You spent eleven years in consulting, seven of those at A.T. Kearney. Can you share some thoughts on why you stayed with the firm 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 A.T. Kearney? If not, what elements of your consulting career / experiences put you on the Partner path?
I came in and initially thought I would do it for a couple of years and then exit into industry, then a couple of things happened. One, the pace of my career path kept me in the game. There was always the promise of another level of seniority, another bump in compensation, and another set of challenges. I could have more smart people under me filling in the blanks as I engaged with clients and helped innovate and structure solutions to problems. So as I got closer to the Partner point, I felt like I was absorbed in a broad array of things, many of which were things that really interested me. I felt like I had entrepreneurial control of what I wanted to do, and I felt like I was learning a lot. I think that’s why I stayed.
At the same time, I think as I was nearing Partner – and even as a Principal – I did start having some desire to pursue an alternate career path outside of consulting. And the truth is that I didn’t find something that I found really compelling until I was into my second year as a Partner, and I took it when it came. Part of that was an impact of the job market in 2009-2012. If the types of opportunities I saw toward the end of my consulting career had popped up earlier, it’s possible that I would have taken the leap earlier.
We’ve seen numerous talented consulting Principals pass on external opportunities because of a prospective Partner promotion, only to be passed over and have the timeline extend another 12-18 months. What type of Project Leader or Principal ought to stay on and shoot for the Partner role? What type should not?
My perspective is that the consulting career development track is geared to focus on Partnership as a prize. It is not geared to having you sit back and look at your professional and personal life and decide what is right for you at that particular moment in your career. My strong recommendation for any Principal would be that very early in your Principal career, you should conduct that assessment and decide where you want to be in the near future, and what makes sense for you both professionally and personally.
If you conduct that assessment and you want to be a Partner, then the difference of that 18 months in the spectrum of your career is irrelevant. If you ultimately see that your future is outside of consulting, in my experience the industry perceives zero difference between a first-year Principal and a third-year Principal. If you want to go to industry, you might as well go as soon as you’ve made Principal. If you want to make Partner, the twelve-month bump sounds frustrating, but if ultimately you’re going to be a Partner for ten or twenty years, it doesn’t seem like it should matter all that much. That being said, I was fast-tracked to every promotion I had, so maybe that makes it easy to say that. But as Principals have come to me to discuss their careers, that’s the direction I’ve given.
In your experience, how can one take optimism out of the equation and really assess his/her chances at Partner (are there any signs one might see to let him/her know that it isn’t going to be a fit or possibility)?
I was always very direct with A.T. Kearney, and basically said, “Look, here is when I expect to make Partner. There is no up-or-out model here, but I see it as an up-or-out. If you don’t want me as a Partner on the basis of the performance I’ve laid out, then let’s just agree that you don’t want me as a Partner and I’ll go do something else.” I had that conversation a year-and-a-half out with a number of different people, and it wasn’t menacing or threatening. It was just, “Let’s be honest, here’s the performance, I believe it is Partner-level work. Either I’m totally delusional and you need to bring me back down to earth; or it is Partner-level work but you’re unwilling to make me a Partner for some other reason; or it is Partner-level work and at that point let’s just call it what it is.” Maybe others don’t have that conversation. It is also possible they aren’t in the position of strength to have that conversation – I had a strong track record.
But at the end of the day, becoming a Partner is not a promotion. Becoming a Partner is an election. And that’s true everywhere. There needs to be a core group of Partners who are saying, visibly, audibly, to other Partners, that they believe you should be their peer.
What were the best things about the Partner role for you?
I don’t think that the Partner role was any different than what I would’ve expected beforehand, but talking about it and then living it were different things. There are three major pros. One is compensation, clearly – both immediate compensation and the promise of future compensation. The second is status. Being on the top of your profession and being acknowledged for that means something, and actually is harder to walk away from than I had expected, though I never thought of myself as somebody who was all that involved in the trappings of being a Partner. The third pro is flexibility. This differs depending on your firm, but at A.T. Kearney, in general, you don’t have to be on the ground every day delivering things as a Partner. There will be spikes where you have to be, but if you are regularly sitting over the shoulder of execution teams, you are probably not being an effective Partner and you are not enabling your teams to be effective teams. You have to let them execute and forge the relationships and do the right things, even if that means they sometimes make a mistake. The flexibility you ultimately get is quite great. You can find yourself with a Tuesday where you don’t necessarily have to be anywhere. You have some work to do – and there is always work to do – but you have flexibility. If you are someone who can enjoy that, and you are somebody who is able to take advantage of that flexibility when it comes up unpredictably, that’s a great thing.
