Finding your place in a professional services environment

After 15 years of working across 4 consulting firms – here are some questions I frequently get asked.

1.  What are some visible pathways for cementing your place in a professional services firm?

The first and most important thing to remember and imbibe within yourself before even starting on a pathway, is to value and bring your authentic self to the table. Many of us have been indicated to that our cultural norms or ways of working are incompatible with a professional workplace. While there is some degree of owning your own voice and space, being present, speaking up and out – there is no reason you cannot bring your authenticity to the role. It is what defines you and it is your unique value-add.

Once you start building that confidence (because it doesn’t appear overnight!), here is my three-step process to cement your place in the firm. The first is to build your brand, the second is to build your network and the third is to build your purpose. What do I mean by this? Let me give you my own pathway as an example.

I started my career as a wide-eyed 20-year-old ignoramous at KPMG Sydney. I wore a hippy flowery white skirt and locked myself in the stairwell on my first day. From that girl to this woman has been 15 years, 4 consulting firms and 3 of the ‘Big Four’. It has been a constant self-iteration to learn from people around me and understand what I bring to the table. That is my brand. I am an honest hardworking energetic person who is passionate about women and children’s education and empowerment. Now what do I do with that in management consulting?

I build my network. Now usually when I say network people think supporters. No. A network that will truly help you grow is filled with not only supporters, but also detractors. People willing to ask you the hard questions and move you from comfort to action. So, find people in your firm who show you how to connect your passion for women and children’s education and empowerment to D&I, or STEM education or innovation and AI or gamification or even tax reform! And then add to your network key people at all ranks who can help you grow your passion into a vision, concept and purpose all within the constraints of your day-job or performance management cycle or whatever metric you must meet.

This will lead you to building your purpose. Your purpose is what drives you, what makes you leap out of bed and be eager to bring your best self to work. Realistically in our current climate, not every project is going to have a direct link to achieving your purpose, but if that’s always in the back of your mind, you will find ways to connect to it, learn from your work and others and bring that purpose to life – and in doing so, cement your place in the firm.

2.  I am just starting out and I look at the role models in my firm and wonder – how do I get there?

Ask them – People are usually generous with their time and advice either one on one or on webinars and zoom calls (most of which are recorded so you can watch them any time) where they have shared their own personal experiences. There are definite take aways for us to absorb from their journey and apply to our own.

The other thing you can do, is use the journeys of others to be inspired. I recently watched Dapper Dan share his life story on Vogue’s you tube channel and was impressed by his resilience in building his fashion empire. There is a lot to learn from those who share their struggles. The triangle of resilience, agility and confidence are key.

And finally, don’t be shy to share your ambition and ask for feedback. If you want to be a Partner in your firm in the next 3,5,10 years. Go for it. Articulate that ambition and build the network that will help you get there. And ask them for feedback. Feedback is what helps us grow and the moment we become scared of it is the moment we lose our edge.

A point on feedback – you don’t always have to agree with feedback given to you, but you can disagree or reflect on it with respect. Ask for a discussion where you can delve in to why the feedback is what it is and what can be improved. It is important to separate an action, idea or feedback from the person providing it.  

3.  Retaining highly talented women to senior levels is an ongoing challenge in Consulting. How can we change this?

I ‘grew up in consulting firms’ it’s all I’ve ever known in my professional life. And I think that’s built in me a certain resilience as I’ve watched the turnover at those firms. I have been able to learn from those that left and apply agility going forward. But my challenge to these firms is – why is the onus on the individual to be resilient? Why can we not unshackle ourselves from the traditional professional services firm concept of high pressure, high performance that burns people out and compels them to take their skills, experience and insight elsewhere?

My challenge is also to those at Senior Manager, Director and Partner levels. My consistent experience across the firms I have worked in has been that senior leadership has consistently espoused inclusivity and equity. I have heard from juniors and my peers that this resonates with them during recruitment and is a critical factor in them joining professional services firms. Where then is it being diluted?

I would posit that the middle to senior layers in professional services can become quite immersed in engagement metrics, sales and delivery and sometimes forget that we are only as good as the team we build around us.

Engaging in active listening – not only with clients but our own people, and proactively working to retain talented colleagues, will allow professional services firms to not only take gender equity to market and meet client needs – but walk the talk of unshackling themselves from the challenges of traditional ways of working in professional services firms.

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