Balancing Work and Life as a Consultant

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Question:

One concern that I have and would love to hear about your experience in is balancing work and life as a consultant. Is it possible?

I ask because I have a wife and a lot of the folks I've met keep telling me to have fun now because it will be over once I start to work.

What was your experience balancing work and life?

Is the 70-hour week every week non-stop?

I know that the consulting experience is very case/office/partner specific, but what are your insights as to what to expect?

I've heard from peers who pulled 100 hours week, and in the context of family life, this does not sound appealing.

Thanks again for your time, Victor.

I promise to reciprocate the favor by making a donation to your favorite charity (kidpower.org).

 

My Reply:

Is it possible to balance work and life as a consultant? Yes, I think it is, but you can't always manage it when you want to manage it.

I worked in the New York Office at McKinsey and in general, people in New York work much harder than they do in other cities around the country.

As one of my clients recently said, they have this song that goes like this, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere..." and that song is not about San Diego or Miami.

So the first factor that influences how hard you work is the culture related to your geography (both country and city). I know my former German colleagues work hard -- and likely harder than former colleagues in other European cities.

The next factor is the industry you choose to work in or end up working in.  This is a decision that not enough people consider carefully early in their career.

Here is the reality.

Consulting is a client business. You end up going to where the client is located.

At McKinsey, we went to the client four days out of every week - virtually no exceptions. At other firms, they often go to the client for meetings, to conduct interviews, gather data, etc... so regardless, you're going to see the client a fair amount.

Here is where the life balance thing comes in.

Travel.

Travel is hard on the lifestyle because you are just not at home.

In my first year at McKinsey, I lived in Manhattan in the Upper West Side, right across from Lincoln Center. It was a great place to live, especially in summer. But, I was never home.

I paid rent in New York, but I spent 46 weeks that first year in the Ritz Carlton in Cleveland. Sure, it was a very nice hotel, and it's really, really cool for the first four weeks... but from week 5 to 46, you quickly realize it is not home. Your friends aren't here. Your family is not here.

So if you want the 80/20 rule to improving your odds of having a better lifestyle, don't work on out-of-town clients.

This is not always easy to do, but to the extent you have increasing influence on this as your reputation builds within the firm, you have more options.

This leads me to my next point -- deciding which industry or practice area to focus on. Many new consultants are not at all strategic about this as it relates to work life balance.

If you want to avoid traveling, work in an industry that is largely based in the same city as your office.

So in New York, my work gravitated to financial services. This was not a deliberate choice, but I had the interest in the sector, I got really good in certain aspects, I liked my colleagues in that sector, they and my clients liked me a lot.

For the long run, had I stayed at McKinsey, this would have been favorable from a work-life balance standpoint because there are a lot of financial institutions in New York.  So traveling to the client often involves just taking a taxi.

If you wanted to work in the Oil and Gas industry and you work out of New York, guess what?  You are flying to Houston a lot.  If you happened to work in the Houston office and want to work in financial services, guess what? You are flying to New York every week (or fairly often).

If you like working in high-tech, but work in Chicago, you are flying to Silicon Valley a lot.

So one key strategic decision to consider, especially if you plan to be in consulting for several years (because in your first year, you tend of have much less choice), consider the geographic dispersion of the clients in an industry as it relates to the location of your office.

This is especially true for women.  I remember listening in one one conversation with a female consultant who had been in the firm about 3 - 4 years.

She had gotten really good in an industry that was not local. Now she had kids, and found herself wanting to see her kids every day while still serving clients. The problem was that she was not home five nights a week (fly Sunday, get back home late Thursday night after the kids were asleep).

So Mom was not there to tuck the kids in goodnight roughly 70% of the time.  She was very torn, and she in many ways regretted not picking her second favorite industry, which was local.  But now she was only about two years away from making partner, it wasn't worth switching, and she was very likely to make partner, based on the work in her first choice industry.

But, she was miserable and torn at the conflict. Her regret was that nobody told her of this tradeoff early in her career when switching industries was no big deal. She did not realize the tradeoff she was making at the time she made the original decision.

Well, now you know. Pick your industry carefully, and fully consider the longer term ramifications -- family, kids, etc...

