership in different NGOs. I was sitting at round tables with country directors for some of the top NGOs around the world. The challenges that they were facing and the things that they were coming up against, the things that were written down in their program were all around the business side of the work, like finances. They would run out of funding. They weren’t being efficient with the funding that they had so their projects would run out of money before they were completed. They were public health practitioners, professionals, great leaders and visionaries, but their management acumen wasn’t always up to par or able to deal with those solutions and deal with those challenges.
That’s what it started to get me thinking about, “Maybe I should look at the business side of the work as well. How can I learn the skills to operate an NGO or an international organization in a way that’s efficient and that can make it be more sustainable?” Instead of pursuing just a public health degree as I originally planned, I decided to do both the MBA and MSPH. I always had this idea in the back of my mind like after I get my experience, the private sector was the best place to get the experience because businesses are the best place to learn how to run a business. The nonprofit space and the NGO world have a lot that they can learn from the business space. After doing that and having that exposure, I decided to go forward with that in the business school side.
Your traits for consulting to help fill that gap, on top of having the MBA, was a great transition. Maybe you can share a little bit about what you experienced coming from that background, and then the years you spent in big four consulting. Maybe share a little bit about what you learned.
You could learn business from a lot of different types of businesses. One of the things consulting gives you that’s unique to other businesses is an opportunity to learn and really take deep dives into problems that a lot of companies face. A lot of companies face problem and a lot of them are similar across the board. As you do more and more projects and engagements, you’ll find a theme and a similarity across. As you take different approaches, depending on who you’re working with, your leadership or the partner that you’re working with on solving those issues, that can strengthen your ability to problem solve and to develop strategies that are attainable. One of the things about consulting as well is they say one year in consulting is like equivalent of three years in industry. I knew I didn’t want to be in the private sector for so long.
I had this desire to get back to the international work and bring those skills with me. I thought consulting would be a good opportunity to get a lot of diverse experience without having to spend as much time investing and building that up. I definitely got a lot of that. It’s also diversity of experience in terms of not having to do the same thing every day for month after month, year after year. I never got tired. I never lost interest in it. If I did lose interest, I had an end date of a project and I would be doing something different. That was very desirable as well.
Given the time that you spent in consulting, what would you say, Natalie, is your definition of a great consultant?
Consulting takes a lot of patience and flexibility. A great consultant is someone who’s flexible, someone who has the capacity to tolerate and/or delay uncertainty sometimes even suffering without getting angry at the terror of that. You learn how to keep your cool. You’ll find that as you go up and up further in leadership, from associate to manager to senior manager, I feel like people get better and better at keeping their cool, not showing emotion, and just focusing on the problem, not the people, not getting overwhelmed by whatever situation you come across. I also think a great consultant is confident but maintain humility, is a team player, a great listener, and also a good communicator. Lastly, has a level of authenticity and who they are that enables them to build trust within their team and especially from the client.
You nailed a lot of the different definitions that I’ve heard. What was interesting for many newbie consultants to hear is that being a great consultant is not about the technical skills that a lot of people think are important. They are important to deliver work as well.
It is technical as well.
It’s more than just that is the thing that sometimes people are surprised about. You did a nice job of providing that.
I’m just going to add one more thing. I would say everyone who gets a consulting job has a level of technical skill, that’s why I called it baseline and some level of acumen. The people who make a difference, the people who are able to get promoted to build the trust of their peers and become successful and last long in consulting are the people who have the softer skills and the ability to build those relationships. It’s a balance between technical and human relationship building.
Well said. Doing a slight pivot, I know you talked about teaming. I wanted to ask you if you can share a quick story on what you felt was like your best team experience in consulting and then what you felt in your mind was your worst experience. The second part of that question is what did you believe you learned in both scenarios?
The worst example of teaming and it was an interesting project with a potential to be great. It always comes down to people for me. This is the people, the teams that I work with. We had very capable people. I was a junior level and there was another person at a junior level who is very strong and capable and technically sound. The family had a manager that was between us and the director partner level, and that manager was quite incompetent. I’m saying it that way because there’s just no other way to put it. It would have been okay if he was incompetent and then stepped aside and allowed us to do the work that we need to do to get the project done, but he was incompetent, but having no knowledge of that and he tried so hard to prove his manager status to the detriment of the team.
For example, he would not give credit to anybody for the work that we did. We basically did all the work and grinded, and he would kick it as his own and report it to the director. He would be quick to throw people under the bus if anything went wrong. There was a lack of trust. I felt like I couldn’t trust this person. It was hard to grow and enjoy the experience on the team because I was always navigating how do I demonstrate my worth and my capabilities. He blocked access to the leadership as well. It’s just an oppressive situation to be in, but I didn’t want to match the bad behavior and try to go around him. Sometimes makes matters worse. You just tough it out, do the best that you can, and try to make sure the work speaks for itself that you can get through that. That was the bad example.
