Crossing Over: The Role Transition From Consulting to Corporate

As anyone who has heard the joke about the consultant and the shepherd knows, professional services firms and corporate organizations often have a love-hate relationship. Yet they share one need – superlative leadership. How do both sides benefit from mixing DNA?

More than ever, corporates seek transformative leadership. Robust strategies must be efficiently designed and executed, engaging employees with measurable results. On the Professional Services side, many Partners reach a point where they seek revitalization. Turning the spotlight onto themselves, they seriously consider ‘crossing over.’

How can consultants and hiring organizations ensure that mixing DNA exceeds the sum of its parts? Whilst the opportunities are many, there are just as many risks.

Amrop interviewed 15 CxO’s of top corporate organizations. All had been Partners, Senior Executives, Directors and Practice Leaders in global, regional and local professional services firms. From 5 countries in Europe, the CxO’s had a mix of backgrounds; from Strategy or Management Consulting, Audit, and Tax to Human Capital Consulting. They are now working successfully within diverse industries.

Their narratives provide indicators for hiring organizations and professionals who are considering crossing over. They also offer insight into the exhilarating - sometimes painful - experiences of a new C-suite executive.

Our interviews revealed that the cross over from professional services to the corporate world can add considerable value to both sides. However, due diligence is key. Solid onboarding is critical for any incoming executive. It is all the more so for these profiles, given the differences in culture and practice between the two worlds. The cross over should be accompanied by a coach, and objective internal guides. With onboarding in place, the consultant’s skillset, combining strong analysis, strategy design and change management, can be an unusually powerful mix.

10 Insights

  1. Time For a Change: Partners want to feel – and make – a difference
  2. Preparation is 90% of Success: Due diligence is vital. Not only on the hiring organization, but on onesself, say ex Partners
  3. The Shock of the New. Consulting skills help to swiftly assess and navigate the difficult new terrain. Some gaps cannot be filled alone
  4. Consulting On the Inside: The legacy of the consulting world has durable business relevance
  5. Us and Them: Prejudices are common, leadership and observable successes win out
  6. Old Dogs, New Tricks: A more structured team management style may be called for
  7. Those Were the Days (Or Were They?). Ex Partners miss solving problems with likeminded peers
  8. If I Were Hiring Me: Hiring organizations also need to perform due diligence, and read between the lines of the CV
  9. I can See Clearly Now: If the professional loyalty of most ex-Consultants endures, their respect of C-suite practitioners rises
  10. Where Do We Go From Here?: Worlds can be bridged in new ways: continuing an advisory role  as a corporate NED, or soothing an entrepreneurial itch via intrapreneurship.

In Brief

1 - Time For a Change

Partners want to feel – and make – a difference

The move from Partner to corporate C-Suite is triggered by a combination of personal and professional drivers. Most prominent: looking ahead at the career path and feeling a need for change – like a ‘20 year itch’. Or starting every year with the same Sisyphean cycle: revenue targets, slidewriting and presenting (with limited influence). Excessive travel and family shifts compound matters, and the consulting career path may be unappealing or uncertain. The final decision may follow deep reflection, or the invitation of an executive search firm or client.

2 - Preparation is 90% of Success

Due diligence is vital. Not only on the hiring organization, but on oneself, say ex Partners

The need to prepare (without analysis paralysis) is undeniable. Some CxO domains will be new – finance, legal, managing diversity - and the learning curve steep. At the other extreme, if consultants do not know it all, their hiring organizations may assume they do, so expectations must be managed. Due diligence on the hiring organization is critical. Equally so is to get to know the key stakeholders (far easier when crossing over to an ex-client). Due diligence on oneself is as important: motivations, strengths, weaknesses, preparedness for an operational role. Coaching is vital - also once on board.

3 - The Shock of the New

Consulting skills help to swiftly assessing and navigating the new terrain. Some gaps cannot be filled alone.

