*At the time of this interview Jeff was a Senior Operating Executive at Cerberus Capital Management.
What skills should work on while still in consulting for later in their careers?
When thinking about the skills I’ve used from consulting, I can identify three things I think really add value later on in a career that consultants should focus on while they’re in the role. One of the things that really stuck with me was the specific tool set that comes with experience across all consulting firms – the analytical tools to calculate relative market share, know how to look at industries and companies, etc. The second has to do more with how you think, and really being a “problem solver.” It sounds silly and simple to a consultant, but when you go into an industry role, people aren’t solving complex problems every day – they are busy doing their other jobs. The third is how you go about solving the problem – knowing how to break it into component parts and providing project management through it. I’ve worked on some projects where different teams are overwhelmed, and sometimes someone can really add value just by breaking it down and developing work plans around it.
A lot of our visitors want to jump right into a P&L role as they leave consulting, passing on strategy roles to pursue the GM jobs. Having transitioned from consulting into an internal strategy role yourself, and do you have any thoughts on this approach?
I think the first decision point consultants need to make is where they want to end up – they really need to think about what they want to get out of their experience. I’ve had friends go down the more consultant-like career paths in M&A, business development, and strategic planning roles. They decided to do strategy inside a company and have had great careers. Also, strategy roles shouldn’t be discounted, because they can be the best or only entrée into a company. Having said that, if they decide they really do want a GM role (everyone wants this), they should go into an operational position right away if they can. Marketing is actually a great way to do this, because it is complex and there are a lot of pieces to it.
A point, though – I really think people get too hung up on the P&L ownership thing. Big companies like Dell organize themselves by function a lot of the time, and people with P&L are there because points of contact are needed – they don’t actually manage or run an entire organization. What consultants are really after is something like in PE firms, where you really are dealing with all of the components. With P&L, consultants just need to realize the very low probability that they will go into a C-Level job right away – they often assume this because, through the function of consulting, they have been interacting on a level with clients that will likely be higher than when they switch out.
When we’re recruiting someone from a consulting firm for a position like yours (usually someone at the Junior Partner or Partner level), some will say that they don’t see the difference between the two opportunities. Having been in both environments, how do you feel a PE role is different from a consulting role?
There are definitely some similarities in the roles – using the consulting tool set, being a good communicator, etc. The main difference is that, in consulting, you refer to companies as “clients.” In PE, we refer to them as “our companies.” It makes a difference in what you do and how you do it. While many management consulting firms will deny it, at the end of the day their product is a recommendation that comes in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. And I’ve done that before. In what I do now, I barely ever use PowerPoint presentations. I’ll get a 6-month project for a company and I have a revenue target – that’s my product.
Several of the other large private equity firms have groups comparable to the one you work in today. Do you have a sense for how much variation there is among roles such as yours?
It used to not be the case, but most PE firms do have internal ops groups now, and there are some differences. One big difference in the roles within these groups is a function of size. Some firms have large internal groups and some firms have small ones – this impacts what you do. At Cerberus we have a large group, are deployed in teams, and have more project-oriented assignments. For smaller groups, one person can be deployed on a project where the role takes on a more advisory / consultative approach. This point brings me to the second difference – the business model. Cerberus hardly ever uses outside consultants because we go to the site and actually manage the projects ourselves. For firms with smaller ops groups, the role someone plays is more about identifying improvement needs and the right external consulting firm to implement the necessary changes, and then managing those external consultants.
As an operations executive at leading PE firm Cerberus, what do you like best about your current job?
The variety of companies and business situations I am able to work with – I’ve worked with a gun manufacturer, a paper producer, a software company, etc., in situations from bankruptcy to ones with high growth targets.
You previously led marketing for the $14 billion EMEA region of Dell Inc. Did you anticipate a role like the one you had when you joined the company? How influential do you think your international experience has been to your success, and what advice do you have for consultants considering international roles?
I didn’t go into Dell with expectations either way, but when the opportunity arose, it wasn’t necessarily something that I had anticipated. It happened quickly, I accepted quickly, and it was a fantastic professional and personal experience. I learned that stereotypes are true for some reasons, and completely wrong for other reasons. It’s much like when consultants transition to an outside company and are really excited – they then find out that the real world is very messy. They do not have the support like they did in consulting, with all of the facts and people who would work all hours of the night to get a project done. It can be a surprise.