Career Paths Are Seldom Linear

This is an excerpt from the newly released Case in Point: Crafting Your Consulting Career. The book captures insights from hundreds of hours of informational interviews and lessons learned from targeted interviews with nearly twenty consultants and breaks these lessons learned into 45 easily digestible chapters.

Rejection is part of life for aspiring consultants. Your target firm does not offer you an internship or full-time offer. Your client does not take your recommendations. You don’t get staffed on the project you were vying for. You get counseled out of a firm. Consultants develop a thick skin, capture feedback, and use this feedback to become better teammates and better versions of themselves. They also have to adapt quickly to the situation and perform the alchemy of turning challenges into opportunities. Approach rejection as feedback and a chance to learn and grow. Each rejection unlocks another opportunity.

I’ve experienced rejection throughout my career. It’s disappointing, but more disappointing than rejection is not gaining a lesson from it. When firms that I had built strong relationships with did not extend an offer, I looked inward and broke down the situation. Did I not present myself in the best possible way? How did I respond to questions — were my answers open to interpretation, and could I have answered in a different way? Did I come on too strong, or not strong enough? Trying to step outside your own ego and view the situation from someone else’s perspective can help you gain a valuable lesson that makes you better.

For instance, I remember that in one interview (where I did receive an offer), as I was waiting to be introduced to the interviewer, the executive assistant made a gesture to fix my tie (it was a humid DC day and I had loosened it a bit). This little piece of feedback reminded me to find a mirror and give myself a once-over before stepping into an interview. During another interview, in an effort to build a connection with the interviewer, I probably overshared on a story. This experience helped me to better read the room and craft stories that are memorable and authentic — but not too personal. After another interview, I had the opportunity to take the elevator down with the interviewer. She had dug in on one of my responses, and I realized that the way I worded it might have been perceived as a red flag or lack of interest in the firm. While I provided more context during that elevator ride, I was not surprised that I didn’t get the offer. Interviews are difficult because the interviewer has limited context and will craft a narrative based on your responses. Tell stories that leave them with the narrative that shows your best.

There are countless times when I have delivered (what I thought were) foolproof recommendations to a client, only to have these recommendations rejected. While it was disappointing to spend months on a project and provide thorough recommendations that were ultimately dismissed, it allowed me to sharpen my craft. I’ve devoted more time to testing recommendations up front with clients, gaining buy-in and feedback, and even leaving breadcrumbs to help the client reach the conclusion on their own. I’ve varied communications strategies — using stories, raising risks, benchmarking, highlighting quantitative analysis, utilizing a coalition — to help drive recommendations.

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Andrew Synnott has had a very successful consulting career and has been an outstanding leader and mentor. His leadership has inspired and driven a number of consultants. I personally learned a great deal about consulting from him when he served as president of the Consulting Club at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. Andrew helped aspiring consultants build plans to land the roles they wanted, provided feedback to strengthen their skills, and built connections that opened doors for the Georgetown network. He is one of the most brilliant and articulate people I have ever come across. Yet he was once counseled out of a top-tier firm after less than two years in the role, although he had worked exceedingly hard to land this job and worked perhaps even harder once he earned it. Yet because he looked at rejection as way to learn, his disappointment ushered in a new beginning. While Andrew certainly had the credentials to land another top-tier consulting offer, he made the conscious decision to seek roles in industry. Reflecting on why the match with the consulting firm was not right, he took valuable lessons around researching the offices, teams, and building relationships prior to making this important career decision. Andrew carried the growth, learning, and contacts made in consulting to his new in-house strategy and operations role for a major company. He was able to purpose the brand, network, resources, and experiences earned through the consulting gauntlet to a role that he ultimately felt better suited for. Rejection was only a temporary roadblock for him, and this short-term obstacle opened a path to longer-term prosperity, greater work-life balance, happiness, and success. Andrew advises people who face this type of rejection to not view it as the end of the world, but just the start of another journey.

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When you face rejection, reframe it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Look inward and review the rejection from the perspective of other stakeholders (interviewer, client, project manager). Get feedback from a peer or colleague and see if you are reading the situation in the same way or able to gain a distinct perspective. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. To paraphrase vulnerability expert Brené Brown, vulnerability is the opposite of weakness; it is recalling times of great courage. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable — to be courageous in recalling times of fear, uncertainty, or rejection — will enable you to advance in your career and grow as a leader.

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Evan specializes in change management and is the author of Case In Point: Government and Nonprofit. https://publicsectorcaseinterviewprep.com/

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Evan Piekara

Evan specializes in change management and is the author of Case In Point: Government and Nonprofit. https://publicsectorcaseinterviewprep.com/