Along with the pros of being a Partner at a top consulting firm come the rumored cons. What were the worst things about the role for you?
One is that the stress level is, in some ways, much greater. I think this differs from firm to firm, but one of the things that is talked about among some of the Partners that I know is that when you’re a Principal the phone rings all the time. All of the Partners want you to help make their business pursuits and projects successful. A weird thing that happens is a lot of that phone ringing stops when you make Partner. You’re another mouth to feed. You’re someone who potentially shares the credit if you’re brought in, and you’re certainly someone who burns through budget if you start showing up on the ground every day. There are many people who continue to see you as a collaborator, but there are some others who now see you as a bit of a threat. The phone rings less.
You’re primarily accountable for business development in a way that may not be entirely clear to you how to do. The business development process is one that is much more long-term, non-linear, and intangible in its interim results than the type of work product you’ve traditionally been used to at this point. You’re used to projects with a timeline, deliverables, and a conclusion, as opposed to, “I’ve had all of these conversations, and at some point, I will be positioned to pursue a business opportunity when it comes up.”
Sometimes business development is just a bunch of conversations to help people that you like and respect think through problems. You’re investing time thinking through things, talking to people, meeting them, talking about their issues, and trying to be helpful in a way that you believe they’ll pick up the phone as opportunities come up for them to work with you. There’s no way to pressure sell consulting services. You’re just trying to be helpful in an authentic way. And you just have to trust that will pay dividends. I think that most Partners feel anxiety about whether it’s paying dividends their entire career. That insecurity is an inherent part of being Partner, and it follows most Partners for most of their career. A year and a half into being Partner, I was finally seeing the point at which I was an independent driver of business, with no need to rely on other Partners, though with a strong interest in partnering with them as a peer. The seeds that I had planted were going to bear fruit over a five- to ten-year period, and I was going to continue to plant seeds throughout that period. But the stress of that process is the second big con.
The third con is the inconsistency and unpredictability of the work and the travel. When you’re a Manager, you know you’re going to this client for 3-4 months, 3-4 days per week. Maybe you’ll have times when you’re traveling to multiple client locations. My experience as a Partner was finding out on Thursday that you have to be somewhere else in the world on Tuesday. The client doesn’t care what you’re leaving when you do that, or whether you had other client commitments that you now have to fill simultaneously – you’re just going.
So from a quality of life standpoint, on the one hand, I had these newfound points of flexibility. I’m a competitive triathlete. I’ve raced in a couple of national championship triathlons. I loved the fact that there would be a random Wednesday where I didn’t have to be in until 10:00 and I could go for a 45-mile bike ride.
Who hasn’t done that on a Wednesday morning, right?
I mean, it’s awesome! You’re getting Partner compensation and can go on a 45-mile bike ride on a Wednesday morning! But on the other hand, I was constantly having this conversation with my wife: “Can you meet our friends for dinner on Tuesday?” “I don’t know.” “When are you going to be home tonight?” “I don’t know.” “Can we make plans to see your mother in a month?” “I don’t know.” And at some point that gets so taxing on your quality of life. For me, that overrode the benefits of flexibility. And that unpredictability skyrockets as a Partner.
As a Partner, you continued to train for triathlons. How did you balance that?
I’ve tried to stay a competitive athlete throughout my consulting career. I always saw it as a priority. I trained five or six days a week. As long as I can get 5 hours of sleep, I’d rather train for an hour than sleep for an extra hour and fifteen minutes. It will make me more levelheaded, it will make my mind clearer, it will help me focus, it will help me burn off steam… I would rather train for an hour than go to a team dinner. I would rather train for an hour and if it means I have to take a slightly later flight home, so be it. Once you make it a priority, you find ways to fit it in.
How did you learn about the opportunity at Gap?
