In the last few years, I’ve found myself having the same conversation with several newly exited c-level executives. These very accomplished people have had successful careers and, thinking about post c-suite life, they are confident that they can move into a management consulting role, either in their own company, or at a tier-one advisory firm. Usually, when they reach out to me, they are seeking any advice I have about making the transition from client to consultant. My response is usually a surprise, because I warn them that what they are about to try is a lot harder than seems.
At first glance, of course, their idea seems easy enough. If you have had multiple stints as a CIO or Chief Supply Chain Officer, you have typically worked with the top consulting firms, which are very good at making consulting look easy. So it’s natural for executives to think that switching sides to the advisor role should be straightforward. Yet consulting firms started by former senior executives often fail and, even when then don’t, rarely worry places like Accenture or BCG. This seems counter-intuitive, since it’s easy to think that someone who was an innovative or transformational leader in Company A should be able to tell execs in Company B exactly how to replicate that success, especially when charging thousands of dollars a day. Yet that outcome is the exception and not the rule. I think the reason for this phenomenon is that management consulting is a lot harder than it looks to outsiders.
To understand the previous statement consider the three fundamental things that a c-suite exec has to get right in order to make their management experience valuable in the consulting marketplace:
- Really understand why you were successful. This sounds easy but it’s not. Success in the c-suite might have had many causes and many dimensions. Individual talent is surely one driver of corporate success, but it’s rarely the only one. Maybe you had great CEO support or strong partnerships with other divisions. Maybe you had the help of smart and hard-working people from third-parties. Maybe you were lucky and the market’s winds hurried along your progress. Whatever the reasons, anyone moving from c-suite to consulting has to understand clearly the drivers of their own success before they can replicate it anywhere, which brings me to point number two.
- Make past experience replicable. If a senior executive did achieve something special at Company A, they must now find a way to define the steps and resources required to achieve similar results in Company B. This second step is even harder than the first, and it’s where many transition efforts fail. In other words, just because I can explain to you how I play the piano, that doesn’t makes me a good piano teacher. Replicating your success in other companies requires a method, a system, and many executives struggle to define, in a clearly replicable way, their own success. Even when they do, however, they need to surmount point number three.
- Achieve the same results in a completely different environment. This last step is the hardest one of all, for it requires you to be able to take your method and achieve similar results in a company with different management, employees, culture, systems, etc, and in which you have no management authority. Moreover, you most often do not have the same amount of time to achieve that success as in your old role, since your cost to Company B is typically much higher than it was to Company A (and because “speed to value” is something you likely promised at the onset).
These three steps are the “c-suite to consulting bridge,” as I call it, and I explain this concept to executives looking to parlay their corporate careers into advisory success. Of course, my notes above don’t mean that it’s impossible to transform c-suite experience into consulting success. It just means that doing so is more challenging than many senior executives imagine, sitting on the other side of the table. Furthermore, most senior executives are used to being sold to and not to selling themselves. This is a major challenge that must to overcome. As I mentioned to a former Chief Strategy Officer a few days ago, being able to speak about your own success and value without coming across as arrogant or pushy is a very hard line to walk. Indeed, this is a subtle skill good consultants learn early on in their careers, and from what I have seen it’s one of the hardest transitions for ex-executives to make successfully.
Before ending, it’s worth noting that those c-suite execs who understand my three points, and are able to cross that bridge, make truly outstanding advisors, who are in an ideal position to lead a practice or even their own firm. Their past experience as corporate leaders, combined with their deep understanding of the sources and replicability of success, provides them an ideal combination of attributes for consulting success. Indeed, thinking carefully about my three points above will only strengthen the hand of anyone leaving the c-suite and looking to lead others to success in their own similar, though never identical, challenges.
My advice, then, to c-suite execs transitioning into consulting is to approach the transformation from client to advisor with a degree of humility and with the aim of perfecting the three steps noted above. This part of the transition is what I always stress in my discussions, and I have coached a few former execs to do it well. Ignoring these points does not doom a transition from senior exec to consulting leader, of course, but it certainly makes it a lot harder.
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