At the same time, I did have female colleagues who had young kids and who were able to see their kids every night, tuck them into bed, and have dinner with them four or five nights a week.

They would leave work by 6pm, three nights a week, have dinner with the kids, tuck them into bed, and then work after the kids were asleep.  The other two nights, they would deliberate stay in the office and work until midnight or 1am.

So she was "there" in total about five nights a week (three weekdays, two weekends) for her kids, all her clients were local because her industry was local, and she too was about 2 - 3 years from partner... and was reasonably satisfied with her choice.

The other longer term consideration is kids.

As the saying goes, once you have kids everything changes. Very true. I now have three kids, and I wish I had given more consideration to early career choices as they would relate to kids.

In other words, the question to ask is: how does this particular career path play out with kids?  By the time you would naturally think of children as a consideration, there is often too much success in the previously chosen direction, and a pretty high switching cost at that point.

So if you don't have kids, but plan to someday, it is hard to imagine what life will be like, what kind of parenting style you would use, etc... but it is worth discussing this now to figure this out at least at a high level.

The kids I found that suffered the most were the ones where the wife was a McKinsey Director with out-of-town clients and the husband was a Goldman Sachs partner.

Those kids never saw either parent virtually ever.  They make movies about these kinds of kids.

Okay, industry aside, the next factor that drives work life balance is the culture of the client. If the client works hard or the client is in an industry that works hard, guess what? You are working hard too.

At McKinsey, my colleagues who had investment banks as clients by far worked the hardest. If you want a more balanced life, pick clients that have a 9-5 culture. That way you can work from 8:30am - 5:30pm, be considered by the client to be working like "crazy," and still be home in time for dinner.

The next factor is whether the client is a repeat client or a first time client. By client I mean both the company name and the specific individual who is the primary contact.

At McKinsey, there is a phrase called an "01" project. This is a killer project. Let me explain what an "01" project is.

Every client project has a billing code. The code is usually the three-letter initials of the company and project number. So if the client was ABC, Inc, then the internal project code used for billing would be ABC001 - meaning ABC client, project #1.

"01" projects are brutal.

There is enormous pressure to impress the client, win the person over, and established a long multi-decade relationship with that individual. This also opens up the opportunity to get face time with other operating executives within ABC client.

So maybe the primary client contact is the CEO of North America for ABC, Inc. The idea is to do an outstanding job on project ABC001, parlay that into ABC002 with that same North American executive, but also get exposure to the CEO of EMEA (Europe & Middle East) and parlay that relationship into ABC003... all the way up to ABC198 (no joke... one client in particular I can think of had 198 projects with McKinsey with each project costing between $1M - $5M, you do the math).

By the way, if you wonder how you make partner at a top firm or how a partner makes director, bring in two "01" Projects, keep those clients, and do stuff to improve the firm, and basically you're in.

You are way too valuable to fire. Because if you are the person who brought in the 01, and they fire you, then project 02 - project 30 are at risk.

Some projects are not labeled 01, but are 01 in nature. For example, project ABC03 could be the first project with the CEO of EMEA... so for all practical purposes, it is an 01.

So if you want an easier life, avoid the 01 projects. If you want a partner to notice how good you are, do an 01 project and do an awesome job -- you will get noticed.

Why?

You help others get promoted.

The very first 01 I did at McKinsey was actually my very last project. I had already quit, was winding down my last week or two at the firm. One of the rising star engagement managers, who was now about two years away from partner, landed a monsterous 01 opportunity. Literally 01 with a world-renowned company.

He knew that if he could bring in that 01 project successfully, build a long term relationship with that client and one other, he would make partner.  This client was the envy of the entire office, and he landed it.

Somehow, and I still do not know how he convinced me to do this, he begged and pleaded with me to unquit McKinsey for just another six weeks, help him nail this 01 project, and then re-quit.

I don't know what I was thinking, but I said yes. The project was delivered successfully, though I was working 100-hour+ weeks to do it (normally I worked 50 - 60 most weeks, and up to 70 in the days leading up to a big presentation -- usually every other month).

So this was just a brutal project, but it was a famous client, it was tied to an M&A transaction which had a specific due diligence schedule, and we got it done. Last I checked, the rising star manager made partner.

So there's tradeoff. 01's are hard work, but 01's can also be where you get noticed.

