Sink or Swim? Assessing Your Chances of Making Partner
According to Gil Krakowsky, Vice President, Global Strategy & Business Development, The Gap, Inc. and A.T. Kearney Alum, “the consulting career development track is geared to focus on Partnership as a prize. It is not geared to having you sit back and look across your professional and personal life and decide what is right for you at that particular moment in your career.”
Having outlined the various pros and cons of Partnership (“Making Partner: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”) our next installment in the Partner Series looks at the next crucial step in the path to Partner: assessing your chances of making Partner in light of your professional experiences, corporate contributions, and success rate at your firm.
Let’s set the scene. You are a fourth-year Principal at a top-tier management consulting firm. You have received ‘Very Strong’ and ‘Distinctive’ ratings throughout your consulting career. You have spoken with your colleagues, mulled over the pros and cons, and asked the tough questions. One thing is now abundantly clear: You want to make Partner.
So, now what?
Despite your achievements and high performance, you might not necessarily make or be a good fit for Partner.
“People who have been successful their entire careers don’t realize that does not automatically transfer into making Partner,” Delaney Steele, Senior Vice President, Strategy & Marketing for Ross Stores, Inc. and Boston Consulting Group Alum explains.
After speaking with several executives who successfully made it to the Partner-level, the Raines team identified four key factors that could determine whether you can realistically and successfully pursue Partnership at your firm:
An Established Internal Network
Dave Rickard, Executive Vice President, Strategy and Revenue Management for US Foods and former Partner at The Boston Consulting Group, points out to Raines International that “if you encounter people who have moved from sector to sector, client to client, topic to topic…it’s probably a good indication that they aren’t getting enough repeat buyers from the Partner level, which means they aren’t at the top of someone’s queue, which makes it harder for them to get to Partner in the long term.”
Like Dave, Gil emphasizes the importance of a supportive internal network. “At the end of the day, becoming a Partner is not a promotion,” he explains. “Becoming a Partner is an election. And that’s true everywhere. There needs to be a core group of Partners who are saying, visibly, audibly, to other Partners, that they believe you should be their peer.”
Like Dave and Gil, Delaney also speaks to the importance of networking and relationship-building before moving forward.
“So much of making Partner isn’t just about how capable you are, it’s about being established in commercial relationships with a strong set of Partners who are vouching for you,” she states. “Unless you have an influential and successful Senior Partner with a big book of business specifically saying, ‘I will take you through to the end and support you even after you make Partner,’ then I think you are kidding yourself. If you are not getting that absolutely explicit input, not just from the office head but literally from the person who is going to write your sponsorship recommendation and support you as you go through, it’s either not going to happen or even if it does you will flounder as a Junior Partner. You really need that Senior Partner coverage to be successful.”
Bain & Company Alum and Digital Acceleration Officer of Groupe SEB Nicolai Gerard decided not to pursue the Partner Path despite a successful track-record at the Principal-level.
One of the main reasons was the time factor. “When I was a Principal at Bain,” Nicolai told Raines, “the pipeline to Partner was getting a little bit stuffed and it was going to take me longer than expected. I certainly got a little bit demotivated and demoralized by the idea of having to wait a little longer to be a Partner.”
Similarly, Delaney remembers the downturn hampered her ability to make Partner on the timetable she expected.
“Things outside of your control, like there are too many people who have been promoted recently in your practice, or there are too many Junior Partners,” Delaney told us, “can keep you from making Partner” on the track you expected.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you have all of the credentials and building blocks because timing can throw you off track. “I was supposed to make Partner during the downturn, and that was out of my control,” Delaney reminds.
A Specific Partner Skillset
If you want to make Partner, you should take a step back and reflect on how to achieve the position and what the role will mean for you.
According to Delaney, “In reality, you can be a top 10% performer your entire consulting career and still not make Partner.”
Therefore it is crucial for a consultant with Partner aspirations to assess their own work in light of the potential new responsibilities and challenges that come with the role.
“Are you successful by a margin, or are you just barely clearing the bars? The bars only get more and more difficult to clear, so if you are just barely making it through each successive promotion, it’s not going to be fun for you,” Dave tells Raines.
It is also important to remember the different expectations of Consultants at the Partner-level that could potentially clash with your own set of skills, experiences, and hopes for the role:
Pressure for Sales: “The pressure is absolutely enormous to bring in revenue and build-out clients. Unless you’re someone who really likes to be in what is basically a sales-oriented role, it may not be a role that you like. I did not like it as much as I thought I would, because I really like content and problem-solving, but I did not like having to sell work.” — Delaney Steele, Senior Vice President, Strategy & Marketing for Ross Stores, Inc.; Boston Consulting Group Alum.
Need to Actively Take Charge of Decisions: “In terms of soft skills, it is important to understand that there are always going to be road blocks. The folks who take a step back and say, ‘I don’t know what to do, but we have three options, and I think we should do option A, and here’s why’ have a more empowered perspective than people who throw up their hands and say ‘I don’t know what to do, I need help.’ You may not always be right, but taking the forward steps and saying ‘this is what I think we should do and here is why’ gives you a lot more power over your career.” –Dave Rickard, Executive Vice President, Strategy and Revenue Management for US Foods
Confidence: “I was always very direct with A.T. Kearney, and basically said, ‘Look, here is when I expect to make Partner. There is no up-or-out model here, but I see it as an up-or-out. If you don’t want me as a Partner on the basis of the performance I’ve laid out, then let’s just agree that you don’t want me as a Partner and I’ll go do something else.’ I had that conversation a year-and-a-half out with a number of different people, and it wasn’t menacing or threatening. It was just, ‘Let’s be honest, here’s the performance, I believe it is Partner-level work. Either I’m totally delusional and you need to bring me back down to earth; or it is Partner-level work but you’re unwilling to make me a Partner for some other reason; or it is Partner-level work and at that point let’s just call it what it is.’ Maybe others don’t have that conversation. It is also possible they aren’t in the position of strength to have that conversation.” — Gil Krakowsky, Vice President, Global Strategy & Business Development, The Gap, Inc.; A.T. Kearney Alum
The final verdict?
Make your decision sooner rather than later
Gil summarizes the most important factors in whether to pursue partner: do you want it and if so, what do you need to do?
“My strong recommendation for any Principal would be that very early in your Principal career, you should conduct that assessment and decide where you want to be in the near future, and what makes sense for you both professionally and personally,” Gil says. ” If you conduct that assessment and you want to be a Partner, then the difference of that 18 months in the spectrum of your career is irrelevant.”
“If you ultimately see that your future is outside of consulting, in my experience the industry perceives zero difference between a first-year Principal and a third-year Principal,” Gil has found. “If you want to go to industry, you might as well go as soon as you’ve made Principal. If you want to make Partner, the twelve-month bump sounds frustrating, but if ultimately you’re going to be a Partner for ten or twenty years, it doesn’t seem like it should matter all that much.”