Updated: Sep 10, 2019
From the series: Drive or be Driven: How to manage your career like a consultant
A number of consulting firms are finishing their annual review periods.
We're going to pull back the curtain on how this process works in consulting and how you can apply the good, the bad, and the ugly, to help manage your career proactively.
Even if you aren't a consultant, you'll pick up some healthy tips and advice that have been learned over 20 years in consulting for organizations like Deloitte, KPMG, and Accenture.
Let's start with some context. Every year, consulting firms rank their staff top to bottom. The top 5%, next 15%, middle 60%, below average 15%, and bottom 5%. The lion's share of the rewards are for the top 5 and 15%. These individuals get healthy salary increases and bonuses.
The firms typically use salary bands, setting minimum salary and maximum salary numbers for each level. For example, a consultant is trying to get promoted to Manager. Their years at level are monitored, as well as their place in the salary band. Getting passed over and reaching the top of the band indicates that you're going to get fired, so you are "counseled out."
Counseled out is a fancy way of saying that you are put onto a performance improvement plan, given crummy assignments, or frozen out until you decide to leave. This is what the firms call managed attrition and the general target each year is approximately 10%. That means 1 out of every 10 people you encounter will choose to leave on a yearly basis.
There are a lot of problems with this model. It creates a cutthroat culture, people hoard information, avoid sharing credit, and places a premium on sales talent rather than delivery talent. The reason that Partners at Big 4 firms tend to be above the fray is that they demonstrated an ability to sell more work, not necessarily be technical experts. I've known a number of brilliant women and men who were drummed out because they couldn't sell. To be honest, it's the part of the business that I hate the most.
Now that you have some context, we can dig into using this darwinian process to your advantage, even if you're not in consulting.
What are your accomplishments?
In your calendar, set aside an hour to capture your accomplishments. People often set annual goals that are forgotten until the week before performance reviews are due. You spend the next few days scrambling to remember what you did. It's kind of dispiriting when you can't remember.
Make the time to remember what you accomplished and what you wanted to accomplish each month. This way, you can make sure to get the training that you wanted on the schedule, you can have a conversation with your supervisor about how you're doing, and you can build onto a strong self-assessment over time while the memory is fresh.
Categorize Your Accomplishments
Divide your accomplishments into three rough categories.
Business Driver, Value Creator, Thought Leader.
At Accenture, this was the category for work that created revenue or drove more customers to us. Working on marketing, securing customers, hitting your sales targets, even if they were in support roles, all helped drive revenues. More experienced employees are writing and signing contracts. That's pretty easy to do the math and add up the value of the deals that you brought into the organization.
More junior staff have a harder time with this, but your client experiences, customers that trust you and "buy" from you, or written customer feedback build the case for a strong rating in this space. If you have a customer who gives you a compliment, ask them to send a note in writing to your supervisor. Most are happy to do it. If you do not own that moment and ask, the people that matter (your bosses) will not know.
Generating more customers or revenue are only part of the equation. What did you do to make life better, more efficient, or faster for your business? Simply doing your job is fine, but in the consulting space, the top performers are actively making the organization better.
On our engagements, this means that we're looking for ways to reuse what has been built for other clients. This saves our current clients money and helps them apply leading practices from other industries or innovators. Clients hire us with the expectation that we're not making it up as we go along. Each month, tally the things that you did to make your job and the jobs of your colleagues easier.
Did you write up a simply way to fix a common customer complaint and post it onto the wiki? How many hours of support calls did that self help article stop from happening? Your contributions in this space are the life blood of most companies. Often underappreciated compared to sales, make a financial connection to time saved and avoided costs.
For your math, assume 1,960 hours of productive employee time a year. Assume $40 - $70 an hour as the average loaded cost for a mid-career employee. That includes the hourly rate as well as benefits, healthcare, vacation. That data will help you get started. Saving 40 hours of work is $1,600 to the bottom line.
This category is for big thinking and keeping an eye on industry trends. A good way to think about this is through the old adage that horse and buggy companies were not in the horse and buggy business, they were in the transportation business. A failure to see the larger trends towards locomotives and automobiles put them out of business. Amazon is wreaking havoc on the retail and logistics industries. Do you think that they will be content to own those product categories? What about payments and financial services? What about technology consulting?
Tying financial benefits to this category is difficult. Blog views, conference presentations, papers written and read, and social media engagement are some ways to quantify awareness and your ability to be perceived as a trusted advisor or partner. Behind the scenes, are you helping the organization anticipate and innovate?
If you work for a retailer, are you reading Wired, Fast Company, Twitter, or Gartner to understand what Amazon and Wal Mart are doing in your sector? Are you reading articles about Stitch Fix, StockX, or TheRealReal? How are you translating these to your business or your career? This means that you're looking outside of your day to day grind to make yourself and your company better. This indicates that you are focusing on a career, not just a job.
Remember that hitting all three of these categories is extraordinarily hard. Taking a few hours a month, on your calendar, to reflect on what you want to do and what you've accomplished will make your annual process easier, give you confidence to advocate for yourself, and provide a thick stack of evidence to support your case as a strong contributor and valuable employee.