When you are known as the "go to" guy/gal to deliver good work, everyone wants you to work on their projects because it improves their odds of being promoted... because, keep in mind, they too are being evaluated constantly just like you are.

If you are working with a repeat client, one where the relationship is long term, solid and by no means at risk, then there is no pressure to massively over-deliver and impress the client. The expectation is to just do a good job, slightly more than was expected.

On these projects, the senior team leaders relax a bit and the pace is much more reasonable.

The next factor impacting work/life balance is who the partner (or person with the senior client relationship) is on the project. This is often the partner, junior partner, or senior partner. Names aside, I will use the term "partner" loosely.

There are two specific traits to beware of in these situations:

1) A partner who has a reputation for not being able to "manage client expectations." This is the ability for a partner to say "no" to a client request, without damaging the relationship.

Most commonly, a client will say, "The team is doing a great job... it would be great if you could also have them take a look at XYZ issue."

Eager to please, this partner says, "Yes, no problem," even though it is three extra weeks of work for one person, no new people are added to the team, and the client isn't billed more for the work, and now you and your two other teammates each need to work an extra four hours a day for the next month or so to pull it off.

If you want to know which partners are like this, it is very, very easy to figure it out.  Walk around the office at 11pm on Friday night and see who is still in the office. Ask who the partner is, and if you hear the same name over and over again, you got your answer.

2) The other trait is someone up for a big promotion -- a junior partner soon to be considered for a more senior partner role. These people kind of freak out (really, not a very pretty site...truly not pretty).

The stress these people feel is enormous. Much of it is self-imposed, after all, most consultants are a bunch of super achievers. And now sitting between them and their lifelong career goal is to make sure this project that you happen to be working on goes superbly well.

And in this situation, if that requires you to work every weekend for three months... well, shoot, the temptation is just too great to not run you into the ground.

I worked for one of these partners, and one day at 4am in the morning, just for kicks, I figured out that my hourly compensation that week would have been much higher working at McDonalds. (I did the math.)

And a colleague of mine and I were just staring at each other, sitting on the floor in the hallway because nobody else was in the office, and asking ourselves, "Why are we doing this?"

Guess what we were working on?

The psychotic partner (a.k.a. partner up for promotion) decided that on every slide in the presentation, where we put a square box around the key messages we wanted to communicate, it was really important that all those little boxes have round corners instead of 90-degree angle corners.

So between the hours of 3am - 4am we were waiting for the visual design team to re-do every box to be rounded rectangles rather than right angle rectangles.

I am not kidding.

The fear of being fired causes some people to become insane.... if you want work life balance, figure out when the senior people are in the promotion window and stay away from them.

Now that I've mentioned the extreme scenarios, I will say that most weeks I worked 50 - 60 hours. Which in New York, was pretty good. When a big presentation came up, it was common to work 70 hours -- which would basically be one or two weeks out of every eight weeks.

Once in awhile I had a killer project, which was 70+ hours consistently for a few months on end, but that was very much the exception, and of the two projects that were like this, I consciously chose one of them when I could have avoided it. So over a three-year period, that's not a bad ratio.

Circumstances aside, a big part of the work/life balance comes from you in two key respects.

1) How good are you really at the 80/20 rule?

2) How good are you at managing up and pushing back... saying "no" to a partner without getting them mad?

3) How good are you at getting clients to do the work so you don't have to?

Basic rule of thumb is to do as little as possible to answer the question at hand. Next rule is push back on partners who want to over-analyze something when it is just not necessary -- where the additional analysis is unlikely to change the decision being considered.

And finally, how good are you at recruiting clients to do the work for you? When I was out in Cleveland pretty much on my own for about a year, I got tired of doing all the work myself. So I recruited four clients to do the analysis for me.

I would decide which analyses would need to be done and I would interpret them for conclusions and next steps. My engagement manager would come in once a week for a day, and just be amazed that I had built this team up on my own initiative and was cranking through all kinds of work.

They all worked until 5pm, I stayed until 6:30pm and then went back to the hotel.

This is possible when there is a good relationship between you and the clients and between the senior client and the partner (so the senior client will instruct his/her stuff to give the consultant... me in this case, whatever assistance I need... and I was not the least bit shy in asking for it).

