Getting started as a transformation leader
You already got the point - transformations are large, complex, lengthy, and difficult. They require unwavering commitment from the top leaders. A lot will go wrong before it goes right. There are several moving parts being orchestrated in parallel. It’s also normal for transformations to fail to achieve their original goals. However, without them, companies will quickly become obsolete, dying a slow death.
So, how do you get started doing transformation work? Transformation requires apprenticeship; studying books will help, but will only take you so far. The best way to learn it is by working directly with people who are good at it, absorbing as much as you can from interactions and observations, and asking a lot of questions. And if you want to make the most of those experiences, you first need to become awesome at project-based work.
You first need to become awesome at project-based work.
Knowing how to run successful projects helps you develop a strong foundation to work in transformation programs. You need to become good at designing charters, clarifying objectives, writing plans, identifying interdependencies and risks, preparing status updates, drafting good presentations, influencing people, dealing with conflicts, driving content work in different areas, etc. You have two main paths to choose from:
Start in consulting
There are a number of consulting companies you can join to practice and hone your project management skills.
For obvious reasons (I worked at McKinsey for 6 years), I am more familiar with the way the top 3 management consulting companies (McKinsey, BCG, and Bain) work. If you choose this path, you will likely be assigned to a new project with a new team every 2-3 months, and they can vary in industry and discipline. The teams are usually small, consisting of 2-5 consultants, and the project’s mandate will be lofty. You will work with brilliant people on (mostly) exciting problems, spending the majority of your time on strategy and, sometimes, on the beginning of implementation (usually full implementation becomes cost prohibitive). You will receive a lot of training and investment in your own development, will travel a lot, and will have access to amazing perks (including very generous merit increases for top performers). Also, expect to receive a lot of feedback - way more than you ever wanted.
As you look into other consulting companies, you must do your homework. There are opportunities in huge companies (like Accenture, EY, Deloitte, etc.) and smaller ones (too many to name them here). They will have their own way of working: some will excel in a specific type of work or discipline, others will require less travel, others will have different team structure, etc.
Because of the very long hours, you tend to develop faster than most people in traditional jobs. My time at McKinsey gave me an amazing toolset to draw from, including the confidence to successfully manage large, complex projects, as well as the ability to communicate in a structured and clear way at all levels of the organization. Only when I left consulting did I realize how important and uncommon both of those skills were.
If you choose this path, there are a few considerations to keep in mind:
Best fit. While a big brand name may look nice on your resume, you should probe deeper before choosing a company. I’ve worked with weak consultants from big name consulting shops, and I’ve also worked with amazing folks from companies you have never heard about. You must find the place that will be the best fit for you. Take the time to meet with people from the companies you are considering joining - that will offer invaluable insight into what to expect.
Running logistics vs. driving content. Avoid the trap of mostly running the logistics and not getting as involved in content creation. In most companies, that won’t even be a possibility. However, I’ve worked with several large consulting companies that were focused more on implementations in which that was a real issue. If you do peg yourself in that situation, your learning will be a fraction of what it should be.
Lifestyle. Let me put this in very simple terms - your lifestyle will suck. A lot. Even more so if you develop a reputation of being successful in tough situations. Not to mention that, in consulting, you will have to spend a significant amount of time selling new projects and doing things for the betterment of your company that may not be aligned with what you like to do (including writing papers, interviewing, delivering training, etc.)
Attitude. I wish this was not the case, but alas, it is true. Some consultants consider themselves as superior beings capable of solving any problem in the world. Yes, this also happens outside of consulting, but it is a much more prevalent issue in this field. While it is unavoidable to work with such individuals if you choose this path, you can choose whether you will let that happen to you. Be vigilant about how you talk about people and how you talk to people in less skilled jobs. The last thing you want is to develop a reputation for being arrogant.
Different measures of success. It is very different to be a consultant vs. an employee of the company driving the project since consultants usually leave once the project is complete. Consultants will do everything within their power to ensure the project is successful in the eyes of the person hiring them and may, inadvertently, burn bridges, alienate client team members, and/or ignore organizational boundaries and norms. And once the project is over, consultants will move on to the next engagement, not having to deal with the aftermath they left behind.
Additionally, because of the “different measures of success,” doing consulting work limits the actual learning you can have in driving successful transformations. There are a number of critical skills that you will only learn in a corporate role.
Start in a corporate job
If you don’t want to deal with the demands of consulting, you should consider going straight into the corporate world. The trick is to find a place that meets the following requirements:
Good company. This is very similar to the point made above about finding a consulting company that is the best fit for you, but with one additional twist: a lot of traditional companies have a bad culture. Don’t let yourself be seduced by what they say during the recruiting process; instead, pay attention to what they do and how they treat their employees. You must talk to current and former employees before accepting the offer.
Great leader and great teammates. For better or for worse, you will be stuck with your boss and your teammates for a while. Thus, you need to find a team with an experienced leader that excels at project work and team development, and with a welcoming and collaborative culture. Quite often, people in those teams will have a background in consulting, so you can learn the consulting toolkit from them.
Mostly project-based work. Be careful not to find yourself in a team with a small scope. If you do, your exposure to project work will be limited. Instead, you want a team with a broad mandate and where project-work is the norm. You should also be proactively volunteering to join as wide of a range of projects as possible to build a solid foundation.
There are several companies with such teams, which are usually called Business Development, Business Operations, Special Projects, Strategy, and/or Transformation.
Within the corporate world, projects tend to be longer, giving you the opportunity to not only work on the plan, but also implement it. You learn how to execute well, collaborate across departments, influence without authority, build true followership, and deliver presentations on your area of expertise. Training and professional development may still occur, but not at the same quality level and surely not with the same intensity as it would in consulting. You won’t receive much proactive feedback - so you will need to ask for it. Also, even if you negotiate a good salary to start with, the annual merit increases will be far from great. Last, please be advised that lifestyle will still be an issue - you will very likely be working longer hours than any other team in your company - but it should still be significantly better than in consulting.
I hope these insights help you reflect on your goals and choose the path that best suits you. In my experience, great people will find their way around regardless of the starting point. They quickly learn that, in order to be great at transformation work, they need to figure out how to get the best of both worlds: the project management mastery you would get in consulting and the ability to drive real action you would get in the corporate world.