*At the time of this interview Aneesh was the Head of Consumer Engagement Strategy for Aetna Inc.
After three years at Accenture, you left as a Project Manager for an Engagement Manager role at Booz. For our readers considering a transition, why the switch between two strategy firms? How did that move translate (if at all) to your later corporate career?
My primary reason for leaving was a change of focus from technology to business strategy. At Accenture, I was doing a lot of large system transformation projects, and gained a perspective on large-scale work – frequently leading 30-40 person teams, working across countries. When I went to Booz, I dealt with problems that had much less structure to them, and gained an understanding of the “bigger picture” through questions of strategic stance and market entry. My Accenture experience, interestingly, was a clear advantage at Booz. It is becoming rarer to find “pure strategy” work, as more and more strategy consultancies are adding operational components to their offerings. In the end, it was my combination of experiences with the larger-scale, focused work in tandem with a broader understanding of business issues that proved valuable to clients.
You then left Booz after two years to become Vice President of Corporate Strategy for Aetna, a Fortune 100 health services company. Having worked in corporate previously, what motivated you to return to the industry? What factors did you consider in choosing that particular opportunity over others?
I want to preface my comments by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Booz. In taking the opportunity at Aetna, three factors came into play: 1) healthcare was, and still is, at a major crossroads, and I had identified the company as one of the few that could create a meaningful difference in the industry moving forward, 2) the opportunity provided a better work / life balance (although it is certainly not an 8-to-5 job), and 3) the role was as close as you can get to strategy consulting within a company, which at the core is something I still very much enjoy whether outside or inside an organization.
At the time I took my offer I was considering a few other opportunities, and chose my current company and role because it fulfilled my main criteria. Looking at the types of people who worked there, I knew I would continue to be surrounded by smart, driven individuals in a forward-looking company and culture that was open to new ideas. From a logistical perspective, it also allowed for more control over my schedule and travel, and I did not have to relocate from where I was living at the time. Finally, the role would give me unparalleled insight into the critical questions facing a major player in the industry.
Leaving consulting at the Engagement Manager level, what kinds of positions were you targeting? What advice would you give consultants who are looking to transition at a similar level?
Most Engagement Managers will likely come in at the Director or Senior Director level – in my experience, I leveraged my previous roles in industry to come in as a Vice President. In consulting, you’re trained to think at the executive level, which helps many consultants to fulfill the more senior roles. My advice would be to look at the role itself more than the title, which is purely a function of the company’s size and other more general factors. You want to focus on what kind of impact the role has on senior decision making, and if it has access to senior management.
In your move from external consulting to the internal strategy team at Aetna, what have you found to be the main similarities and differences of the two?
The outside-in, hypothesis-driven-approach is the same in both internal and external consulting. That said, there are a couple of key differences. The first is that once you’re in, your recommendations do not stop at the PowerPoint presentation – you are around for the implementation stage (or lack thereof!). Your value to the company becomes tied to whether your recommendations are actually put into action, so you have to be incredibly sensitive to whether your proposals can really work, and make sure you gain buy-in from senior leaders in the beginning as well as throughout the process. Another difference is that, for better or worse, all of your projects are for one, single client. You gain a much better understanding of the business, but it may not be as fulfilling for someone who is looking for a wide variety of projects.
Overall, many of my colleagues from consulting think of their transition to internal strategy – all things considered – as a very positive move.
With many ex-consultants at your company today, do you have any advice about the pitfalls current consultants should watch out for in the interview process? In the transition to corporate itself?
To be blunt, I think part of it has to do with hubris. Coming from strategy, many consultants presume that corporate “lifers” are oblivious to the inefficiencies and inconsistencies of the healthcare industry. They’re not. And it is not for lack of analysis, ability, or effort that the industry still has many of its problems today. Healthcare is incredibly complex, and once you get past the “lifer” assumption, you realize how much there is to learn in an industry that is highly regulated and where the financial and societal impact is high. My advice is to combine your outside knowledge with humility in order to absorb the vast amount of information from those who know it firsthand.
In looking at prospective employers, consultants should also be aware of how the senior management team is constituted to assess where they can add the most value. A company that frequently goes outside for talent will provide a more eclectic atmosphere for growth with people from different companies, industries, and backgrounds, whereas a company where executives come primarily from the inside will tend to have more insular strategy / management.
You founded a startup just before Accenture, and have since worked in strategy consulting and at a Fortune 100 company. Do you think you would go about a startup any differently now with your additional consulting / corporate experiences?
Absolutely. Consulting really makes you “grow up,” in that it gives you a new, broader perspective on the factors that impact a business. With my consulting experience, if I did my startup (running an outpatient therapy / rehabilitation center) again, I would be less technology-driven, while focusing more on customer acquisition efficiency and on partnerships.
You have had an industry focus on healthcare for much of your career. As a strategist for Aetna, a major player, what do you find most exciting about it? What advice do you have for consultants looking to get into the space?
To me, there is nothing more satisfying than helping people live healthier lives. On the business side, it’s also an industry full of large, complex problems, and there is always high demand for strategic thinkers and problem solvers. For consultants who want to get into the space, they should start by focusing on understanding the economic models of the various healthcare players. There is no doubt that the industry is inefficient, but they should know it is not because people haven’t thought of the solutions. At the core, the incentive structures and regulatory barriers negate an easy answer or set of answers. Once they understand that concept and adjust their approach, it can be a lot of fun.
What skills / experiences do you think have made you successful in your career?
I think the most important attribute has been intellectual curiosity, and a willingness / openness to try new things. I’ve enjoyed many roles throughout my career, from software product management, to founding / managing a startup, to strategy consulting and now corporate strategy. As a consultant, you already have a great work ethic – if you pair it with intellectual curiosity, it can make for a great career.