It happened pretty quickly. The immediate cause of the conversation with Gap was that A.T. Kearney went to engage with Gap on a business development pursuit. As a secondary consequence of that, I struck up a relationship with an A.T. Kearney alum who, at that point, was Head of Strategy for Gap. And that conversation, which I initially saw as a business development relationship, transitioned into a job opportunity.
At that point the job market had started to heat up, and I had been approached by three former clients for job opportunities at the same time, and the net result got me thinking seriously about what I wanted to find outside of consulting.
What made the opportunity at Gap so much more appealing than the other opportunities?
One, it was apparel retail. Some of the others were not, and that was the area where I feel the most passionate. If I wanted to learn the apparel retail business, what better place than Gap? If you look at the number of people in leadership positions of other companies who are Gap alums, it feels like Gap is sort of the Harvard MBA of the apparel world. So it feels like an incredible place to learn the ropes.
Two, I felt like Gap was in a very interesting time in its history, where it had struggled as of late and was in a cathartic moment both for its business model and for its brand. I felt I could really play a strong role in determining whether it could succeed in that critical moment.
Three, I met most of a brand new leadership team and was very much energized by the way they engaged with each other, their view of the business, their honesty about the issues they had, and their honesty about the changes that would have to be made and the difficulty of doing that, both from a business perspective and from a cultural perspective. I was also energized by their level of interest and investment in seeing me grow, not just as a strategist, but as a talent within the business to help drive the business as I got to know how it was run.
Part of the frustration I always had with consulting is that even for the best clients I’ve ever had, a great brand and a great retailer will only let a consultant so far into the company. The nature of the brand, the product… they may let you touch a piece of it, but you won’t get to drive it. My first hour of my first day at Gap, I was brought in for an HR orientation. I was pulled out of that meeting 45 minutes in because I was told I really needed to come into another meeting.
I was then thrown into the middle of an initiative to redefine the essence and DNA of the Gap brand, to focus that DNA more squarely on the consumer that it sought to capture. They did so through a visual and strategic branding exercise that immediately put me in a room with a set of communications people, apparel design people, and marketing creative people, building that sort of visual identity with things like mood boards and imagery to define what the brand was, what it stood for, and what it was not. And that’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. Even if I had participated in small pieces in the course of my consulting career, I had never done so with the level of empowerment of which I saw myself in my second hour at Gap.
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?
It’s really, really important to seek your own definition of success. I was thinking about taking this job at Gap, and I was a bit hesitant because the compensation was a little lower, the esteem of being a Partner would be gone, and I’d have to put all my suits in storage (laughs). I had just become a Partner and I was going to make all this money, I was going to fly around the world, I was going to get all these clients… I just started building this list of all of the things I had been told. At some point I had to sit down and really define what success meant for me. Gap was slightly lower compensation. I wasn’t going to have as large a team. But I had to define success for myself. Success for myself professionally meant diving into this industry I was really passionate about, and having access to – and driving – solutions focused on the consumer. And that’s really what infatuates me.
I could sit in a mall for hours and watch people go through that mall, and think about why they acknowledged one sign over another, or why they chose to go into that store over another. I could sit and watch the way that a person goes into a store, looks across a set of merchandise, and at some point wants to reach out and touch a folded garment on a shelf. I’m interested in the ways in which touching becomes picking up, and ultimately becomes buying. At what point do they check the price? I’m infatuated with all of that, and that was a priority for me professionally. Being able to tell my wife when I was going to be home at night was another big priority for me. And ultimately, when we choose to start a family, being able to be a father in the way that I’d like to be was a really big priority for me.
There were all these other things that I ultimately decided were other people’s definition of success. While hard to part with, they were ultimately not the things that were going to make me happy. They were the things that were going to surround me with the trappings of happiness. So the advice I have is, one of the hardest but most important things for a Principal or a Partner thinking of leaving consulting is to step outside of the consulting rat race in which they find themselves, and really define for themselves what’s important to them.
By the way, I know people for whom it is really important to wear amazing suits and make sure they are in luxury hotels on their vacations, and that makes them really happy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. And there are people who are true consulting workaholics, in the most non-pejorative sense, who love flying around the world and making deals, and shaking hands, and making business happen, sometimes irrelevant of what the topic is. And those people are made for consulting and would be miserable doing what I do.
I think it’s really about defining what’s going to make you happy, and separating yourself from all of the things you are being told about how to define your happiness.