* At the time of this interview Dave was the Vice President, Continuous Improvement of Uline.
Many consultants join BCG post-MBA thinking they will spend two years with the firm and then move on to something else. You invested 16 years of your career with BCG. Can you share some thoughts about why you stayed with the firm that long? Did you always have the goal of becoming Partner throughout your tenure at BCG? If not, what elements of your consulting career or experiences put you on the Partner path?
When I joined out of business school I thought I would stay two to five years, so I did not always plan to become a Partner. I think it was a combination of interesting work, the colleagues that I got to work with, and then ultimately developing relationships with some of my clients that kept it very interesting and appealing, so I stayed a lot longer than I initially expected. I did not anticipate that I would develop relationships with my clients, and I wanted to continue to see them succeed, so I wanted to stay with them through the course of their own business cycle.
You received numerous awards at BCG, including the 3i award, which is awarded to a single partner for developing “bright new ideas with quantifiable impact.” In a sea of some of the world’s brightest minds, how does one stand out?
When it comes to innovation, it’s important not to dwell only on theories, but to get practical. That’s typically the area where consultants don’t always shine. You need to get practical and specify what you actually want people to do differently on Monday. I think I was able to adopt that mindset, and that was what stood out.
What would you say are the greatest rewards of the Partner level specifically? How did the role change over the course of 9 years?
Three big rewards come to mind. First, as soon as you make Partner, the learning curve accelerates again. You go from working on one or two engagements at a time to working on many engagements at a time, so the learning environment gets a turbo-charge. Second, the breadth of topics you get to work on is greater. And third, you discover that Partnership is really a global enterprise. You start to have engagements around the world and have colleagues and friends around the world, which is quite special.
When you first become a Partner, you’re still involved quite heavily in the day-to-day execution of the work. When you’re more senior in the Partner ranks, you get a longer-term view of the overall relationship, and a little bit more focused on finding new opportunities to support the client. So over time, the role continues to broaden.
Ultimately, you also think about how to help newly-elected partners build their own book of business.
What type of Project Leader or Principal ought to stay on and shoot for the Partner role? What type should not?
It’s a good question. At a high level, there are two things to think about. First, are you enjoying the work? And second, are you successful by a margin, or are you just barely clearing the bars? The bars only get more and more difficult to clear, so if you are just barely making it through each successive promotion, it’s not going to be fun for you.
In terms of soft skills, it is important to understand that there are always going to be road blocks. The folks who take a step back and say, “I don’t know what to do, but we have three options, and I think we should do option A, and here’s why” have a more empowered perspective than people who throw up their hands and say “I don’t know what to do, I need help.” You may not always be right, but taking the forward steps and saying “this is what I think we should do and here is why” gives you a lot more power over your career.
It is also important to remember that being a Partner is an incredibly fragmented job. If you want to be singularly focused on one client and one topic, it’s not the job for you.
Of the Principals who shoot for Partner and don’t make it, are there any signs one might see to let him/her know that it isn’t going to be a fit or possibility? Or is a lot of it about being in the right place at the right time?
There is an element of luck by being in the right client engagement, in the right sector, at the right time. But if you encounter people who have moved from sector to sector, client to client, topic to topic…it’s probably a good indication that they aren’t getting enough repeat buyers from the Partner level, which means they aren’t at the top of someone’s queue, which makes it harder for them in the long term.
What were some of the qualities of you and your work that contributed the most to your successful career with BCG?
BCG tends to be very quantitative and analytical, and I was certainly cut from that same mold. But I think what contributed to my success was the ability to take complex or ambiguous ideas and break them down into discrete, understandable parts, either for the teams or for the clients. I was also very much focused on efficiency. “Boiling the ocean” was not my mindset. There are very successful Partners who do love to boil the ocean, but personally, that was not my cup of tea. I preferred to focus on what I believed was the critical question. That sounds simple, but if you’re going to focus rather than boil the ocean, you better have a lot of conviction about where you’re going.
Along with the pros of being a Partner at a top consulting firm come the rumored cons, including the hours and travel that can make family / life balance difficult. What were the best things about the Partner role, and what were the worst?
The learning curve and the breadth of topics were very enjoyable. I was able to skim across a lot of different clients and see a lot of different things. And the global focus was particularly interesting. All of your firm-level activities are no longer regional, they’re all global.
Work-life balance continued to be a challenge. I certainly never worked less as a Partner, though I did have a little more control over that than I did as a Principal. And there were probably times were there is a degree of control that you give up on the day-to-day work – you’re not the one doing the model, you’re not the one making the presentation. You’re empowering your teams to get it all done, but ultimately you’re not in control. That’s a big change from when you were a Principal and the buck stopped with you and you wrote the final deck. So that is a mindset shift that takes some getting used to.
While at BCG, you led the Career Development Committee for the Chicago and Minneapolis offices. What were some of the other firm building and non-client focused things you did that you found most meaningful? Anything that made you a better consultant, Partner, or leader in general?
