It is not often that one is asked to reflect and share experiences from one’s career. I, like many others, spend the majority of my time examining and looking toward others who are much farther in their careers than I. In fact, it might be a bit ridiculous for me to perform this exercise and “reflect.”
But, I have trouble saying “No” and, there is the off chance that I have something useful to contribute. So let’s do it.
I’ve been out of graduate school for – gasp! – 8 years, and haven’t been back to the bench since sometime in 2006 (I honestly can’t remember specifically when). I am on my 3rd role and 2nd company post-graduate school, roughly average for a member of my generation. I have been fortunate to work with great managers, teammates, and support staff, and am extremely grateful for the 3 years I spent in management consulting for the pharma/biotech sector. I still draw upon those experiences and the important lessons learned for my current role at a large Biotech company.
Like many others, I support the contention that management consulting is a great way to utilize your skills as a scientist while gaining experience in the business/corporate sector. From the perspective of a scientist, there are few key lessons learned that may be helpful as you consider this career option. In a nutshell, the lessons that I found most helpful can be summarized:
- 1. Build a Boat
- 2. You are plan B
- 3. Answer the “Should you?” question before you answer the “Could you?” question.
- 4. So What?
Build a Boat
When I am asked what’s it’s like to do consulting, I say that it’s like being given a hammer and piece of wood and being asked a build a boat. By 5pm on Wednesday. In other words, you will be asked to do something that seems impossible. I think that success in this realm lies in being comfortable undertaking a task for which you have no idea how to accomplish.
After reaching the pinnacle in your area of study for graduate school, confident in your thesis work, procedures, results, etc., consulting is the practice of feeling constantly unbalanced. And you won’t necessarily feel as though you’ve mastered the task before you’ll be asked to do something else…that you have no idea how to do. I find this exciting, and I especially love that is keeps me in a state of learning. Mastery? Not so much. Mastery to the level at which you are accustomed, is basically never required outside of academia.
You are equipped to do this through your training. Think outside of the box (a phrase that I hate, by the way. Boxes, and the symmetry they create is okay. We need boxes.). What I mean is that you will simplify a problem is its most basic elements, prioritize which elements are most likely to drive a solution, and solve them one at a time. You already do this when you tackle a research question and break it into a series of experiments. The key difference is that you’ll do this in the timeframe of days/weeks instead of months/years.
You are plan B
You probably already know that consultants are hired by companies to support various business initiatives, business questions, solve complex problems, etc. Another way to view this is that the consultant is often plan B. Which could mean that plan A – likely done by a team of company employees – wasn’t as successful as planned.
Why should you care? Because this could mean that someone at the company that hired you doesn’t want you (the consultant) there, and doesn’t want you to succeed. I’m over-dramatizing this to make a point. Understand that as the consultant, you are often walking into a situation fraught with office politics, and it’s not always clear where you stand with everyone. I learned to spend lots of time listening in meetings with clients, and closely observing as much as possible. Who is paying attention? Who seems quiet? Who’s talking a lot? Who’s making eye contact with whom? A little attention to what’s unsaid can be incredibly useful. You can identify decision-makers, career climbers, advocates, nay-sayers, etc.
Answer the “Should you?” question before you answer the “Could you?” question.
This is an ode to the 80/20 rule one hears so often from business people. It’s never been clear what that means until I learned the lesson above. Picture this: urgent email from your client’s boss’s boss’s boss comes to you and your consulting manager asking for the latest sales estimates. You know off-hand that it’s somewhere between 90 and 100, but not anything more specific. Four to 5 hours working in Excel, will refine that number to 96.2, a level of accuracy to which you, the scientist consultant, are comfortable. And, there is a slew of data to support this final number.
You are confident (to your level of rigor) with 96.2, but it took you a business day. And the boss’s boss’s boss didn’t need that level accuracy. Ninety to one hundred would’ve been fine. In a similar situation, I was lucky to have a great manager who talked me through this logic before wasting a day. But I can’t say that I’m not guilty of going for the 96.2 rather than “settling” for the 90 – 100 estimate at other times. I can say that this is a lesson I continue to re-learn…Always first ask “Should you” before you determine “Could you.”
Indeed. Several weeks of analytical gymnastics, research, late nights, long meetings and your work is finished. You’ve gone from “Build a Boat” to “You should and you could” in a few weeks and the work is done. Your 70 slides are a great reflection of all this.
Your boss’s boss’s boss has asked for a 3-slide summary (which you know will get cut down to 1 slide). And you’re thinking “Seriously? 70 slides of virtuoso analytics and all that’s needed is a summary?!?” Still, I believe one of the most important skills you’ll hone as a consultant is theability to cull 70+ slides down to the key insights for a high-level executive. You highlight the data, but deliver the “So What?” What does all this mean? What should the company do differently? What will they gain with this insight?
What’s crazy is that you can’t get to the “So what?” often, without the 70+ slides of data, analysis, etc. Like any other dissertation, you will probably not be asked that question, but you’d better have an answer just in case. Sixty or so slides could address potential questions you may never be asked. For many scientists, having the knowledge is enough. For others, it is tiring and unsatisfying to generate that amount of work that is not always needed in a marquis moment with the boss’s boss’s boss. Pretty important to know where you stand on this.
These have been some of my key lessons learned, and please recall that this is from my own perspective (an “n” of 1). I am not certain that my experiences are typical, or something that you’d experience. I can say, however, that I still use these learnings now, and I hope they continue to serve me well. I truly hope this is helpful to you as your plot your course. I welcome comments, questions, and your own perspective.