Career Moves for a New Year

As we head into the new year, I wanted to pass along several career strategies that are especially relevant as we approach January.

Whether you are in industry, in consulting, or looking to get into consulting, at least one of the tips below will be relevant and applicable. I will be breaking up these tips into several articles that I will send out over the next few days.

Tip #1: Recognize the Significance of January for Others

To risk stating the obvious, the whole world operates by a calendar. However, what you might not realize is that most organizations use the annual cycle for certain repetitive tasks.

For example, many of the top consulting firms do their full-time recruiting in Q4, and switch to internship recruiting in Q1. Quite typically, right after recruiters get back from the holidays (in this case on January 6, 2014), a barrage of phone calls and emails go out to internship candidates extending case interview invitations.

I know this because on January 7th - 14th each year, I get a barrage of emails in my inbox from panicked CIBs saying, "OMG I got a McKinsey interview in 5 days. I haven’t prepared, what can I do to prepare in just 4 days?"

I give my usual response about Case Interview Secrets, Look Over My Shoulder, find a Case Interview Partner (for practice) and if time and budget permit, get pointers from a Case Interview Coach -- in that order.

But the broader lesson that I want to point out is that this pattern is very predictable. It has been happening every January for at least 20 years, and probably 30 - 40 years.

Whether you are trying to get a job in an organization, get promoted within an employer, or partner with an organization, it is extremely useful to know how their annual processes work.

For example, if you are in industry, you should know if your employer operates on a fiscal (financial) year end of December. The calendar year starts in January and ends in December. Most countries' tax laws allow a company to use a non-standard “year” to compute financial statements (due to various industry seasonalities).

It is very important that you know when your employer's fiscal year ends. The reason is because all financial budgets get reset at the end of the fiscal year, and departmental leaders are suddenly budget “rich” on the first day of the first month of the new fiscal year.

In the United States, I would guess more than half of companies use the calendar year as their fiscal year. That means on January 1, two important things happen:

a) New job openings get approved and funding authorized;

b) New projects get approved -- and new leaders for those projects are needed.

Once again, this pattern is very predictable -- probably going back half a century if not more. If you’re aware of these cycles, you can take advantage of them.

For example, top enterprise sales people use their understanding of their customers' annual planning cycle as follows. In December, they try to exploit “use it or lose it” budget money.

In many corporations, one’s departmental budget is by default the same as what you spent last year (+/- some adjustment factors). So if you had a $1M budget in 2013 as the head of a small marketing department, but you only spent $900,000, then in 2014 your new budget would be $900,000.

This is “use it or lose it.”

Smart sales people know this, and often recontact all of their accounts no later than December of each year to try and help their clients solve this “use it or lose it” problem. As a result, some buyers will say "yes" to a purchase on Dec 15th, even though 60 days ago they said "no."

For those prospects that have spent their budget for the year, the sales people focus on selling “conceptual deals” in December. That is the sales people try to convince prospects that they have the best products and services, put together a deal conceptually, with the intent of closing the deal in January -- once the prospective client is in a new budget cycle and has cash to spend.

Similarly, savvy buyers know that sales people operate on annual sales quotas -- which again ties to the selling organization's fiscal year. The smart buyer who is not in a rush to buy will deliberately say "no," "no," "no" to a salesperson and wait (LITERALLY) until Dec 31st to sign a deal.

They do so, especially for multi-million dollar deals, because they know the selling company starts the process of reporting earnings to Wall Street the next day. Sales people and executives get their annual bonuses paid out on sales volume. And the savvy buyers can often get very attractive discounts for offering to sign a huge (but severely discounted) deal on Dec 31st.

If you are working in consulting, you need to know which month your clients' fiscal year ends. This impacts everything including when you can contact the finance department for data or for help (seriously -- if you ask them the last 2 weeks and first 2 weeks of the fiscal year, when they are trying to close out the year and then close out the books, they will think you are a moron.)

Every organization has a rhythm and schedule as to when certain things happen. Whether you want to get a job, keep a job, sell a deal, get a promotion, or get assigned to a new project, you NEED to know when that organization's annual cycle begins and ends, and be aware of the timing of activities within that cycle.

Tip #2: Exploit Timing Advantages

Once you have greater insight into an organization's annual cycle, take advantage of it!

For example, if you’re applying for a consulting internship and know the firms you target are on a Q1 interviewing cycle, then you should be using the end of year holidays to be practicing case interviews.

(FYI - Many consultants take off at least some time for Christmas and New Year's for the simple reason that most of their clients do too. First off, there are no clients to meet with or to call for help, because many of them are off on holiday. Second, if you too are off for the holidays, you don’t fall behind because nobody else is working either. So a very good time to take time off with really no negative consequences is some time during the last 2 weeks of your clients' fiscal year.)

Just because there’s a natural cyclical lull in the action for the recruiters doesn’t mean you should be doing the same. Quite often it pays to be counter-cyclical. When there is a lull in action with recruiters, you should practice. When the recruiters are active and extending interviews in a barrage, often there really isn’t much time to practice. You only have time to show up for interviews and hope whatever prep work you did was sufficient.

If you’re already working in consulting, this time of year is an excellent time to work on your own professional development. Work days are lighter, client demands are low, managers and partners are off on vacation. It’s a good time to deepen your skills, such as with my How to Succeed in Management Consulting program or the Ultimate Consultant Toolkit.

Know the relevant annual cycles of those people and organizations around, and take advantage of predictable cycles. It’s one way to increase your effectiveness through insight, and not merely just through working harder.

For my next tip, see: The RIGHT Way to Set Annual Goals

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