Nurturing Talent

Creating an environment that is fun, flexible and fulfilling is essential to keeping young professionals engaged and committed.

As published in Consulting Magazine, June 2013

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The sustained success of a management consulting firm is almost exclusively based on the continuous professional development of its people. The ability to attract, develop and retain young professionals is crucial to the long-term health and vitality of our firm, and of any other similarly structured firm.

The current generation of new consultants has been shaped by tumultuous times. The average new MBA was in high school on 9/11 and likely completed his or her undergraduate studies just as the global financial crisis was unfolding. These events and the macro-economic environments that they created shape the world view of young professionals. While there remains a tremendous collective anxiety on the economic front, new consultants are looking for more than just job security. They want to create a better, more secure and more stable world.

While these young professionals are ambitious, the odds of a new college graduate or recent MBA making it to the partner level are not good. In most firms this is an eight to ten year journey with a success rate of less than five percent. The reasons people leave the profession are well-known. Some fall out because they fail to develop the skills or lack the intellectual horsepower to be promoted. The “up or out” model is still prevalent in the industry. Other individuals decide that the lifestyle is not for them and opt for a job without the constant travel and long hours.

How then do we create an environment in the industry that attracts outstanding young professionals, allows them to develop rapidly and, most importantly, keeps them engaged on the long road to becoming a partner?

Our investment in the development of young people doesn’t always show up directly in the firm’s financial reports, but it is up there with new client acquisition as the most expensive — and most important — function of the firm. Attracting, developing and retaining young professionals require the leaders of the firm to create a work environment that is fun, flexible and fulfilling.

Hire Fun People and Create a Fun Environment

The idea that working in consulting should be fun is certainly not new. The “work hard, play hard” ethos was imprinted on us very early in our careers. The work we do for clients is very serious, but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy ourselves and the company of our colleagues while we go about our daily duties.

Hiring fun people that pass the “pizza test” is the first step in creating this environment. Would you really want to spend fourteen hours a day locked in a conference room with someone that you wouldn’t want to go get a pizza with afterward?

Once a firm hires fun people, it can retain talent for the long haul by helping its employees view the firm as a social network. There is a strong positive correlation between those people that routinely show up for Friday afternoon happy hour and those that make it to partner. When you work with your closest friends and have fun doing work you love, it is pretty hard to walk away. Working hard is a natural part of a career in consulting. The leaders of the firm should encourage and facilitate the “play hard” component of the equation and make sure that our teams are enjoying themselves.

Making sure that eager, energetic and fun young consultants have a good time is not that difficult. It might involve leaving the client at 6 p.m. once a month for team bowling or taking off a little early every once in a while for some “pau hana” festivities. With a little imagination we can almost always come up with something to celebrate. (National Margarita Day is February 22 and my birthday is on November 20if you need an excuse to party.)

Create a Flexible Work Environment

Young professionals are also looking for flexibility in their jobs. Delivering on this objective means moving away from the rigidity of work and travel schedules that tend to be the norm in consulting. The easiest way to accomplish this is to provide our teams the autonomy to negotiate a schedule that meets client demands and provides flexibility for each of the members of the team. An occasional week working from home or fewer nights on the road can be the difference between a sustainable career and our industry’s most valuable people looking for the exit.

Flexibility extends to liberal personal time off and sabbatical policies. We might even question why we have vacation policies. Doesn’t the individual utilization metric give us the information we need about each consultant’s contribution to the financial health of the firm? Are we just being ironic when we refer to time between assignments as being “on the beach?” We all need time to go to the dentist, get the oil changed and attend a child’s school play. Providing our young professionals with the autonomy to make their own decisions regarding how they get their work done will go a long way to improving retention.

Help Young Professionals Find Purpose in Their Work

Finally, young professionals are seeking fulfillment in their work. Having come of age in an era where their exceptionalism has been called into question, they want to know that their life’s work has meaning. When candidates are evaluating career opportunities, they are not just looking at compensation and career path; they are asking hard questions about the purpose of the firm itself. If we can cast the work we do in the industry in a manner that promotes growth, global competitiveness and sustainability, we will be a more attractive home for this generation of professional.

Creating outlets for community service within the firm and providing time off for individuals to pursue their passions outside of work are both avenues to addressing the need for fulfillment in a career. Taking on an occasional pro bono assignment for a non-profit is a great way to harness the intellectual horsepower and energy of the firm in a manner that serves the consultant as well as the client.

Fun, flexibility and fulfillment will go a long way to improving our ability to attract and retain young professionals. People are attracted to consulting because of the diversity of experiences available in most firms, the rapid development potential and the excitement of a fast paced lifestyle. Keeping them engaged and committed on the multi-year path to partner is the challenge. Our younger professionals are seeking direction, yet they crave autonomy and flexibility. They are willing to work hard when presented with opportunities for development, especially when those opportunities serve a greater purpose.

It is a trite truism that people are our most valuable asset. In consulting, they are often our only asset. Proactively increasing the value of these assets through development and retention of young professionals is one of our most strategic objectives. We should do a little consulting to ourselves and make sure we are adapting the industry to ensure the future generation of partners stays committed to the profession.