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The Consultant’s Dilemma

It’s not always easy to get people on your side as a consultant.  You come in willing to work your rear off, but there’s a high likelihood that you either encounter a tough client, don’t get your recommendations implemented, or both.

I mentioned in my previous post that in the early stages of my experience here at Sprint, I met with several people from managers to VPs in order to pitch my project purpose and approach.  I was always introduced 1) as an MBA student from Notre Dame and 2) as an aspiring consultant.  While 1) was already tough to bear (assumption: interns don’t know anything), 2) was even worse.  100% of the time I found it necessary to follow up the introduction with a background of the 6 ½ years that I’ve spent in telecom, after which I gained acceptance.  Why was I encountering this resistance?  One person I met with said that “they come in with their fancy degrees, but they don’t contribute anything.”  Another told me specifically not to mention the name of a high profile consulting firm when pitching to other executives.  So why the hostility?

I prodded co-workers further to understand why there is such friction, and now I have a foggy background on my consultants aren’t received well.  Earlier, when cash was flowing a bit more at Sprint, consulting teams from various high-profile firms would come in, make a few recommendations, and then leave.  The decks that the teams created, while nicely done and well-researched, spent most of their time collecting dust on executives’ desks.  They never got implemented.

What’s the answer?  Though I can’t adequately answer that question at the moment because I’m currently straddling the line between consultant and industry expert, I do have a starting point.  I believe the answer is twofold:

  1. Consulting is a people business.  It’s about selling YOU.  Whether it’s doing business, making friends, or even picking up that attractive person at the bar, selling YOU is about displaying your value to the other person.  Find what sort of things about you that the client values and show how you fit into your work.  For me and my Sprint co-workers, it was about the time I spent at both Alcatel and T-Mobile.  I got respected more after they knew that I was “one of them” rather than some know-it-all from academia.  Adequately communicating your value will help get you to point #2.
  2. Participation is the greatest contributor to getting buy-in.  Ivan Raisel talks about this point in The McKinsey Way and a number of consulting books talk about it.  However, I don’t think it is quite emphasized enough.  What’s the point of detailed financial models, deep customer analyses, and beautifully crafted Powerpoint decks if they don’t get implemented?  Strategies will likely fail if completed in a silo, and participation helps mitigate this problem.

While I certainly don’t believe that there is an easy way to be a great consultant, I do think that this is a great place to start.  It can be hard to provide creative and sustainable recommendations even if you have the brightest minds at your disposal.  That being said, even with all of perceived futility that I see above, Sprint continues to hire consultants to provide creative insight and take on various tasks that they are unable to do themselves.

Summer Internship Update: Huron Consulting Group

New career, new city, new lifestyle – this summer has introduced quite a bit of “new” in a very short period of time.

As a Summer MBA Associate at the Huron Consulting Group, I’ve been assigned a client project in the Higher Education Consulting group as well as an internal strategy project. The client project involves overhauling one of the largest university research organizations in the world. Due to university research budget cutbacks linked to the financial meltdown, my particular role is helping to realign the strategic direction of the transformation to these new economic realities.

My internal strategy project is evaluating future product opportunities for particular markets. While I can’t divulge too many details, I can say the research and analysis I’m doing is incredibly exciting and will have an immediate impact on the firm’s overall strategy.

If that sounds like a whole lot of work for just ten weeks, it is. As a consultant in training, one of the biggest skills I’ve developed this summer is being able to absorb an absurd amount of information as quickly as possible on an entirely new topic. For those of you considering a career in consulting, developing expertise on a subject quickly is paramount to becoming a successful consultant.

As a matter of fact, a good litmus test for aspiring consultants is gauging whether the concept of jumping blindly into a new challenge scares you or excites you. If you are among the latter, consulting may be the path for you.

While Huron provides world-class training and support services, I still find myself frequently pulling from the knowledge gained in my first year as a Notre Dame MBA. Whether it is Mannor’s strategy diagrams, Bartkus’s customer-value analysis, or Sarv’s statistics workbooks, the lessons learned in my first year as an ND MBA are referenced in my work nearly every day.

Sprint – A Month In

 “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” — Wayne Dyer

First, a little bit about myself – I’m a 2013 MBA candidate and a former telecommunications engineer from one of the telecom hotbeds of the world, Dallas, TX.  Outside of the four years I spent at my alma mater, Texas A&M, I had lived in the Dallas area my entire life prior to attending Notre Dame.  Thinking that I had learned enough the wireless industry, I went to get my MBA with the full intention of getting out of telecom, but unfortunately I am just too attracted to technology.  The telecommunications industry moves rapidly, so not only does it take a tremendous amount of operational talent to keep the technology working, it takes a tremendous amount of innovative talent to envision and pursue new opportunities.  The former is what I was doing for six years prior to the MBA; the latter is what brought me to Sprint.