The best example I had was also people-related working with a director so it was a smaller team. He was very clear and precise in what he was looking for and setting the vision for the team. He had a background of infrastructure engineer. He has a technology background. He had this ability to draw things out in whiteboard that made you feel crystal clear. When you walked away you knew what the goal was and how to get there, but still gave you enough room to be creative and bring your own piece to the table. He never took credit. He always was very helpful. He had humility and one of the great consultant definition items I mentioned earlier.
He would, as much as he could, make sure there was more than one partner on this project, the work that we were doing at a junior level. It gave us more encouragement and enthusiasm to do even better work. I desired to do the best work that I could to support this person and their leadership and support this project because I just had a positive experience. He allowed us direct access to the client and employee engagement. It was just a very inspiring and well-linked team to be on. There was a lot of trust and there was a lot of confidence in each other. Everybody was really competent as well. For me it’s just people. You always have a bad manager that comes along every now and then. You can’t let it break you. Even with my bad manager story, we still delivered a great client deliverable at the end of the engagement. It just wasn’t as enjoyable a journey as the good people stories. At the end of the day, it’s all about the client delivering the work.
It sounds like you’ve been in consulting a lot longer than four years.
It might be because I did a good job of not getting pigeonholed. That also helped me get promoted a little bit quicker because I was able to get a diversity of experiences because I did a lot of strategy and the customer experience piece. Those projects were shorter. It will be on a few months at a time so I got a lot of different experiences and access to different people. They were usually the interesting “sexy projects” that people wanted to be on. Once you get exposed on a couple of them and you do good work, then more people are looking for you and it’s usually the people that you want to work with. That gave me more experience than I would have had if I was on an operations project for a year. I did that as well, which was very tough for me.
That’s good you got both sides though. Even though to your point, usually when people come into consulting, the mental map of what consulting is, are those strategy, short-term sprint-type products. There’s something about the muscle that you build on the longer-term marathons. There’s a muscle and there’s a deeper relationship that you can build with your clients and your team. To me, there are pros and cons to both. It’s good to have both.
On the long project, for example, one of the great things about that experience was the team was a lot bigger. It was a team of 30 people. That’s what got me in position to be promoted because I was working with people within the teams. I did all these small projects and then they finally got me on one of these long projects. It was still cutting-edge work. I can mention like the Affordable Care Act and starting to implement that with one of the insurance. It was stuff that I had studied in my program. I brought a unique aspect to the table and not only had management experience or exposure within the consulting team, but also with the client because it was a project management piece. I had clients’ folks reporting to me on some levels as well. It was a very good and rich experience. Having that amount of time with it gave me a great case for promotion. I do think there are good things in long projects as well.
Fast forward, you had all these good experiences. You have that NGO background. You recently transitioned out of consulting. Maybe you can share with our listeners what drove that decision. We talked earlier about how NGOs prepared you for consulting. Looking back now, how has consulting prepared you for this recent transition?
I would definitely say consulting prepared me more for the NGO world, and then vice versa. In the beginning, the NGO world prepared me in terms of learning how to manage projects, but understanding the challenges is what I needed to learn from consulting. Then I went into consulting and I built up those different skill set on the financial side, on the strategy and operations side, like building road maps, getting from A to B on the project management side. Project management, program management is critical in the NGO space and the international space. I had a lot of that experience within consulting. As I mentioned before, it was always my intent to circle back and pursue a career in international development and I was just ready to make that move.
Consulting is a cyclical field. It’s always up and down. You have times where partners are doing a lot of projects and it’s growing and then you have times with contracting. I decided to step out of the contracting periods. I wasn’t at risk of losing my job but there’s a few folks around me that it was starting to shift that way. I also had this desire to do more this insatiable hunger for helping the global community and getting back to that side of the work. I decided it was a good time to move. I had an opportunity to move into a role where I can contribute to saving lives around the world. I’ve been doing that and I intend to do it and keep it up for as much time as possible.
Although I would consider going back to consulting because I definitely have a great experience and there’s still a lot that I can learn. This is a good stepping stone. My organization, although it’s a nonprofit, it’s international, we focus on profit. It’s like a consulting organization but for international governments. We work with governments on supply chain for health commodities. We work on training and capacity building, helping government develop strategies for increasing uptakes of different healthcare commodities to fight specific diseases depending on what the disease challenges are in their particular country.
