5 years ago, I was fired from Oliver Wyman. This is what I learned from it.
Five years almost to the date, I was fired from Oliver Wyman (after 11 months at the firm, straight out of ugrad). This is when I'd walked into the year-end review genuinely thinking I'd be told I was promoted.
There are a few words one never forgets, and the sentence that'll stick with me forever was "based on a few factors, but primarily your performance, we are moving on". No "sorry to say, but...", even.
I was shown a few spreadsheets showing how I did vs my peer group. I scored poorly across 8 of the 14 metrics, and was average in all others. Out of the 8 metrics in which I scored poorly, in 3 I was in the global bottom 10.
Sure, the firm was having a tough year in 2011-2, but I was let go cos of my performance. In the days that followed, some friendly partners reached out and mentioned that they'd noticed my consulting skills weren't great, but I was a solid guy with good people skills, and that I could consider a career in wealth management or something.
I was given three months by OW to find a job, continuing to get paid. They gave me a decent bonus (~3 months my salary). Honestly, while I was of course pissed off at OW, looking back, they were quite humane. I'm grateful for that.
I guess I interview well - I managed to score a gig with an MBB. I vowed to myself I would never, ever, feel like I did when I was told OW was "moving on" from me. On my first day at the MBB, I decided then and there that I would leave consulting on my own godamn terms, not with someone telling me I wasn't good enough.
The reason for this post is that just last week, I was officially made an Engagement Manager, one of the earliest in my peer group here.
I thought I'd take the time to give you 5 learnings I took from being fired and then turning it around 180 degrees. Note that these ARE in order of priority:
1) RELENTLESSLY ASK FOR FEEDBACK
You can pretty much ignore 2)-5) below if you like, but do NOT ignore this. This was my biggest mistake at OW. When I was making mistakes, yet client was reasonably OK with me cos of my people skills, I thought things were fine. When I was doing well at something, my EMs would tell me "nice work", and I'd think that hey, when I get feedback, people are positive, so I must be doing well. Note that it's a lot, lot easier to give positive feedback than negative. Maybe not in say Germany, but in Asia especially, negative feedback only comes in your project-end assessment, and even then it may not be as blunt as it needs to be. YOU need to take it on yourself to relentlessly set-up biweekly feedback sessions with your EM. What I'm guessing will happen is after 2-3 of these, you'll pretty much KNOW you're doing well, and these biweekly sessions will turn into related coffee/beers, but until you know, you need to keep asking for feedback. And needless to say - work on your improvement areas. Nothing worse than the same feedback being given, that's a ticket to being fired.
2) HAVE IMMENSE CORE SKILLS
In your first few years, there are three things you need to be amazing at in consulting. Excel, ppt, and client management (i.e. people skills). Master all of these. Usually, people are good at 1-2 out of these 3, and build up the missing area as they rise up the firm. The high performers have all three sorted by the end of the first year. At Oliver Wyman, I was amazing at client facing, OK at ppt, and shit at Excel. I kept blaming my initial few projects, where I either used SAS or didn't have much Excel use on my low skills. You know what, no one gives a fuck. Go to the Excel geek in your office and learn. It is embarrassing in consulting to be bad at Excel, but it is debilitatingly (is that a word?) poor to be shit even after your first 6 months. Think of this first 6 month period as your "hall pass" to ask people anything and not sound incompetent. Whether it be Excel or PPT, bug others till you know you're good enough (you'll know when you are). As for client skills, ask your EM or more senior consultants for their feedback on how you are with the client, and areas to work on, etc. Be relentless till, you're not only good, but certifiably great. As you rise up the ranks, you'll want clients saying "we want [insert name] to stay" – that's the kinda shit that gets you promoted.
3) IN YOUR FIRST YEAR, YOU'LL NEED TO GIVE YOUR LIFE TO IT
Here also, I fucked up. I thought consulting was a nice, flashy, high-paying gig where I look cool and have a nice life. The reality is consulting is a decently-paying role (you'll realize as you start hitting your late 20s, others in seemingly random industries are also earning very well), but one that requires your life. Especially in your first year, don't even think about planning weekday dinners with your buddies/gf [assuming you're not in some remote town somewhere, which you probably will be]. If it so happens, great, but actually if you have a free-ish night, you should be eating/drinking with your colleagues. Bonding with them is essential. More on that in 5) below.
4) HAVE A SORTED PERSONAL LIFE
I don't know if this is only applicable to me, but having an unsettled personal life during my first year really fucked my performance at work. I was into this girl, didn't ask her out cos I knew she was sorta still seeing her ex, got way too emotionally attached without getting anything out of it, etc etc. Whatever, I was stupid and 22. What was not cool, however, was that this really affected my work. I used to travel Mon-Fri, and just be thinking about this chick (I haven't spoken to her in 4 years, and aint that the best decision) – even during working hours. My delivery skills slowed, my energy to crush work really ebbed, I'd be texting this chick and/or emailing random friends trying to while away the week till Friday till I get to see her - all that sappy, dumb fuck shit. DO NOT DO THIS. You need to be settled. I started dating another girl soon after joining the MBB, and have been with her since – we're getting married this winter. I cannot tell you how much it helped me being settled and calm about my personal shit. Of course it isn't easy not seeing your girlfriend/wife for 4 days out of a week, but if you're committed to each other, it really doesn't hurt your r'ship. It hasn't hurt mine, and it won't hurt most of yours, if you really like the girl.
5) MAKE FRIENDSHIPS AT WORK
My life as a consultant, being on the road all the time, got a LOT better when I started making an effort to get to know my colleagues. Think about this – you guys have literally everything in common. You all are hard working people who have fantastic GPAs in college, you're all driven, you all chose consulting over banking, you're all earning well, etc. Odds are, at least where your peer group's concerned, you will absolutely get along and make some very good friendships at work. Again, and there's a pattern here, I didn't do this at OW. When in my home office, I would grab lunch with my "regular" friends, and bounce early rather than chill with colleagues. When out of town on project, I'd retire to my room early, or do lunch at my desk (cos I was "soo busy", which is bullshit), etc. Don't fucking do this. Get to know your colleagues. I honestly think most do this naturally, but in my case I had a very small cohort of "new hires", and on my first day at OW no one took me to lunch or anything, which kinda scarred me? Either way, the onus is on you as a newbie to make these connections, and I realize this now. However, to this date, if there's a new hire, I always make sure to ask them for lunch if I can to settle them in.
I was back at home right after I was made EM, and I made a cursory comment to my mom about how it feels good to be made an EM in an industry that had fired me. My mother does not show a lot of emotion, but when I looked back some seconds later, she was wiping tears and told me how worried she was for me when I got let go, and how happy she is that I kept fighting and believing in myself.
I spoke earlier about how I can never forget that sentence "…we're moving on". I'll also never forget the hug my mother gave me right after she said that.
Consulting's not easy, but if a 'bottom 10%' can become an EM, so can you.
Mod Note (Andy): Best of 2016, this post ranks #1 for the past year