Sprint is an interesting company – it hasn’t been profitable in quite a while, and its recent history is littered with mistakes and bad bets.  Indirectly, that’s actually how I got here.  Dan Hesse, who took over after a failed tenure from the previous CEO, is a Notre Dame graduate.  A few years ago a program was formed to attract MBA students from the schools that he went to in addition to a few select others (Cornell, Northwestern, Chicago, and Michigan are the other schools besides Notre Dame).  The program gives myself and the other two Notre Dame interns here a tremendous amount of visibility and opportunity.  While every intern experience is different, I was able to essentially choose the area in which I wanted to work and select the project myself.  I’ve found myself in the Product Marketing team, specifically on the consumer side.  I have a hard time defining what the team does, but it’s a group that will swing  from traditional marketing operations to product development in the span of a couple of meetings.  My boss explains what product marketing is a little bit better here.

This past week marked the end of my first month at Sprint.  I can’t talk too much about my project due to my non-disclosure agreement, but I can say that because I told everyone I wanted to be a consultant, it is very strategic in nature.  The idea for the project was formed a few months prior to my start date, but my arrival gave it the gravity and resources needed to get the ball rolling.  Perfect timing.

Rusty: You’d need at least a dozen guys doing a combination of cons.
Danny: Like what, do you think?
Rusty: Off the top of my head, I’d say you’re looking at a Boeski, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever.

— Ocean’s 11

The first week consisted of getting acclimated to the company but also forming the framework and timeline by which we were going to create our strategy.  Week two was spent recruiting members of various teams in the company to join in our collaborative effort.  Honestly, that part felt like I was starring in the telecom version of “Ocean’s 11” – my partner and I met with managers individually to describe and discuss the project idea and framework, hoping we could sell them on the importance of the effort and the need for one of their team members to take part.  A couple of the managers were pretty skeptical, but the need for our work was very relevant for their teams.  Fortunately, we did a good enough job to get 100% participation from every team we wanted.

The last two weeks have been spent forming our problem statement and creating an issue tree, much like I learned in the Problem Solving course taught by Professor Bartkus.  Unlike the generalists found in many consulting teams, my project team consists of industry and functional experts with many years of experience.  With this type of team, discussions are extremely detailed and passionate, leading to very large issue trees (and thus, research to be completed!).  It can be tough to direct all of these minds into a singular effort but not rope everyone in so much as to stunt their creativity.  Over the two weeks in this part of the project however, the group chemistry evolved into a well-oiled machine.  We ended up blowing a huge whole in our original problem statement and had to form a new one.

It is important to note here about the importance that quick wins make on project momentum.  The project team was excited about the findings of the two weeks of effort, but none of that means much unless the folks with higher pay grades buy in to what we’re doing.  My partner and I recently went discussing our project to various teams again, this time to levels above our previous meetings.  We’re getting buy-in very early from executive management, and bringing this news back to the team has added new vigor to the discussions.  People can see the fruits of their labor.

We still have more work to do in the weeks ahead, but I’m excited to see where this all leads!


The End

Tomorrow will mark my last day of work at Ikamva Labantu and I have to say that it has been a fantastic experience.  When I headed into this internship, I had some reservations about the rigor of the work and how I was going to talk to it in interviews.  I hoped I would be able to find the same job satisfaction I had felt working at an NGO previously but I couldn’t be sure.  In both cases, my fears were unfounded.  The work itself was deeply satisfying, especially the personal connections we developed with the people in the organization and townships.  We were lucky to walk into a situation with an NGO where the recently appointed CEO, Janine, came from a business background, primarily with SAB and Standard Bank.  Jovana, our project manager, also had a keen eye for business and prepared a project that she knew would take on added dimensions as we did the work.  Starting with a task to devise impact measures for a single sector, Holly & I wound up working in long strategy sessions with different sectors and uncovering a situation not unlike one that many businesses would face.  Imagine a business unit that keeps hitting their numbers but you hear rumblings that something may be rotten (or even a whole company like Enron).  After investigating, you find out they’ve been “cooking the books” and that while it is not completely rotten, it is, in fact, quite dysfunctional.  This is what was happening at Ikamva.

