Please give a quick recap of your career with BCG (approximately 13 years). Can you share some thoughts on why you stayed as long as you did rather than leave for an outside opportunity? Did you always have the goal of becoming Partner throughout your tenure at BCG?
I joined BCG right out of college. I was one of the few people I’ve ever heard of who knew they wanted to be a consultant even when growing up, and that’s because my father was a consultant. I really thought I would be a lifelong consultant. I didn’t have an aspiration to do something else. I really loved it – I loved the type of work, I like client service, and I liked the people I worked with quite a bit. So I wasn’t particularly looking.
But I do think there’s a part of people staying in consulting because of inertia. It was the only thing I knew, and I didn’t know there could be other opportunities that would be as exciting and fulfilling with people I enjoyed working with as much. I didn’t really start looking at all. I ended up going to a client I had become quite enamored with versus doing a search.
You worked in three different offices at BCG – Atlanta, NYC, and San Francisco. What were the pros/cons of changing offices? Folks often say that changing offices has a negative effect on their upward trajectory. How did you avoid that?
It helped me build a much wider network than others could have. I drew upon that network quite a bit as I progressed through my career. My earlier transfer didn’t impact me at all, but to transfer late in your career can be very damaging. So much of making Partner isn’t just about how capable you are, it’s about being established in commercial relationships with a strong set of Partners who are vouching for you. To try to rebuild that late in your career can be very challenging.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons I stayed in the New York City office longer than my husband and I wanted to because I thought the penalty for transferring would be too great. Ultimately, I was able to make Partner on the West Coast. I think it probably cost me a year in my promotion timing, but I was lucky enough to have very strong relationships across the country with some of the key decision makers in the firm. I don’t know that my experience is completely analogous to everybody else’s.
With the “up or out” model well-known across consulting firms, only a select few make it to – and can cut it at – the Partner level. In a sea of some of the world’s brightest minds, how does one stand out?
To stand out, you need to be very capable at what you’re doing – that’s obvious. I was never the smartest person at BCG, but I think I had a pragmatic approach to consulting and a very high degree of client-service orientation and strength at building relationships. Those are the standard things that help people stand out. One of the ways I built strong relationships was through loyalty to the Partners I worked with. One of the mistakes I see consultants make is when they say, “That project sounds interesting! And that project sounds interesting!” but then “I know I’ve worked with you on the last couple of projects, and you completely invested everything in me, but this next project doesn’t sound as interesting so I’m going to do a different project.” They don’t realize how powerful it is to have two-way loyalty between a Partner or a Principal and a Consultant. So I stuck with a group of people that I respected a lot and who were influential in the firm, through exciting projects, and through some super crappy projects. And that investment in them made them more willing to invest back in me.
We’ve seen numerous talented senior consultants decline external opportunities because of a prospective Partner promotion, only to be passed over and have the promotion timeline extend another 12-18 months. What type of consultant ought to stay on and shoot for the Partner role? What type should not?
I can relate to that because at the time I never would have considered leaving right before making Partner. But in reality, you can be a top 10% performer your entire consulting career and still not make Partner because of not having the right support from a Partner group. Or, honestly, because of things outside of your control, like there are too many people who have been promoted recently in your practice, or there are too many Junior Partners… I was supposed to make Partner during the downturn, and that was out of my control. People who have been successful their entire careers don’t realize that does not automatically transfer into making Partner. Also, so much of making Partner is about your commercial platform and your commercial ability.
I’ve also noticed that some people have this crazy need to make Partner, but they don’t ever think about whether they would actually like the job of being a Partner. It’s not like you make it across a finish line when you make Partner – that is just the beginning! The pressure is absolutely enormous to bring in revenue and build-out clients. Unless you’re someone who really likes to be in what is basically a sales-oriented role, it may not be a role that you like. I did not like it as much as I thought I would because I really like content and problem-solving, but I did not like having to sell work.
There were other aspects I loved about being a Partner, but people should really think about whether it is worth passing on good opportunities while waiting and killing yourself to make Partner. You really need to take a look at the Partners around you and ask yourself, “Is this something I want to do?”
We also see senior consultants who have not received strong messaging that they will make Partner but are optimistic and think that they will anyway. How can one take optimism out of the equation and really assess his/her chances at Partner?
Unless you have an influential and successful senior Partner with a big book of business specifically saying, “I will take you through to the end and support you even after you make Partner,” then I think you are kidding yourself. If you are not getting that absolutely explicit input, not just from the office head but literally from the person who is going to write your sponsorship recommendation and support you as you go through, it’s either not going to happen or even if it does you will flounder as a Junior Partner. You really need that Senior Partner coverage to be successful.
What were the best things about the Partner role for you, and what were the worst?