It’s an exciting space to be in and we are advisers in that space, so I call on a lot of my consulting skills anyway. A lot of the people who work for this particular nonprofit are former consultants or have come from the private sector from the different stages. There are also people from academia. It’s a great use of the skill set that I’ve learned. It’s been pretty cool. I’ve been able to travel in a short amount of time all over the world.
When you made the transition, I was texting or emailing. You were always in a different country. I don’t know if it’s been a year yet since you’ve transitioned.
Almost two years.
Has it been almost two years? I didn’t realize it was that long. Lists all the countries you’ve been to since. It’s pretty remarkable.
I’m going to backtrack for a minute and answer one of your questions before. Another great thing about the transition, a lot of times when people transition from consulting, they’re able to transition to roles with a lot more responsibility. I probably did had a double promotion, coming from consulting into this nonprofit based on my experience and my background and all that. That’s something to look forward to. In terms of countries, recently I was in Geneva for a meeting. I’ve been to, this year, Cambodia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and last year Indonesia, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, Zambia, Kenya. That might be all.
It just might be all.
I planned on vacation that’s not low, middle income countries I was working. This has been my most traveled year, last twelve months in my life, and I’ve traveled quite a bit in my life. I counted30 or 33 countries that I’ve visited in my lifetime. A lot of them happened in the last twelve months.
Of all the places you’ve been in the last twelve months, which would you say is your favorite place coming in for a business trip? I know business and personal trips are very different, but what was your favorite business trip and why?
It’s both a tie between Nairobi, Kenya, and Indonesia. Indonesia was excellent because it was summer. My husband’s a teacher and he was able to come and join me. We extended the trip for a weekend in Bali. Bali is the most amazing paradise place we have ever visited. It was such a tease because I had to go back to work so I couldn’t stay that long. It’s definitely a place you want to go back to. It’s just so different from anything we’d ever experienced. It was similar to Thailand but it has the best of everything from mountain climbing to whitewater rafting to beach to eat, pray, love meditation, peaceful thing. Everything you could think of. Then Nairobi and Kenya because I have friends there. Kenya is an exciting place to visit. It’s bustling. Nairobi is a bustling city. We have a lot of the conveniences of the western world but still the richness of the culture. I enjoyed that as well.
You’ve been in consulting. It sounds like a lucrative exit opportunity. It doesn’t mean you won’t come back. Probably, maybe. What advice would you give to new or inspiring consultants? If you had someone coming to you who’s looking for mentorship, what advice would you give them on the profession?
I would say be flexible but also don’t wait for things to fall in your lap. Pursue your aspirations aggressively but tactfully. A lot of the things that I was able to do in the project I was able to get on was because I was on my grind all the time. I would do my work but I would be networking at the same time and reaching out to the people I want to work with for doing the coolest projects and can demonstrating value and saying, “This is what I can do and this is what I want to do,” to give them the opportunity so people knew who I was. Make sure people know who you are. Don’t be afraid to sell yourself a little bit, especially as a woman. Women are less likely to sell themselves and put themselves out there than men. Men are always boasting. They came from the high school football field and they’re boasting on the field. Women are like reserved and they don’t want to be seen as X, Y, Z.
You have to put yourself out there and show up and show out. I would say always keep your resume updated because you’ll be interviewing for the rest of your career for your consulting. Record your stories as a supplement to your resume. I had a spreadsheet where when you learn how to interview in business schools, there are probably other places, where they say, “Let’s look at the context of your situation, your experience, the activity for the contribution that you made, and then the results, the CAR or the STAR method. I try to write those things down after each project while it was fresh so that I can tell compelling stories around it. That helped me like I ran into a partner in the elevator or I got somebody on the phone. They ask me what I’ve done and I had these bright and brief but to the point stories to tell. The last thing I would say is try not to make any enemies. Treat everyone, your clients and colleagues, with respect because the consulting industry is very small and ever being a cycle. You’ll find you run into people. Even though you get off a project, you see that person again. If you shift consulting firms, you can see that person again at the next consulting firm. People are always being traded like in the NBA.
The consulting world gets smaller and smaller the higher you go up. I It’s pretty remarkable. That is very well-spoken, really good advice. I actually like the idea of taking a moment to reflect after a project and using that STAR method to capture it and have your elevator pitch. That’s a good takeaway. Thank you for sharing that. You provided so much insight. That’s all I have for the interview. I do have that dilemma. One of my mentees has reached out to me. Would you be willing to help me give her some guidance as well?
I can try.
Katie sent me an email and she said she’s got her first senior leadership meeting where she got a lot of partners that are in her practice that are going to be attending this meeting. This is her first stretch opportunity. She is fairly young, fairly at the staff or the analyst level. She’s documenting her talking points and doing her research for this presentation. She asked what are some tips or things that she should look for or consider doing in preparation to come off credible with the senior group of partners? Given your background, I know you do a number of different presentations with different organizations and I’m sure with you know, the C-Suite executive levels of different organizations. Natalie, what advice would you give her?
