Wake Forest School of Business alumni share their insights into the global consulting business – and reveal that (surprise!) consultants don’t have to have all the answers
By Page Leggett (’87)
If you had only an inkling of what it’s like to work for one of the world’s largest consulting firms, you might think:
- It involves a brutal travel schedule.
- Clients expect you to have all the answers.
You’d be right about only one.
That was the consensus of Bradd Craver (BS ’83), managing director at Deloitte Consulting; Barr Blanton (BS ‘06), partner at McKinsey & Company; and Drew Cawthorne (BA ‘05, MBA ‘11), principal at Ernst & Young. All three are part of the vibrant alumni network helping MBA students prepare for what’s next. And all were part of the Deacon Discussion Series on consulting at the WFU Charlotte Center where the School of Business offers MBA education on evenings and weekends. The topic – and the panel of professionals – yielded a full house of around 50 students, alumni and other businesspeople on April 13.
The first question the three Charlotte-based consultants were asked: What skills does someone need to be impactful in your business?
Deloitte’s Craver said his firm, with 1,100 employees in Charlotte – 300 of whom work for the consulting division – wants to see “an analytical approach to problem solving, someone who’s practical in their solutions and someone who can ask ‘What’s doable?’ when coming up with solutions – but also allow the client to stretch.”
These aren’t order takers or yes men. Clients hire Deloitte, EY, and McKinsey because they want innovative thinking – and to push the envelope.
EY’s Cawthorne, who works for the firm’s financial services practice, said that, at his firm, an ability to collaborate is essential. “It’s all about the team at EY. Self-credit is really frowned upon,” he said. “Beyond that, emotional intelligence is important, and so is an ability to read a room.”
Blanton, a former golfer at Wake, said McKinsey looks for people who are smart, inquisitive and have a zest for learning. He said it’s also critical to “know how money moves and to be able to think like an investor.”
All three agree you’ve got to enjoy solving big, complex problems to enjoy being a consultant. You’ve got to want to have an impact – on your clients’ business and in your community.
Many paths to a consulting career
The three took different paths to get where they are. Blanton and Cawthorne have MBAs. Craver doesn’t – but he joked that his MBA equivalent came from working with Teamsters when he was in the manufacturing business. He had deep industry experience in both healthcare and manufacturing, and Deloitte wanted to tap into his knowledge.
But he had something even more important than industry experience: a sense of honor. “I learned integrity first,” he said. “Your customer needs to be more important than you.” The consulting/client relationship must be based on trust.
Despite Craver’s decades of industry expertise, he said he still had plenty to learn from his consulting colleagues with MBAs. “The quality of their analytical thinking is so impressive,” he said. “It’s phenomenal to see that at work.”
Like Craver, Blanton logged work experience before becoming a consultant. He even ran his own business in Atlanta for a year before deciding the place he could learn the most was McKinsey. “There was a steep learning curve, but that’s what I wanted,” he said.
Cawthorne’s path to consulting was unusual: He was hired straight from MBA school. He loves the EY culture and already happily considers himself a “lifer” at the firm.
All three consultants appreciate the collaborative nature of what they do.
“I love in-person meetings,” Cawthorne said. “I like to look people in the eye.”
“I get to learn from people at all levels of my organization,” Craver said of Deloitte’s global mindset focused on the value each person – regardless of seniority – brings to the client relationship. “The hierarchical nature of most companies makes cross-learning tough. That’s just not true in consulting. It’s perpetual collaboration.”
It can seem like perpetual travel, too … although Craver said many in the industry are working to change that.
Results over answers
If you think consultants are the guys (and gals) with all the answers, think again. That’s the old consulting model, these experts say. “We’ve shifted from just smart people in a room giving an answer,” Blanton said. “We’re all about taking ownership of solutions now.”
“There’s been a massive shift in client expectations from answers to results,” he continued. “We’re getting away from PowerPoint and moving more toward thinking about the client experience. There’s a lot less ‘We’re in a room with a whiteboard’ now.”
Craver agrees. “When I first started in this business, I thought I had to know the answer to every question anyone ever asked. That’s not the model anymore.”
Cawthorne said it’s actually a positive not to have all the answers: “Showing some vulnerability helps build client trust,” he said. “You show your integrity by not being a know-it-all.” He relies on the expertise of colleagues when he needs to. And clients appreciate having access to a variety of (expert) opinions.
One of the MBA students in the audience is someone who could bring a very specific area of expertise to the consulting world. Jerome Williams, M.D. is a cardiologist who found time to pursue an MBA now that one child is in college and another’s in high school. “These consultants talked a lot about the need to solve problems,” he said. “I’m used to having to solve some very complex problems.”
Many roads can lead to becoming a consultant. But an ability to solve big problems and a love of collaboration are key to success in the field.
And a willingness to travel is still a plus.
Leggett is a Charlotte-area strategist/writer/editor