What was most interesting to me about the situation is that everyone seemed to know exactly what the problems were.  We conducted interviews with 20+ people and aside from the sector head, each person had a firm grasp on part of the problem.  As it turned out we weren’t telling them anything they didn’t already know, yet, the organization had done nothing about it!  After discussing this with the CEO I came to understand that often times that is the situation; people know what’s wrong but either they can’t do anything about it or they need someone with credentials to come in and back them up.  That’s one service consultant’s can provide.  I was astounded by this revelation.  It’s not in my own personality to see something that is so clearly in need of improvement and just let it sit there so it’s hard for me to see how others do it.  Yet I too have worked at companies where I think “how on earth can this place possibly still be in business?”.  Often times it seems that companies succeed despite themselves while good companies die on the vine.  Go figure.

So what else did I learn this summer?  I found my business “soul” again and re-learned what it is I want to do when I “grow up”.  That is probably the best take away for me.  I also found out that I can, in fact, work as a consultant and be quite successful at it.  That gives me great confidence going into the recruiting process.  This summer I’ve spent time trying to work on “soft skills” like dealing with inter-personal issues with your working group.  There were times this summer that Holly & I were frustrated with each other but by acknowledging the issues and visibly working on them, we ended up running as a well-oiled machine.  I will never forget the meeting in which we seemed to be in perfect stride with each other, handing off conversations during a meeting in such a way that we might as well have been one person, one mind.  That’s the sort of thing that really gets me fired up and I’m excited to be part of such teams in the future.  I’ve also spent a lot of time absorbing the way people work and trying to bring skills I see in others into myself as a way of learning and growing.

I guess I got off on a bit of a tangent there and I should probably speak to what has been happening the last three weeks.  After working up strategy options for the next 6 months, we wanted to sit down and a get a handle on who exactly the customers we had were and how bad of a shape they were in.  It turned out the data just wasn’t available.  Case files typically had entries from pre 2010 meaning they weren’t up to date or current in any way.  We found out that they were using 2 different systems to track people and between them there was probably an accurate picture but there was no way to construct it.  In the end we decided that we had to start from scratch and audit all of the 292 households in the program.  Seizing this as an opportunity to put some best-practices into action, Holly & I (but mostly Holly) put together a list of questions that were important because they indicated issues or could be used to set goals.  From these questions, a list of data points was figured and then a survey form was constructed.  Holly worked with her fiancé to put together an Excel database that would enable Ikamva to track the data as it came in and start creating action items from concrete data.  To make sure the survey was complete, we beta-tested it on 5 people at an area forum meeting (more on that later).  Preliminary results showed that we were on the right track.  For example, in a household where both parents were HIV+, 5 children between the ages of 2 and 11 had not been tested!  The in-office healthcare specialist was keen to get hold of this so he could get them tested right away.  It felt good to know that we were having an immediate impact with our work.  As a wrap-up, we worked out an action plan detailing the people that were needed, the systems needed, and the processes that would be required to make the audit a success.  After presenting this to the CEO and program coordinator, we handed the work off to them.  Happily, they were concrete about ensuring us that they would follow-through and see that it got done properly.

Old Ladies Dancing

It looks like a riot but it's actually a group of older women dancing and celebrating their graduation

Wait, area forums…okay, quickly these are self-formed groups within the townships that practice self-governance and are supported by Ikamva through their trainer, Mama Connie.   Each group goes through a basic training course, graduates in a ceremony (we got to watch one, lots of dancing per usual), and then decides what they want to learn and raise money to bring in people.  So far they have been very successful (like many such women’s groups around the world) and we were very excited about finding a hidden gem in the OVC quagmire we waded into.

So there you have it, a 7 volume tale about a South African internship with an NGO that turned into one of the best working (and learning) experiences of my life.  Having Notre Dame’s support and encouragement in finding and being successful in this internship makes it even better.   I’m definitely excited to get back and see all of my friends and hear about how their wonderful internships experiences .   If you have any questions please feel free to email me: aelegant@nd.edu.

The Final Day is getting closer – Time to impress

Hey guys, it has been a while since I posted anything on the blog. I’ll try to catch up while reminiscing on my patio and enjoying a stormy North Carolina weather. For the past few weeks my team pitched to 12 IBM VPs, recorded and presented our product demo to our project sponsors, reached our Tier 1 goals (3 Tiers total, tackling our 2nd and 3rd), received new gadgets to play with, and went through a conflict resolution process. Sometime in between I made a quick weekend trip to Portland to attend my cousin’s wedding, and also hosted an Eastern European dinner for the whole Extreme Blue team (with my husband’s help of course).

Our testing gadgets! Playtime!