Once on board, interviewees were struck by corporate emotionality and politics. Some felt they lacked legal and financial expertise. Being in the spotlight was a surprise, and whilst some executives relished greater decision making freedom, others felt the pressure of having their finger constantly on the button. Fortunately, consulting skills helped in assessing and navigating the new terrain. In addition, incoming executives sought external support from 3 dimensions: from the top, the frontlines and laterally, by building (or importing) a strong team. (Some were disappointed by the quality of corporate support teams).

4 - Consulting On the Inside

The legacy of the consulting world has durable business relevance

Consulting skills are highly relevant in the corporate world, thanks to a combination of broad-based thinking, sharp analytical skills, and the ability to motivate teams in times of pressure and change.

5 - Us and Them

Prejudices are common, leadership and observable successes win out

Explicit or implicit prejudices related to their background concerned the new CxO’s understanding of the company, or the relevance and pragmatism of their strategies. Several successfully rose above these. Either they were realistic about human nature, having overcome prejudice before, or had a healthy ‘noise filter’. Coolheaded executives helped their entourage follow suit, applying strong leadership and change management skills: an incremental change approach, active listening, participative decisionmaking, authentic leadership, and a fact-based business case. During the change process, prejudices dissolved.

6 - Old Dogs, New Tricks

A more structured team management style may be called for

If many aspects of consulting are invaluable in a new corporate role, some habits transfer less well: the urge to over-analyze before acting, the assumption that teams are highly motivated, closely connected and will deliver on the basis of motivation rather than rules. Or that work can be performed outside office hours. Finally, some consulting tools must be put back into their box: Excel, PowerPoint and management lingo.

7 - Those Were the Days (Or Were They?) 

Ex-Partners miss solving problems with likeminded peers

Ex-Partners most miss performing and discussing intellectual tasks in a like-minded collegiate. They miss less the reasons they quit in the first place – the imbalance between work and private life, excessive travel, workload, the pressure of acquisition, their low influence on outcomes.

8 - If I Were Hiring Me

Hiring organizations also need to perform due diligence, and read between the lines of the CV

A previous consulting-client relationship can be a fine platform for mutual observation. Even more so, because it can be difficult to gain visibility on a Partner from the ‘black box’ and team-result orientation of consulting. In the absence of a previous partnership, sound assessment is critical: of business competencies, personal/social fitness for this new environment and underlying motivation. Risk can be managed by setting smaller steps upward, and again, well planned and executed onboarding. Given this, the fresh perspective, broad-based experience and intellectual bandwidth imported by consulting professionals will act as a powerful catalyst for change.

9 - I can See Clearly Now

If the professional loyalty of most ex-Consultants endures, their respect of C-suite practitioners rises

Whilst their new life in the C-suite had reduced the esteem of some executives for their former profession, the respect of most remained intact. The idea of clients and consulting firms mutually coaching each other emerged. Regarding their perceptions of the C-suite, the appreciation of all participants had grown, thanks to first-hand experience of this lonely, highly pressured role, where their impact on results did not always match their hopes, as the system raised barriers to action.

10 - Where Do We Go From Here?

Worlds can be bridged: continuing an advisory role  as a corporate NED, or soothing an entrepreneurial itch via intrapreneurship.

Even if not yet in sharp focus, the next career step was emerging. Crossing back was rarely cited. Instead, some were thinking of bridging the advisory and corporate worlds via a Non Executive Board role. Others were experiencing a persistent entrepreneurial itch. For some, this could be solved by becoming an intrapraneur within their existing organization. Finally, for those not already in a CEO role, feelings were mixed about stepping up to the plate.

Summing Up

4 Ways in Which (ex) Consultants Can Catalyze Change From the Inside

  1. Productive interaction: fluency in the boardroom style and in general, a sharp focus on the core of a business or human problem
  2. Ease in handling intense pressure: large workloads, tight delivery times
  3. Capitalizing on previous industry knowledge: thinking ‘outside-In,’ thanks to experience of a wide spectrum of business models and perspectives
  4. Rapid and efficient strategy design and implementation: new business models and KPI’s, new market penetration, building and equipping teams for the growth agenda.

Download the full article here.

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