I loved being part of office leadership. I invested a lot of time and energy into people, and I loved that from the Partner vantage point, I had a lot more information and a lot more power to help people in their careers. I liked making decisions as part of the Partner group, particularly since I had so much respect for my fellow Partners. It was really cool to be a part of that leadership team.
I also loved the increased access I had to senior clients. You get that when you’re a Principal, but it’s of a different nature when you have the Partner title and the Partner position. And I loved the intellectual leadership. I liked continuing to take what I did as a Principal to the next level and feeling like I was really accountable for the answer.
But I did not like the commercial side. Frankly, I wasn’t as good at the commercial side as I had expected I would be. Some people really like that side, too. You just have to realize that’s the single biggest difference in the role between Principal and Partner.
Very much to your credit, your reputation at BCG was sterling and now serves as a helpful tool in recruiting for your team at Ross. What firm building and non-client focused efforts did you find most meaningful? Anything that made you a better consultant, Partner, or leader in general?
I did a lot of different things – I put in place a mentorship program when I was in New York, and I worked on recruiting. But I’d say the thing that was most rewarding was my involvement in the Women’s Initiative at BCG, which I thought was a very honest, candid, and impactful approach to supporting women. We spent a lot of effort and involved a lot of the male leadership in taking an individualized approach to keeping women at BCG longer. I ran the Women’s Initiative for the West Coast, and that was very rewarding.
How did you learn about the opportunity at Ross, and what made it so appealing?
I’m probably a little different in that I really wasn’t that interested in leaving consulting. So just hearing about an opportunity while I was really busy and happy at BCG… there just wasn’t going to be enough of a draw there. A lot of people have to have the draw plus a real readiness to leave.
For me, it was just serendipitous. There wasn’t a specific opportunity at Ross. They made the opportunity for me because they wanted me to join. I hadn’t worked with such a strong, well-run company as Ross before. I looked at the company, the business model and growth, the management team, and the upward opportunities that growth would provide, and I just thought, “Wow, what am I waiting for? This is a really good company.” And a lot of the things that I enjoyed about consulting I could see at Ross, like feeling as though you’re making an impact. I really wanted to make sure my work was addressing the most important issues in the company. It’s much harder when you haven’t worked with a company as a client to really see whether those things are true. Of course, a company will tell you that you’ll be working on impactful things and that you can move into operational roles, but that’s so much harder to see unless you’ve worked in the company. But I think if I had done a lot of due diligence, I still could have learned that about Ross.
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?
BCG is incredibly networked, and I think sometimes people don’t fully take advantage of that network because they don’t want to show their cards if they’re leaving. Honestly, every Partner I know has thought about leaving at some point, so if you talk to someone else about that thought, nobody thinks you’re crazy or disloyal. I really think it is about networking and taking advantage of all of the connections and relationships that are even within the firm.
As SVP of Strategy and Marketing at Ross Stores, what skills do you utilize from your time in consulting, specifically from your experience at the Partner level?
Well, a lot of obvious skills, like problem-solving. Not just basic problem-solving, but going a level deeper to make sure we aren’t drawing superficial conclusions. A lot of my role is looking at data in different ways than other people would, to try to uncover opportunities or issues. Also, relationship building is important and being able to facilitate challenging discussions across diverse opinion leaders in the company.
One of the things that is most helpful is my ability to deal with fragmentation. I have three groups, and at any given time I’m working on 10 projects on two coasts while also running a Marketing department. When you’re a Partner, you tend to get very fragmented, which helps you figure out, “where do I spend my time? Where do I dive deep? Where do I take a step back?” and how to set deadlines when many things are happening at the same time. That has been incredibly, incredibly helpful. And then the final thing is just getting up to speed very quickly on new topics, which you have to do in consulting all of the time.
Are there any skills you hadn’t utilized as often in consulting, which you needed to get up to speed? How has it been different “on the inside”, both pros and cons?
The single biggest thing that I’ve had to work on is making myself less of a consultant, and I was considered on the pragmatic side for a consultant. But when I got to Ross, I was still full of consultant language and jargon, and I wanted to present beautiful charts when the entire thing could be summarized in four words. I had to undo a lot of that consultant mindset and communication to be able to work effectively with the very diverse types of people we have at Ross. We have a bunch of ex-consultants, a bunch of people who made their way up through stores, and a bunch of merchants.
We pay attention to that aspect while recruiting consultants. If someone comes off as ridiculously consultant-y and academic, they’re going to struggle to be successful at Ross.
How did you ramp up to lead the Marketing function and team for a Fortune 500 company? Do you think it is easier or more difficult to get into marketing as a senior-level consultant?
I think it’s really difficult to go from being a consultant to being a marketing practitioner, or the person who is literally buying the media, working with agencies, developing creative, et cetera. I did not have that experience. I had a lot of marketing strategy experience and brand strategy experience. I’m able to do it because I came in at such a senior level that I’m much more in the role of giving strategic direction, and I have a very strong team of trained marketing practitioners reporting into me. That’s why it works for me. At my level, I feel like I could run just about any department, because it is about giving more strategic direction, as long as you have very strong people beneath you who know the function.
