Why Management Consulting Wasn’t for Me

About a year and a half ago, my job-hunting anxiety was pretty high. Despite my hard work, I was unsure whether there would be any good professor jobs. I started looking beyond the bounds of professor life to see what other career possibilities existed for someone with a Ph.D. in communication.

One of my advisors on my Ph.D. committee was Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School. I remembered from his experience that he had worked for Boston Consulting Group prior to finishing his Ph.D. I poked around the BCG website one day and noticed that they actively recruited people with Ph.D.s, not just people with MBAs. Perhaps this was a career option for me.

I started doing a lot of research into management consulting. It sounded challenging, intellectually stimulating, it paid very well, and it set people up to have interesting and successful careers down the road. Why not? I applied to all of the major consulting firms – BCG, McKinsey, Bain, Booz, and some others. Well, at least all of the firms that allowed me to apply. Many of these firms only recruit from top, Ivy-caliber schools, and at least one of these firms (I can’t remember which one) only provided a drop-down menu with these dozen or so schools to choose from in the application. Being from a lowly state school, I wasn’t even able to apply to one of the firms. But I did apply to the rest, and it turned into an interesting experience.

McKinsey & Company eventually expressed interest in my application. I was invited out to their Silicon Valley office for an interview August 2010, just days before I would do a speed-dating round of mini-interviews for professor positions at several schools at the AEJMC conference. When it rains it pours I suppose.

I was really impressed by the whole McKinsey process, and I have to admit I got a little starry-eyed with the “executiveness” of it all. The on-site interview consists of a multiple choice math test (seriously), as well as some “not for a grade” practice group case studies with some of the McKinsey associates. I say “not for a grade” because we were assured the case studies were truly just for practice in case we got invited to an additional (final) round of interviewing, but I find it hard to believe we were all flown in to just take a multiple choice test.

The math test was literally the hardest test I’ve ever taken. Supposedly, no one has ever gotten a perfect score on the test, and I believe that. I’m positive I did really poorly on the last third or so of the (very fast) test, and I probably missed several in the first two-thirds of the test, too.

Before and after the test, we had a moment to meet other people there for the interview – about 20 of us total. This was a fascinating interaction. All of us were non-MBAs with advanced degrees, mostly Ph.D.s. Only two of us were from the non-hard sciences or economic sciences – me, plus one other person studying psychology. In the small talk, it also became evident that everyone except me was from Stanford, Berkeley, or USC (and one person from Harvard who happened to be dissertating in California). And I’m pretty sure I was the only grad student in the mix who taught rather than worked in a lab, and I was definitely the only one who was also working a few part-time jobs. This was certainly an elite and privileged bunch of candidates, and in hindsight I’m proud to have been deemed worthy enough to interview alongside them.

The group case study part went well enough, I think. As the associate presented the case study and asked for responses and ideas, everyone else in my group stuck to the logistics aspects, the finance aspects, the…science-y aspects. I contributed ideas from the marketing, communication, customer service, etc. realm. Generally speaking, it was clear who the humanities person was in the group (me), because I thought about the human, customer experience, and the science types thought about the operations aspects. Kind of interesting.

In the end, I already had an email saying I did not make it to the next round by the time I boarded the plane home. I was disappointed I suppose, but in retrospect I’m grateful I didn’t advance. After the dazzle of the process wore off and after I talked with some friends who had actually been these kinds of consultants, I realized management consulting really wouldn’t have suited me. And here’s why:

  • Consulting for a company like McKinsey is for young, single people. You travel a ton (on the road like 4+ days a week), so maintaining a healthy relationship with a spouse, let alone trying to have and raise kids, seems impossible. The consultants I know also drink quite a bit. It’s not that they have drinking problems (none of them do), but it’s kind of the only thing you have time to do at the end of a long day, on the road with coworkers, hanging out at the hotel bar. On the other hand, they make a ton of money, so at least they’re drinking the good stuff. It’s a life full of travel and cocktails and hard work and independence – ultimately it’s a life for young, single people who are intensely focused on career. That’s not really my thing these days. My wife is my priority, and I don’t really enjoy travel (especially work travel).
  • It’s a job with long hours. A consultant friend I know told me that it’s even more work than it seems. On one level, you’re trying to tackle enormous problems for companies, and on another level, you’re billing sometimes millions of dollars from these companies. Because you’re the outside team that’s been brought in to solve the problem for a high price tag, you’re expected to arrive early and stay late. The client wants to see you working hard, sequestered in the conference room pouring over data and charts and such. They want to see you earn the money. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It keeps going until everyone else in the office has left, and then you continue working at the hotel (over a good cocktail). It is thoroughly exhausting work.
  • It’s not as innovative as it seems. This reason is a bit controversial, and if some McKinsey person finds this blog, I bet they’ll contact me to argue otherwise, but I’ve heard this from two different consulting friends. Elite management consulting is made out to be this cutting-edge, mindblowing, innovative experience where a giant company brings in the consulting team to solve the biggest problems ever (e.g., help us expand our company into China in two years, or help us keep our airline profitable while still providing great destinations and amenities, or help us streamline a billion dollars out of our operating budget). In many cases, the consulting team (of about 5 people) brainstorms and comes up with this killer solution. But in many other cases, it’s pretty straightforward work, and the lead consultant on the team dictates to the rest of the team how they will attack the problem and what existing consulting firm tools they use to do it. It’s much more about following orders and executing the lead consultant’s vision than it is about innovating new ways to solve tough business problems.
  • For me, there are moral and ideological issues. McKinsey, at least, emphasizes that consultants never have to take on clients they disagree with (e.g., if you’re against smoking, you never have to work on the cigarette company account). I believe this, but I also have an issue with working at a firm that helps these kinds of clients at all. I’m also pretty fundamentally opposed to the evils of big corporations (and, frankly, free market capitalism entirely). Helping any major corporation cut costs by laying off thousands of members of the working class, outsourcing jobs overseas, using cheaper environmentally unfriendly materials, and so on makes me a bit uncomfortable. I am certain I would have confronted some really difficult ethical issues as a management consultant, and I’m not sure I would have had a voice to express these concerns.

