What I Learned from Getting Coffee with Victor Cheng

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The other day one of my readers, Steven, who landed an MBB offer, invited me out for coffee. He happened to catch me on a day when I was free and looking to be social, so I said yes.

While sipping my venti decaf vanilla latte, we had a great conversation about his upcoming first year at his firm. He asked a lot of great questions and I thought it was too bad everybody else couldn't eavesdrop on our conversation.

Well I asked Steven if he would be kind enough to synthesize what he learned from our conversation. He graciously agreed. His write up with his... wait for it...

THREE key takeaways appears below.

(Ya know, it's really hard not to grin when a student really grasps what you teach... not to mention he tried to segment and disaggregate my business during our conversation -- it's no wonder he got an offer.)

Take it away, Steven...

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What I Learned from Getting Coffee with Victor Cheng

This winter break, I returned home with an unusual goal: I wanted to get coffee with Victor Cheng. I owed Victor some major thanks for his help in my securing an MBB offer, but I also wanted to learn more about the true day-to-day of consulting.

What tips and tricks did Victor pick up during his time at McKinsey? What were the most important skills he developed as a consultant, and how could I develop them for myself? Here are the three biggest things that I learned:

1. Successful client work has a strong emotional component.

Though consultants are big on discussing Excel models and best practices, these alone cannot speak to why your clients make certain decisions – nor will they help you gain trust and credibility as an advisor.

Imagine a hotshot Business Analyst who comes into a film studio, runs a few regressions, and tells the client they’re burning cash on the wrong genres. Think the client believes them? Or do you think they go “Who’s this guy?” and dig in on their position?

The secret of consulting is that your clients need to like you, or they won’t take your recommendations seriously and won’t feel comfortable enough to open up about the company’s real issues.

These people have incredible knowledge about what goes on at their company from working there each day, and you definitely want them on your side. So when you’re spending so much time at the client site, make sure to be friendly, be accessible, and really make an effort. It goes a long way.

Of course, you might be wondering how you get all this client exposure… Which brings me to Point #2:

2. Building relationships internally is the fast-track to responsibility.

Another secret of consulting is that while you eventually get incredible exposure (C-level clients, division heads, etc.), early on the firm “protects” you by keeping you more separated and not giving you major responsibilities. That is, unless you prove yourself early and find people to vouch for you.

Working repeatedly with a core set of partners or team members — particularly if they do work you’re really interested in — is a great way to build these relationships, find mentors, and have the kid-gloves removed a bit earlier than otherwise.

Victor followed this advice back in the day: He got hitched early on to a promising Engagement Manager, who in turn was hitched to a few promising partners, and the group rose together. But Victor would have taken much longer to gain that responsibility if not for his Engagement Manager’s testimonial and trust in him.

Remember: Once people see that you’re competent, they’ll be more than happy to give you interesting, challenging work – you’re on the team after all! But for them to see it more quickly, it helps to have established rapport and a track-record with specific people so that you aren’t proving yourself again on each new project.

Finally, you might be wondering why so many clients face the issues they do. Why do analyses that seem so straightforward sometimes go unimplemented by the client? That question brings me to Point #3:

3. Politics and inertia are real factors. Thankfully, conscientiousness can overcome them.

During our coffee chat, Victor told me a story that will stay with me for a long time: During his time at McKinsey, he worked on a project for a large retail store helping them choose which categories to keep. The recommendation? Cut the live pets section.

Yes, this chain sold live pets, and no, this chain was not a pet store. The pets smelled bad, cost money to feed and clean, and weren’t particularly high-sellers. The decision was a no-brainer. Of course, Victor’s client sure didn’t think so; that was the way things had always been done.

Similarly, chains like Blockbuster have fallen to upstarts like Netflix because they’ve struggled to adapt their business models, which often means undercutting an important part of their current business (in Blockbuster’s case, late fees from in-store rentals – a huge driver of financial performance and their CEO’s job security).

How do you work successfully as a consultant in such environments? The first step in overcoming these factors is realizing that they exist. When you face pushback from a client, the solution isn’t always (or often) to out-logic them.

Rather, consider why the client is pushing back. Is some interest of theirs potentially harmed by your proposal? Might they be scared of breaking the old order and having to learn a new method on the fly?

By putting yourself in the client’s shoes, you can anticipate more of these objections. Then, you can work to structure the company’s decisions to best minimize their impact (either by addressing them or finding a work-around).

After all, you aren’t really succeeding for your clients unless they take the steps to benefit from your recommendations – and considering these personal factors is an oft-overlooked stepping in, allowing them to do so.

There you have it – the three biggest things that I learned from getting coffee with Victor. It was a great chat, and I hope that you all have benefitted from reading some of our thoughts. And, in the future, if you’re ever reaching out to a role-model for advice, keep in mind: Some good luck and sincerity can get a whole lot accomplished!

Best,
Steven
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I hope Steven's takeaways are useful.

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1 comment… add one
  • Ryan Feb 22, 2015, 11:14 pm

    … Nice examples. I really love these short articles that have to-the-point insight and can help someone new like me to learn industry wisdom before I even step foot into my internship.

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