As we are counting days to our final presentation and demo day at IBM HQ in Armnok, NY the pressure is slowly growing. My tech team fellows have to pull late hours and weekends (i’m glad they are paid overtime) and I offer them any support I can. Extreme Blue internship was set to design a real work environment with all its ups and downs. 🙂 While we were provided with the most resources needed to complete our project the bureaucracy of the giant corporation presented some significant blocks. Luckily they were resolved last week. We were also given a number of tasks (not quite project related) to test and develop our multitasking ability. For example, each Extreme Blue team had to read parts of a certain book (Mavericks of Business) and do a 1 hour presentation to other teams, or we yet have to record a 60 second humorous commercial for our team/product. In short, there is always a never ending struggle with time. Something that we all have to learn to deal with. It could be either planning your meetings better, coming to work earlier to find some quite time, or learning to remove all the background noise and concentrate on your tasks (the toughest one).

Presenting to executives is an amazing opportunity to test your hypotheses and underlying assumptions. The execs that visited us, all come from various areas of expertise such as cloud computing, emerging technologies, or smarter planet solutions among others. After a presentation each VP gets to ask questions, and some of them are quite challenging. Such sessions definitely help us learn more about life at IBM and new technology that it is working on, and also improve our sales pitch. We only have 4 min to deliver it, and each week we make adjustments based on the reaction and questions coming from the VPs. Not only the presentation has to logically capture all features and benefits of our product but also be delivered flawlessly. We are constantly reminded that anything can happen during the presentation and we have to be quick to react and rescue one of our fellows when needed. For example, the other week, when one of the teams was presenting, a VP pulled out his iPad and started typing something, that created some distraction for the presenters, though the VP was taking notes help him remember. Another time, in the middle of our presentation, a VP started asking questions (going against the format we usually follow), it really threw us off, especially because we were trying out something new with our pitch. And finally, going against number 1 rule – never try to memorize every word – one of my team members completely went blank while concluding the presentation (it was the most awkward 15 sec for everyone). It is not all that bad after all, considering that we heard stories about panic attacks happening during such presentations.

As part of my own delivery – a business case for our product and a go-to market strategy – I presented it to my business mentors and sponsors last week. They were impressed with my understanding of the business and my holistic vision of the issue that my team was trying to solve. I was definitely flattered by their comments, though i know if I had more time and more hard numbers my recommendation could have been better. Unfortunately the information we get is never perfect and we have to derive our assumptions from it and learn to live with it. It is important to know when GOOD is GOOD ENOUGH. (another confirmation from my Problem Solving class).

So all 12 of us are heading to NY in 5 days to explore the NYC and then to impress and concur IBM. 🙂 It will be a busy week: concluding the project, preparing a product demo, handing off the code and documentation, preparing for job interviews, producing our commercial, celebrating the end of the project with our project sponsors and mentors, and finally making it safe to NY.

Be on the look out for my final post!



Posted in IBM

Sprig Health

This summer I am working as an intern in a health care industry incubator in Portland, Oregon. This week one of our department’s first projects launched: Sprig Health. Its objective is to assist the uninsured at getting access to affordable, quality health care…

Two Weeks Left?

8 weeks down, 2 weeks to go.  Wow, summer internships fly by.  At this point, I’m getting ready to gear up to head back to that lovely waterfront nook that we call South Bend.  And, honestly, I’m excited.

Sears has done a great job of welcoming its interns, immersing them in their business, and turning them loose.  I actually delivered my 1st of 2 final presentations this past Thursday morning (@ 7:30 am, yikes) in front of the President of my business unit (division) and the rest of the leadership team.  I thought it went great.  Next Tuesday, I also will deliver a similar presentation to the Sears Holdings Corp CFO (Bill Phelan, a proud ND alum and supporter) and finance leadership team.  Two different audiences, and the moral of this story is to Know Your Audience.

I was confident with my data and my findings, but it is always difficult presenting about a business… to those people that lead that business.  At Thursday’s presentation, there were some really good questions asked of my analysis, and a lot of times I had to just admit that certain issues were not included in the scope of my project, which my managers understood.  I opened up the 30 min presentation by encouraging questions to be asked throughout, turning it into more of a conversation than a presentation.  I credit Viva for turning me onto this presentation method and preparing me for it.

Next Tuesday’s presentation should be a different feel.  The Finance guys won’t know nearly as much about the ins and outs of the Footwear business as the Footwear guys… but they’ll know more Finance (that sentence was painful to write, but it’s true).  I’ll need to touch more on the financial impact of my recommendations, and the risks/sensitivities of my findings.

One last thing I’ve learned is how frequently career paths change.  Among the Senior Leadership team at Sears, I’ve met a former McKinsey Director, former Lehman Brothers directors, former IBM leaders, etc…  and Sears is basically just a retailer.  I’m encouraged by how broad a path these leaders have forged.