I would say know your audience as much as possible. I like to do LinkedIn or sometimes consulting firms will have internal things. You can actually find people’s resumes. Figure out who’s going to be in the room, what are they interested in, what have they worked on before, and how can you be relatable in whatever you intend to deliver in your talk. Try to create a compelling story around that. Sometimes at the analyst level, where you’re often focused on research or finding all the data points to support an argument. You might get caught up in the detail. I encouraged her to take a step back and think about all the information that you have, and what is the story that can be told with that information. Bring it up like ten feet, to a high level where people can understand and relate to the story you’re telling. I encourage you to have rich appendix with all of that data because sometimes there are partners who are undercover as analysts.
Little data points in detail. You want to be able to back your stuff up. For the most part I find that having less is more. It’s okay to have white space on the slide, it’s preferable, and making sure what you’re saying is meaningful. Then the MECE piece, mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive way of getting there. If you know who’s in the room and you try to speak to their interests and incorporate their interests in this story that you’re telling, you’ll do well. Then smile and take a deep breath. Before you go in, your heart rate will change. Sometimes it helps go to the bathroom and take five to ten slow deep breaths and bring your heart rate down. Just remember that all of those partners in the room, they poop the same way you do and they go to the bathroom. They’re only human. I tell myself that when I’m speaking to a big deal of people. I’m like, “These people are human. They have the same bodily functions as I do. They just have a different set of opportunities and a different journey. I might get there tomorrow.” Don’t separate yourself that far. Speak to them as your future peers because they probably will be.
You covered most of the points that I would have shared with Katie, I would just add two more points. I like to prepare. In addition to having the talking points, it’s rehearsing it, whether you’re rehearsing it in front of a colleague, a manager, or even if you have nobody around, recording it with your phone. Just put your phone up somewhere and just hit record, record it, and then watch yourself, play it back.
That’s a good idea. I’ve done that before.
Doing that a couple times because you want to make sure by the time you get in front of the partners, that’s the twelfth or fifteenth time that you’ve said that spiel. It’s not the first. By that time, you’ve built a little bit of a memory muscle and you know what you’re talking about. You’ve got the data to back it up. You’ve got what I call the back-pocket slides, you’ve got that. You know what you’re talking about and you come off more confident. That’s the biggest part.
I would add to that a little bit. You’re going to be standing especially. When you do the video, do it at least standing. Not only pay attention to how you stand and what to say but pay attention to what you do with your hands, your feet. That’s one of the things I learned in communications class business school. Sometimes we do distracting things with our hands when we’re nervous, so makes sure you find a place for your hands so that you can control them, so that they can focus on what you’re saying. Then the other thing that you brought to my memory that I should have mentioned is have somebody look over your document for you. If Christie is your mentor, then you should definitely ask her. She’s very good at it.
That was my point number two. Thank you for bringing that up. It’s all about the socialization. When I have a presentation, if you know who’s in the room and you somehow have access to them in some way, go ahead and schedule a pre-meeting and socialize the content with them. There’s nothing like having a cheerleader in the room that’s already seen the material, knows the points, and can back you up if some of the partners are asking questions. You’ve got that agreement upfront. My rule of thumb, I like to, as much as I can, go into meetings where there’s what I call it the nodding of the heads. That’s the change management in me. I want to make sure this is not the first time that they’re hearing this idea. It can get torn apart if they’ve never heard of it before and this is their first reaction to it. Even if it’s amazing, you understand people are going to want to test it out a little. The more you have time to flush it out, socialize it, come in the room, it’s a nodding of the heads as they’ve already heard it at least once. It goes a long way.
One more thing on the point of nodding of the head, if there’s a way to make it interactive, one of the simple ways to do it is putting in questions; questions that you know most likely will cause the nodding of the head. When you start that nodding, when people are in agreement with you at the beginning as you break out, when you get into your point, sometimes it’s easier to keep that nodding going throughout because they’ve already connected with the question when they get candid answer before you’ve gotten deeper into the topic area.
With that, Katie, you will have a smashing success with your presentation with what we’ve shared.
Yes, she will. Best of luck.
Natalie, it was a pleasure. I know you are a busy woman and I appreciate you taking time to come and do the interview and connect with our listeners. Thank you so much.
The pleasure’s all mine. Thanks again.
Go getters, if you have a career dilemma, have a question about consulting, or want to be a guest on the show, we’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at MECEMuseUnplugged@Gmail.com. I want to thank, Natalie, and until next time.
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