Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What I've Learned in Consulting: Everything I Knew Before is Wrong

I grew up with a set of decidedly non-business-pants wearing parents. That's not to say that my parents weren't successful, but thankfully for us sisters they were not single-minded career people that instilled in us the values that work comes first and family comes second. My dad was home every night and read books out loud to us (like The Hobbit-the whole thing!) over many bed times. My mom was a small business owner, which allowed her to pick us up from school and make delicious dinners for us most nights. My step-mom was a teacher who orchestrated the most amazing home arts and crafts projects for us. We were very lucky little biscuits and bears.

This arrangement produced two relatively well-adjusted adults, but sometimes I feel like all the values they instilled in me just sort of vanished or don't make sense in the workplace I inhabit today. Continuing on from my warm household and liberal, middle/lower class high school to a 6 year stint in higher education (can I go back now?) at 2 public, awesomely hippy-liberal schools, I was sheltered in an environment of mutual kindness, the Golden Rule, and integrity.

After grad school, I started working for one of the Big 4 Consulting firms, where I had completed my summer internship and received a full time offer. I started down this career path not because I had ever dreamed of being a Consultant or even had a slight interest in business strategy. I was interested in cow poop and dairy farms! I wanted to bury my nose in research and policy analysis and be an expert! No, I signed away my life because I needed money after the aforementioned 6 years of college. So yes, this is all my fault. 

From my first day to my last day, my experience there was like 4 years of what-the-shit moments. I was not at all prepared to fit in with or excel in this space, and it took a toll on me, the one time over-achiever. I became so disenchanted in my job and with the world at large that my counselor (at work, not the mental kind, though I could have used one) told me it sounded like I was in an abusive relationship with my job and should quit. My career coach (who I hired to help me find a new job) told me that maybe I should think about a Leave of Absence because I sounded unstable. 

To put it simply, things were bad. And I can't help but wonder if I would have dealt with this better if I had grown up under different circumstances, or if maybe my parents could have made me a little more of a douche bag. I escaped the Big 4 with my mind somewhat intact, a whole lot of extra jadedness, and a handful of important biznass lessons. Here are some of the things I learned (un-learned) in my short business-pants life thus far. Follow my guidelines and I'm sure you'll be drinking scotch with Senior Management in no time.

  1. Be Yourself: If you weren't born in business pants, never be yourself. If you're kind, humble, care about the well-being of your peers, listen before you speak, or believe in doing the right thing, do not be yourself. This is called "executive presence" in business talk. We had reviews twice a year, and I went through 8 review cycles. EVERY SINGLE REVIEW except 1 had "Increase Executive Presence" in my development needs (stuff you're no good at) section.  The one review that didn't? My last one, covering the time period in which I talked back to a client, said "no I won't take that project" to a manager, and left the office before 7 pm for the first time in my career. So puff up your chest, talk over people, throw people under the bus, and proclaim loudly and consistently that you are the best at your job, while doing little to no work. That's for the small people, and you'll be rewarded for being so "confident"!
  2. You will be Rewarded for your Hard Work: You will not be rewarded for your hard work. You will be rewarded for what you appear to have done, based upon the most superficial, cursory glance possible. To this end, speak loudly and consistently about all the things you've done and how freakin awesome you are.
  3. Concentrate on High Quality Content: Do not concentrate on the content of your work. No one cares. Use an awesome chart or graphic in PowerPoint, string together multiple buzz words, and use impeccable formatting. This is very much related number 2. The consumers of your work have the attention span of a Snooki, and nuanced analysis and elegant recommendations are not welcome here. The biggest skills I've gained in four years: PowerPoint formatting (I'm basically a PPT wizard), and speaking extensively about a topic without saying anything of substance or committing to an opinion (in other words, I'm really good at bullshitting). 
  4. Source
  5. Care About your Work: It's What you Do Everyday! This one was hard for me to unlearn. I like to care about things! I invest my emotions and want to succeed! But if you are tempted to care about the work you do, please resist, it's a trap. When I fell into this habit, I was working unreported hours, coming home from work upset, and having stress nightmares. I didn't enjoy my time off of work because I was thinking about the insurmountable tasks awaiting me when I got back. And you know what? I didn't make any extra money, I got the exact same ratings as I did for the period of time in which I watched an entire season of Gossip Girl in the office, and I was pegged with the Development Need of "shows stress externally." I finally figured out that the company didn't care about me, so why should I give my emotions and/or mental health to them? 
  6. Despite my Vagina, I'm Good Enough and I'm Smart Enough:  I guess I should have been more prepared for un-learning this one. Women's studies was one of my majors. I spent 3 years of my life thinking about the ways in which a woman's gender determines her experience. And yet... I was not prepared for the degree to which business is still, for the most part, an old boys club (the exception would be the "women's work" of consulting - the soft skills - that's where I am today). There are many aspects to this lesson. See "executive presence" above. That's just code for "be more like a dude." Then there is the sexual harassment. I don't throw that around lightly, but there was a colleague of mine that would for reals make motorboat noises in my direction when I walked by.  While looking at my butt. This was reported during mid-year reviews. This colleague still got a better rating then me. Did I mention that he literally picked his nose in public? That motor-boating son of a bitch was deemed a better employee than me. My brain exploded, and that was the start of the end for my productivity. Long after that incident a partner grabbed my boob while we were in a bar (not alone, victim blamers). I really wish I had that one on video tape because I would be retired in Hawaii now. Maybe this all wouldn't have been so soul crushing if I had more douche bag in me. Sigh.

Thankfully, I escaped the Big 4 and lived to tell the tales, of which there are so many. Despite the fact that I didn't grow up in an environment or culture that even remotely prepared me for my experience there, I am glad that my background helped me keep perspective on life. Because for every person like me that sees all of the above things as ridiculous, and tries to escape as soon as possible, there is another that buys in (or drinks the koolaid, in consultant speak) and invests their life in serving the firm. It's great that they find happiness and/or success in the model, but it's not for me.


  1. At least you got a lot of plane points from said poop job, and could visit me 8 times, in one year, on the opposite coast...

  2. That was definitely the silver lining!