If you’ve recently landed an offer from a top-tier consulting firm like McKinsey, BCG or Bain, congratulations! With your interview preparations over, it’s time to start getting ready to succeed in your new job. In consulting, it’s crucial to be productive, not just for your performance and progression, but for your work-life balance too. Consultants work long hours in the face of a demanding workload and extremely high expectations. These tips from former consultants will help you to improve your productivity and sustain it throughout your consulting career.
Be your own master
Even with the long hours that consultants work, there’s only so much time available in a day. To be successful, it’s vital to spend the time that you do have focusing on your own work. Putting these simple measures in place will help you to achieve this and avoid being at the mercy of someone else’s agenda.
Be proactive and manage upwards
To reduce the chances of being thrown off kilter by your manager, be proactive in how you handle your workload by communicating and managing upwards. This means telling your manager what you plan to do to make progress towards your agreed outcomes on a weekly or daily basis.
Doing this will help you to ensure that you prioritize the right tasks. It will also make your manager aware of how full your plate is, which may make them think twice about sending additional work your way.
Create and use an inventory
Think of your workload as an inventory, where you accumulate and sell your time by completing and releasing pieces of work. Only you know your inventory stocks (completed work), which means you can build up a ‘buffer’ of time and space for tackling larger pieces of work later on.
If you complete work ahead of schedule, try not to share it with your client or manager immediately – if possible – as they may come back to you with unnecessary extra work. Instead, use the additional time you have to move forward on your other priorities.
It goes without saying that instant messaging, unscheduled calls, colleagues tapping you on the shoulder, and other forms of distraction are not conducive to having a productive day. Block time in your diary for focused work and move to a quiet room so you can get it done without interruption.
Give each activity 100% of your attention
Multitasking is not always a good thing. When it comes to the work you will do as a consultant, it’s vital to commit to being fully present, whether you’re in a meeting, creating a slide or on a call. You may miss something important if you’re distracted. Even worse, you may get asked a question that you can’t answer because your attention was elsewhere.
Getting things done as quickly and efficiently as possible is key to being productive. The following approaches should help you make the most of the time you have available.
Always make the output your number one priority
Before diving into a task, make sure that your intended outcome is clear and then focus all your efforts on reaching that outcome. If you’re analyzing data, this could mean sketching out the type of chart you want to create before starting any work in Excel. If you’re interviewing a subject matter expert, it could mean identifying the quotes you need to elicit before deciding what questions to ask.
Do ‘heavy’ tasks at the last minute
Without a pressing deadline, it can be easy to spend several hours on a trivial or laborious job – such as building a survey or doing desk research – that should only take a fraction of the time to complete. It’s therefore a good idea to only tackle these tasks towards the end of the time you have available.
Reading an email, saving it until later and reading it again in order to reply is not a great use of your time. Instead, try to respond to straightforward emails as soon as you have read them. While you will inevitably need to spend longer on emails that require a lengthy or thoughtful response, this simple tip should give you back a lot of time in your day.
Use keyboard shortcuts
The software you will use over the course of a working day will include an array of keyboard shortcuts to help you get things done more quickly and efficiently. When it comes to your most common and repetitive tasks, particularly on Excel and PowerPoint, investing time in learning these shortcuts can pay dividends.
Organize your time
It can be challenging to organize your time in a turbulent client environment, where there are multiple stakeholders and an ever-changing set of priorities. Taking these measures will help you to ensure that you have the time to make progress towards your most important goals.
Set clear goals for your day and week
Make sure that you prepare for your team’s weekly priority-setting meeting (in most teams, this takes place on a Monday), and come with a clear idea of your own priorities and goals for the day and week ahead.
Break deliverables into single-step tasks
As the famous saying goes, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time”. The same goes for work. When confronted with a large undertaking, you should break it down into several single tasks. This will make the work feel more manageable and will give you a clearer view of exactly what you need to do, and in what order.
Schedule all calls and meetings
Don’t risk wasting time by trying to ‘catch’ the people you need to speak to on unscheduled calls. All your calls should be scheduled, even if some of them only last 15 minutes. You should also consider arranging a regular daily or weekly meeting with the key people in your project team – including senior colleagues such as Junior Partners – to ensure that you always have a touchpoint with them.
Try early morning work
Your most productive hours are likely to be those where you’re not distracted by team members or clients, so try working early in the morning to get a batch of work completed before the day officially starts.
Use short breaks for emails
To avoid getting lost down an email rabbit hole first thing in the morning, wait until you take a break to open your emails and respond to them.
Invest in your development
Soaking in all the learning and development that you can during your time in consulting will help you perform your role more efficiently. It’s also likely to stand you in good stead should you choose to pursue one of the many attractive exit opportunities that are likely to be available when you come to leave consulting.
As a consultant, you’re likely to receive a great deal of feedback in the normal course of your role. However, you should also be proactive and solicit feedback from your manager, peers and senior managers/Partners when you feel it would be useful to do so (e.g. after participating in a client meeting or sharing an analysis). Asking for feedback might feel scary at first but the insight you will gain will be invaluable. Your commitment to improving your performance will also be noted and appreciated by others.
Commit to taking advantage of training opportunities
It can be all too easy to say you’re too busy with client work to take part in the training opportunities provided by your firm. However, this is false productivity because the training is likely to add skills to your toolbox that will enable you to do your client work faster and more effectively. If you’re presented with a training opportunity, be sure to take it.
Learn from and emulate high performers
As a new consultant, you’ll learn a great deal from those who are already thriving in the job. You should therefore seek out the great managers in your firm and find opportunities to work with them.
If you’re preparing to join a top consulting firm as an MBA, experienced professional or advanced degree hire, it’s also a good idea to seek out your team’s star graduates. Despite being more junior on paper, after a couple of years in consulting they are likely to have a huge amount of valuable knowledge and insight to share with you.
Leverage your colleagues
It’s important to remember that clients don’t pay for the insight of a single consultant; they pay for the insight of the whole firm. It’s therefore your responsibility to make sure that you bring the best of the firm to your work by leveraging the knowledge and capabilities of those around you.
Use support services to do your work
Large consulting firms often have support services to help you get certain tasks done, such as cleaning up the formatting of slide decks, booking travel, filing expenses and researching niche topics. Making full use of these resources will free you up to spend your time doing the work that only you can do.
Keep track of what others owe you
Over the course of a project, you’re likely to require input from many other stakeholders and contributors. You might need to ask the Research team for information, the Visual Graphics team for slides, your manager for input, a number of experts for their industry expertise, a colleague for analysis, or a combination of all these requests.
Rather than simply waiting for the responses to come through, you should keep on top of what others owe you. Check in with them at appropriate intervals to avoid your progress becoming hampered by delays at their end.
Reach out to others for solutions and ideas (where appropriate)
In consulting firms, it’s astounding just how helpful and resourceful a typical cohort of consultants – or even a whole office function – can be when you’re looking for a specific solution. If you hit a dead end after doing your own research and thinking, try reaching out to your colleagues for their input. No matter how obscure the question, chances are there will be someone who can help you.
Be nice to Partners’ Personal Assistants
When it comes to completing your work successfully, getting time from the Partners in your firm can sometimes make all the difference. Their diaries are closely guarded, however, so it makes sense to be pleasant and polite whenever you interact with their Personal Assistants. In addition to being good business etiquette, it could make their assistants more likely to help – rather than hinder – your efforts to get time from the Partners they support.
If you’re getting ready to join McKinsey, BCG, Bain or another top consulting firm, take a look at our guidance on preparing for your first day at a top management consulting firm.