Just for context, the CDC is the committee that makes all of the recommendations for promotions, and also makes recommendations for training and development of the staff. I was the Chair of that committee. It required about 20% of my time, so it was the vast majority of my work that was not client-facing. Beyond that, I did teach some mentorship classes both to other Partners and to Principals, which I thought was quite valuable but paled in comparison to the amount of effort I needed to put into the CDC.
I certainly benefited from it for my own professional development. Did it make me better at engaging with clients and from a commercial perspective? No. But it helps me now that I’ve left consulting because I oversaw hundreds of people and had hundreds of difficult conversations about employment.
Are there any extracurriculars you would recommend to younger consultants that would advance their careers / development?
My advice would really be to find some balance in your life. If you want to be a Partner, this is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to find some outlet besides work that gives you some balance and perspective in your life. People who are only devoted to consulting will burn fast, but they’ll burn out. Personally, I’ve always loved running, and I run a couple of marathons a year. So that’s my hobby.
Once you decided to leave BCG, how did you think about what to do next?
When I decided to leave BCG I thought about three things when I looked at where to go next: the firm and the industry, the skills, and the fit. I had a strong desire to join a leading company. There’s no sense joining a number-four player or joining the buggy whip manufacturer right before they go out of business, so I wanted to join a growing industry leader. Second, I had developed a lot of skills and experiences over my time in consulting, and I wanted to join a firm where that was going to be valued and I would be able to contribute from the get-go. And the last was really around fit. I have had the benefit of consulting many different companies and realized there are a lot of different corporate cultures out there. My style won’t resonate with all of them and I wouldn’t expect it to, so finding the match was quite important.
One of the benefits of leaving at the Partner level is that you have the opportunity to take a little time. So up front I took the time to explore a number of industries, some that I had never consulted in. But where I ultimately ended up was with one of my clients, and a number of the other offers I had were all within the core sector where I had done most of my consulting, which was in the business-to-business environment. So I went out and explored, looked at a lot of different things, and ultimately felt most comfortable where I had spent most of my time.
I also sought out advice from lots of BCG alumni and McKinsey alumni. It was very much a networking process. Up front I had explored lots of different avenues and sectors that I hadn’t worked in, and the way I got to explore those was through networking conversations, which led to conversations with specific firms. So I probably talked to a hundred different people over the course of the searching process.
How did you evaluate fit? What kind of culture were you looking for specifically?
Fit is an ambiguous term. It’s easier to describe it in terms of the extremes. At one end of the spectrum you have the alpha-male sales-and-trading environment, where they’ll put anyone down to put themselves ahead. I certainly had clients who would fit that description. At the other end you have what I would describe as the overly-paternalistic Midwestern culture that suffers fools for far too long, and I had clients who would fit that description as well. I am based in the Midwest, and I am a Midwesterner by upbringing, so I probably skew to that side of the spectrum in terms of being a little bit more focused on being supportive, but I have a strong competitive streak embedded within that.
What advice would you have for a Partner at a top firm who is thinking about leaving and wondering how to identify and secure the best next opportunity?
I would say go now. When I was on the fence about whether I should stay longer, another BCG alumnus was very blunt with me. He said, “Look, you’ve been a consultant for 16 years. No one has any doubt about your skill set in that vein. Every incremental year you spend in consulting, you’re just getting older and less employable.” Which is pretty harsh, but probably has a lot of truth in it. It’s true I was a little bit more senior, since I was a Partner for nearly a decade, but I think there is never a “right time.” I would encourage folks to take that leap sooner rather than later.
Having recently left BCG for Uline, what skills do you utilize from your time in consulting, specifically from your experience at the Partner level?
My role is very similar to an internal consultant, so a lot of the core skill sets are very similar. A lot of what I did as a Partner was convincing people of my ideas and that they need to grow or change, and I still do that now. Bringing forward a case for change is more challenging in a company that is very successful, given that it’s not as though it’s broken and needs to be fixed.
The other skill that I think is most important is being able to take other people’s perspective. As a Principal and below, you’re so focused on getting the work done and getting to “the answer” that you don’t spend enough time thinking about the perspective of the person you’re communicating with. The human side of things is probably the element that you don’t appreciate quite as much before the Partner level. Consulting engagements are purchased based on both the core presentation and also trust. And trust comes out of understanding where the other person is coming from.
What was it about your current position that excited you the most?
I think it’s a fantastic company that has a structural competitive advantage that really is going to be a winner in this space and continue to grow quite strongly. I feel very confident in that. Second, the company is now the size of a Fortune 500 company but hasn’t been that way for long, so I am able to bring a set of skills and experiences to bear based on what I’ve seen in my career.
How has it been different “on the inside”?
The client breadth is gone. I have one client now, so to speak. That’s a big change. But the breadth of topics I work on is equally as broad, if not broader. As a consultant, you have a little bit of expertise that you bring to bear but you’re not an expert across everything. When you’re in-house working for a company and you’re one of the senior executives, you’re free to – and expected to – have an opinion or perspective on lots of different elements of the organization.
Things that are typically handed off from the consultant to the client now don’t get handed off. So I’m spending a lot more time on implementation and actually getting the changes to happen through the IT system, through the organization, through training…that is now a component of my work where it used to be something I would hand off and the client would run with it.