If someone wanted to go from being a consultant to truly a marketing practitioner or brand manager role, I think he or she would be most successful doing that at a more junior level. I think the transition and ability to succeed would be more challenging at the level between my role and the more junior practitioner level. You’d really need to know that the head of marketing will support a multi-year transition for you to go from Consultant to Marketer. There are years of experience that you just won’t have yet but that are critical to success in the role.
Having spent most of your later years at BCG focused on CPG, you chose to start your corporate career in a different area (off-price retail). What advice do you have for top consultants re: industry specifically when looking at corporate opportunities?
I think so much of industry is transferrable. I’m not trying to say I could have gone from CPG to Biomedical Engineering, but when I am hiring people, sure, retail familiarity is useful, but it’s really not a defining criterion because I know how quickly ex-consultants can get up to speed in a new industry. I would say not to be limited in thinking about industry. What I like about CPG is the customer orientation, which of course also exists in retail. So think about the characteristics of different businesses. I really like the combination that retail has – tons of data but also the softer, qualitative side, and that combination probably exists in other areas as well. So I was thinking about the characteristics versus truly the exact industry.
Now that you have spent some time in industry, what advantages do you think off-price retail offers folks who are thinking of careers in consumer and retail more broadly?
If someone wants to do something extremely specific, like “my aspiration in life is to run an e-commerce company,” then I understand that is a very specific type of experience that you want to get. But I think if people want to be in more general management leadership roles, they need to look at how a company is run and whether it has been successful, and whether the business model has a lot of staying power. I emphasize that about Ross. Some people question, “Well, off-price is so specific, is it going to be transferrable to other types of retail?” I think every retailer has specific nuances, but what you learn at a company like Ross is how to make great business decisions and the different functions of retail. In terms of a general management type of experience, you’ll get it more from a well-run company where you can learn from the most senior people in the company, versus going to a crappily-run company that has certain characteristics that you’re looking for – like that they do e-commerce, or that they’re a department store.
Do you have any tips for how to hit the ground running in corporate, besides losing some of that corporate jargon?
We do something that I think is terrific, and other companies may not have this degree of flexibility, but we really tell people not to try to make an impact for the first three months. That’s really difficult for consultants who are used to the “I have to add value” mindset, and it’s anxiety-producing to wonder “what do I have to show for myself after three months.” But in reality, there are so many things you think make sense when you first come in, but once you learn more about the company, they either don’t make sense, or you can be more influential because you have more context. So we encourage new hires to meet as many people as possible, learn as much as they can about the business, go work in stores, go with the merchants out buying, or whatever is analogous to another industry, and keep track of all the questions and thoughts that you think you want to come back to later as you make an impact. But don’t try to do it in the first three months, because you may only have one shot at certain projects. The other thing is, don’t hire anyone in the first three months unless you absolutely need to because you’ll learn much more about who is going to be successful in the culture. That’s the opposite of your “hitting the ground running” question, but to me, it’s really worth going slow to go fast. I, and many other people are just chomping at the bit, and that can be a disservice.
Also, I started working with an executive coach about nine months after I started at Ross, which was really helpful for me. I knew how to be successful at BCG, but it was less obvious how people saw me at Ross, how to be successful at Ross, and how to get rid of all of that consultant jargon. That was a really helpful experience for me. It was also a weird experience, because I thought, “Does this mean that I’m not doing as well as I could?” but in reality it was more like, “Let’s invest in making this transition from being a consultant into industry as successful as possible so that Delaney can have a long run here.”
You have multiple Managers, Senior Managers, Directors, Senior Directors, and VPs on your expanded Strategy team. What separates a Director from a Senior Director? What must one do in the interviews to show he or she is at the Senior Director level versus Director or is it purely tenure-based?
Well, I’d say it’s first based on tenure. But then many people are on that line. And you look at things like two people might be a Principal at BCG, but one person has prior work experience and is much more experienced in his or her career overall. We don’t have a grid showing that someone who graduated in year X is therefore at Y level.
A Senior Director at Ross is a very senior role. We don’t hire a Senior Director unless we think that person could be one of the future SVPs of the company. It’s a very high bar. So we’re looking at them in the way that we look at our VPs and ask, can they have a one-on-one conversation with our CEO? We wouldn’t expect Directors to be able to do that. You can just tell that in people’s maturity, and whether their dialogue is strategic and back-and-forth, and whether they ask good questions. The number of years someone spent in consulting can be very influential. There is a difference between a Junior Principal and a Senior Principal in terms of the number of years of experience they’ve had presenting and facilitating conversations with senior leaders.