A LETTER FROM BOB SLANE

The following letter was addressed to new consultants at Mitchell Madison Group in April 1996. Its author Bob Slane is a Director at the firm and a seasoned consultant

Dear Colleagues,

Consulting is a challenging and demanding profession that begins with little individual control and influence. Often travel schedules are predetermined, as well as client settings, team structure and problem definition. It is frustrating to think back on all those years of academic effort and excellence and then to feel as if you're starting all over again.

Furthermore, the environment is no Disney World. Well, at least not in the positive sense. For example, many clients are difficult, testy and unreasonable. Engagement managers are under significant time pressures, and partners frequently turn up the heat in an effort to exceed the clients' already unrealistic expectations.

If one has been in this profession long enough, there are numerous stories one can recount to exemplify the frustrations of consulting. Probably the most difficult client situation I experienced was the time I consulted to Sperry & Hutchinson Green Stamps. The corporate office asked me to visit their seven furniture subsidiaries and review and revise the strategic plans of each. I was a McKinsey engagement manager at the time, but I was assigned no team because of the tight client budget.

I recall my visit to the first company, located in Kenbridge, Tennessee. It took two days to travel there -- and that was by airplane. Upon arriving, I rented a car and stopped at the only gas station in town. In addition to directions, I asked the attendant for a good place to eat dinner. His reply was "home." I told him home was two days away by air, and he pointed to the sandwich machine at the side of the building.

That was just the beginning. When I arrived at the furniture manufacturer and told the CEO who I was and why I was there, he informed me that he was not interested; I believe his exact words were 'Go home.' Although this suggestion had definite appeal, I used all my powers of persuasion. I went so for as to throw myself at his mercy, explaining I might lose my job if I didn't come back with something, and that I had a wife and three young children to support. Well, I must have hit a nerve since he allowed me to conduct a review of their strategy.

I remember calling home and telling my wife that I sure was glad I had gotten an MBA from a prestigious university so I could join an elite firm like McKinsey. This, of course, enabled me to travel to such exotic places as Kenbridge, Tennessee where I would conduct an audit of a furniture company and eat dinner out of a sandwich machine. Needless to say, I told my friends I was consulting with the CEO of a major corporation in the southeast region of the country.

It was at that time that I began wondering what I was doing in consulting. Oh sure, I could recount the brochure benefits as well as the next per-son - the variety of problem solving opportunities, the excellent colleagues, the unstructured environment, the team approach, the great compensation... There is no question, consulting provides a steep learning curve, but you can pay an awfully high price, especially in stress, for the experience. And, I'm not sure lithium is my drug of choice.

However, there is a path that can provide the benefits with minimal suffering. This path is not pulp fiction, even though "the path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.' It is the road where one strives to achieve personal excellence which can allow you to transcend institutional barriers to personal freedom. The first step is to ask yourself if consulting is the right fit for your set of skills and temperament. This is a difficult question to answer honestly as it has nothing to do with overall talent.

Finding this answer will help you in deciding which track to follow. One option is to do the work that meets expectations, complain about the environment and seek sustenance elsewhere. The other path is to strive for personal excellence, with the purpose of achieving personal freedom and transcending the environment.

It is only through personal excellence that this profession becomes truly enjoyable. Those who demonstrate superior skills gain personal control early in their careers. These individuals are in such demand that, at any point in time, they have numerous options to choose from. They typically become engagement managers sooner, and tend to set the pace for their teams. Through their intellectual leadership they gain respect from the clients, the partners and their teammates. In a business world where institutional loyalty is rare, the individual needs to excel and generate his or her own marketability. The result is that the institution needs the individual, not the reverse.

Over the years, I have observed that unfriendly clients become attentive when listening to people of excellence because their contribution is unique. Those who achieve excellence feel great about themselves and are more likely to find the consulting experience a path to fulfillment. The financial rewards become window dressing and the high of the experience becomes the drug of first choice.

I have read that happiness is the ability to enjoy the passing of time. If you believe that, then choosing the right path is fundamental to your well being. So I would suggest not to measure yourself against the per-son who just made it over the bar. Identify those you admire and set the bar at your own personal goal. Success is a measure from within and a healthy environment is predicated on individual excellence.