One of those clients that did those analyses for me, by the way, now runs a $750 million line of business.

So hopefully that provides a high level snapshot for work/life balance. It is very much something that can be managed, but not always when you want it.

By the way, this is one topic out a dozen or so that I will be covering in my upcoming webinar on How to Succeed in Management Consulting.

I'm in the middle of processing all the requested topics and organizing it, and will be announcing webinar logistics shortly.

One thing I will mention to you that many of my clients comment on is that almost everything I do or have done, was done for a very deliberate and conscious reason.

I mention this because what you have seen so far from me is really just a very tiny portion of what I know in terms of business. Everything about case interviews is stuff that I forgot I even knew.

If I had to estimate, the information I've shared on the case interview likely represents less than 4% of my knowledge on business. It is what I figured out in the first six months of my career, and I've been working for quite some time since then.

I mention this because in my upcoming webinar on "How to Be Successful in Management Consulting," I'll be sharing a portion of the "next 1%."

I've been compiling the feedback from the 200+ replies I've received on what questions people have on this topic.

You can see all 200+ comments yourself here:

http://www.caseinterview.com/rising-star-consultant/

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8 comments… add one
  • John Kang Mar 27, 2011, 8:50 pm

    Victor,
    Thanks for the insight on how you managed your work life balance. I have a wife and a child and this provides me a little hope that consulting may not be too terrible on the family. I am very thankful for your portion on choosing your specialty/industry carefully based on which office you are working from.
    John

  • Elizabeth Apr 29, 2012, 2:19 pm

    Victor,
    Thank you for your insights. My situation is probably different from others since I recently made it known to contacts that I was considering leaving a Federal IT Program Manager job for the private sector, and suddenly people are coming out of the woodwork asking if I am interested in working from them. At least 3 have been from mid or large consulting firms (2 that I had to help “get to green”). I really didn’t have any sense of life as an external consultant, so your post was helpful. Long hours don’t bother me since 60 hours is the norm for me, but the travel considerations and impacts are new. Since I am being recruited for a specific industry/specialty at a Sr. Manager/Director level, live in a city that is not a major hub for any of the firms, and the industry is fragmented, it looks like the travel would be constant and the work high-pressure. I am also not good about setting boundaries around work so if I want to keep my marriage, consulting is probably not the right option for me!
    So, it looks like I might be considering an offer from a very well-backed, somewhat mature startup, with only 50% travel…if the offer beats my combined total compensation of salary and benefits, plus a risk factor since I’ll walk way from a guaranteed substantial pension annuity. Thanks again!
    Elizabeth

  • HBK May 15, 2012, 3:49 pm

    Very Valuable.

    Victor, this article gives me a very good 360 degree perspective right from kids to psychotics when I’m just about to take a plunge into consulting. I’m used to working for 40-50 hrs in a big medical company. 55+ hrs is a nightmare.
    If I can get the industry, partner and project combination favorable, I’m gonna do well, at least till the time i’m single.

  • A.k.satpathy Mar 6, 2013, 2:18 am

    Good reasoning,practical and educating

  • A.k.satpathy Mar 6, 2013, 2:20 am

    Hope many people can take proper. Decision at time of job change.

  • Sam Nov 16, 2013, 3:40 am

    Mr. Cheng,

    Your article is very helpful and very informative to read. I am not even near the field yet, I am still a college student, exploring different career options, but it’s good to read stuff like this to broaden my perspectives, and teach me a few things about the world of management consulting.

    Thanks

  • Chad Jul 19, 2016, 8:41 pm

    Mr Cheng,

    I always wanted to ask this question to you after I started listening to LOMS and reading all the newsletter emails that I get. My wife works from home and we have a 15 month kid that doesn’t go to school. Will firms like Mckinsey like if I tell them that I would tell them that I will just move to client locations like Cleveland when there are 3+ month projects and stay in a furnished apartment, which will avoid all the travel for me and save the travel dollars for the firm?

    • Victor Cheng Jul 20, 2016, 1:56 pm

      The recruiting team does not care about your preferred living arrangements. It has no bearing on whether you would get the job. Keep in mind clients pay for consultants travel costs; so other than wasting money in a way that causes resentment with clients, consulting firms don’t think too much about travel costs — especially in recruiting.

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