Briefly going back to the start of your consulting career, you did a short stint at McKinsey before you climbed the ladder to Partner at Marakon; some of our readers at the Associate level are at the point of considering a switch. What motivated you to change between the two strategy firms?
This was more for personal circumstances. After business school I went back into consulting at McKinsey – a well-known, well-regarded firm. It really was that Marakon presented a better offer and opportunity for me; I knew the people and the firm, they offered a higher position, tuition reimbursement, and two projects with new big name clients I could work on from their San Francisco office.
Few people are able to reach the Partner level at consulting firms either through choice or their own abilities. When you first rejoined Marakon did you have an end goal of becoming a Partner, or was that something that developed during your tenure? What do you think got you to Partner level, and what do you think is the most valuable thing you gained from that experience?
When I joined consulting out of undergraduate I definitely did not have the Partner path in mind. I thought I’d do it for a couple years, learn some things, make some money; and move onto other opportunities. Through my experience I learned what an incredibly exciting field it is, where you gain a tremendous amount of knowledge and are well compensated for it. After business school (a perfect and logical time to transition out of consulting) I made the decision to go back into the field, and knew I wanted to make Partner at whatever firm I joined.
For skills at the different levels of consulting, you have to realize that there’s a dramatic shift in the capabilities you need to develop in the Analyst role, Consultant role, Manager role, and Partner role. Early on as an Analyst it’s all about your hard analytical and problem solving skills, and later on in consulting it switches to communication and simplification. At the Partner level where you are selling business as well, you really need relationship and presentation skills. For making Partner, I think that the transition has been a hiccup for most folks. Early on you either got it or you didn’t, but later it’s really about making the connections and relating to people.
You went from externally advising multi-billion dollar consumer goods company Mead Johnson to leading their internal strategy group as VP, Strategy and Corporate Development. What would you say are the major differences that separated the two roles? What would you say was the greatest challenge in that transition?
There’s a difference on both the personal level and professional level. One thing you notice compared to working with a company from the outside is that you immediately have credibility as an internal employee, and that professionally you have a form of stability compared to a project that might be three months, might be nine months. A negative is that as a consultant you are always brought in for the major issues, whereas internally the visibility and projects may not be as top level as consultants are used to.
There’s also the matter of “focus” between the two roles. To an external consultant, everything is defined – there is an engagement letter, timeline, and scope for each project. Internally, the clarity of the role is not as specific, and it’s one where you have to go with the flow. One last thing is that really, a lot of things do stay the same between one and the other. But on the inside, you certainly have more ownership and accountability, and are depended on to execute and take responsibility.
A lot of our visitors want to jump right into a P&L role as they leave consulting, and they pass on strategy roles hoping to pursue the General Manager jobs directly. What was the most appealing aspect of your post consulting strategy opportunity, and how would you sell that role to someone at the Junior Partner or Partner level?
The strategy role is really the best first move into a company. More skills are needed for a General Management position, and in truth most consultants will not be hired right into General Management at larger companies because they lack those prudent capabilities. Strategy is the primary capability of a General Manager, but there are a lot of other dimensions to it like organization and execution. Joining a corporation in their strategy group allows you to get to know the company, build yourself into the political landscape, etc.
One hurdle I will mention from consulting to internal corporate strategy, is that you do have to prove yourself and that you can actually execute and drive results.
Being CEO of a portfolio company for a major private equity firm must be pretty thrilling. Is it what you expected?
I don’t think there’s a way for anyone to fully grasp what a Chief Executive role entails until sitting in the chair. You are definitely in the hot seat and you feel all the pressure points of the organization. There are really two parts to it – the execution and the organizational morale – with the second being something I think I’ve really improved on over the last couple of years. Keeping a pulse of all of the folks, giving recognition and giving feedback…you have to remember that being a General Manager is really equivalent to the Chief Human Resources Officer as well.
Having been in major leadership positions at a top consulting firm, a multi-billion dollar company, and in a CEO role of a PE portfolio company, what’s your next target in terms of personal progression and development?
For development and career growth I personally want to pursue the GM path. A note, though, is that it seems everyone pursues the GM role because it’s the thing you “have” to do, and I would caution folks because there are a lot of other great roles out there that make plenty of impact. Not everyone is good at being a General Manager. For me, it’s in my blood, and it’s what keeps me energized. I also know it may mean considering a strategy role or another role to get there, but you have to be able to take a step back if you want to take two steps forward.
What would you say is the most important skill that got you where you are today? What did you take specifically from consulting that makes you successful in your job now?
I personally feel that my path, and most paths, have been highly dependent on circumstance – an opportunity has to open for you, you have to know the right people, have chemistry, etc. In addition to serendipity though, you have to be capable. It’s the ability to see serendipity and keep an eye out for the opportunities.
Which of the skills that you gained in consulting has added the most value to your life outside of work?
It’s all about building relationships. I was sitting at dinner with a friend who is also a consultant the other day, and we were discussing why it is that consultants always tend to have this strength and skill. A large part of it is because in consulting, you are brought into a small, fire drill atmosphere, and you really bond with your fellow team members. It’s not just coming into work and leaving at the end of the day – it’s a much stronger bond than you establish in corporate.