In the end, McKinsey was the only consulting company that expressed any interest in me, and ultimately I didn’t meet their standards. Talking about why management consulting wouldn’t have been a good fit for me in hindsight is not so much about sour grapes. Hopefully this is helpful for others (perhaps other grad students) who are interested in a non-academia job. Management consulting is the right thing for some people, and the payout is enormous, but it just wasn’t for me. I’m thankful McKinsey took me seriously, though, and I’m thankful I ended up as a professor, where I belong.

Public Relations for Viral Culture

The frenzied pace with which people circulate humorous text and video clips through the Web – let’s call it viral culture – can leave a public relations practitioner’s head spinning. Too often, PR folks 1) are way behind the speed and sophistication of viral culture, and/or 2) have knee-jerk reactions to what they perceive is their message being rapidly coopted and twisted and circulated. Too often, PR folks respond to embarrassing incidents by trying to squash them. But, as we know, this doesn’t work really well for the Interwebs.

This week, after one of its flight attendants flipped out and quit his job in an amazingly awesome (albeit dangerous and illegal) way, jetBlue made the right PR decision. Instead of issuing a stuffy, typical press release condemning the actions of its (former) employee, it decided to post a blog entry written in a humorous tone, acknowledging that the incident was at least a little bit funny.

It was funny, after all. The flight attendant, Steven Slater, got into an altercation with a passenger after the passenger disobeyed safety orders and opened an overhead bin while the plane was still taxiing. Luggage flew out and hit Slater on the head. After some choice words broadcast over the intercom, Slater grabs a beer and exits the plane via the inflatable yellow emergency slide. Awesome.

Steven Slater, in a pre-meme work portrait

The Internet loved this story, and everything from re-enactments and animations to vlog tribute posts have been circulated along with this story. When the Internet loves something and that something becomes elevated to the heights of viral culture, there’s no stopping it. Attempting to stop it just adds fuel to the fire, and it makes the company trying to stop it look out of touch, ignorant to the laws of viral culture, and lacking a sense of humor.

This is why jetBlue’s PR move was the right one. jetBlue is a savvy company – trendy, stylish, and, frankly, the best flying experience today. They knew better than to mess with the entire Internet, and they’re going to come out on top with this incident. jetBlue proves that a company, when faced with an embarrassing incident, can simultaneously not condone bad behavior and things that go against the brand AND reach out to its customers in a humorous, real way.

An even better move for jetBlue would be to embrace the energy and momentum of the viral culture to further strengthen its brand, to try and harness some of the crowd’s creativity and humor for jetBlue’s own good. For instance, jetBlue could open up a contest space on its website encouraging users to submit video of themselves giving new-and-improved in-cabin safety demonstrations, or invite users to submit wonderful recreations of the drawings in the safety pamphlet in the back of seats (complete with yellow slide!). And give prizes to the best submissions. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but it would be a gutsy way to draw customers in to a fun experience revolving around the jetBlue brand.

This is how PR works in a viral culture. It’s about keeping a finger on the pulse of the customer, taking a step back and looking at your own brand in a realistic (perhaps funny) way, and fearing respecting the awesome power of the Internet and viral culture.

On a parting note, I want to send a shout-out to my friend, fellow Trinity alum, and guest speaker in my classes, Brendan Ross (aka Terminal Man). He blogged about his experiences continually living in airports and airplanes for a month through jetBlue’s all-you-can-fly program. He’s a social media genius, and so is jetBlue for embracing him.