Written by Gautam Bellur, a Principal (Partner) at Mercer Management Consulting. Prior to joining the Boston, MA office of Mercer, Gautam earned his MBA degree from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in 2003.
Midnight: A few more pages, I promise myself. Joshua Fisher is about to break into the top-secret lab. This can’t possibly end well for him but I HAVE to find out. A few more pages. If I fall asleep by 12.30, I can still wake up at 6.30 (six hours is plenty, I’ll make it up tomorrow), get a jog in, and be ready to head out by 7.30. Yeh, that’s it.
6.30 a.m. I suppose I could always get a jog in before dinner. Oh wait, it’s Thursday. I’m flying back to Boston later today and won’t get in till 9.30 p.m. Hmmm, maybe I’ll just do an extra mile tomorrow morning — it’s a Friday anyway. The Westin Heavenly Bed is just that. and it’s still dark outside. I hit the snooze button.
7.06 a.m. After four hits of the snooze button (a record low for me), I’m finally up. Damn, have to rush now to get ready, check out, AND make it to the lobby by 7.30. Can’t keep the team waiting again — at some point, they’re going to do an intervention for my chronic lateness.
7.36 a.m. Ah yes, the entire team is present and accounted for; they all look pointedly at their watches. I try a cheerful grin and a “sorry” but they’re not buying it. Apparently being a partner doesn’t get you much slack these days. We’re in Houston for the project and the drive to the client is relatively peaceful (if stony silence qualifies as peaceful). How does a six-lane highway (in a city with nothing but six-lane highways) still resemble a parking lot at 7.30 in the morning? Is there time for a drive-thru Starbucks? Apparently not, due to some.unforeseen delays.
8.15 a.m. We’re firmly ensconced in our cubicles at the client site. This project is a rarity — the client has actually given us a set of cubicles in a separate area with its own conference room. It’s not often that happens. I check my calendar — three separate client meetings are on the schedule today as well as a couple of calls. Looks pretty full — I tend to feel extremely productive when the calendar is full, even if one of the items takes up four hours and is called “on the plane to Boston.” Outlook points out to me that I have conflicting appointments — a client meeting at the same time as an internal partner call. Guess which one takes precedence? A pause for context: We have been working for the last six weeks on restructuring the client organization and key processes in preparation for an IPO. This is a company that went from $3 billion in revenues to $12 billion in the space of three years. As a result, there has been no time to pay close attention to strategic and organizational issues — a lot of flying by the seat of the pants. I need to get a few documents together for the discussion and get sign-off from a senior VP at the client. I realize that I only have one hour scheduled with him when I probably need three but that’s always how it is. How do I get him to focus in on the key issues and make some tough decisions in that short a time? Think, man, think.
10.10 a.m. I’m back from my first meeting. It went relatively well. I think I got the client to commit to four out of the six decisions that I was hoping for — not too shabby. Of course this means I need to set up more face-to-face time to finish up. Whatever happened to “everything’s electronic, people can work remotely with anyone in the world, this is a global workplace, etc.?” In the world of strategy consulting, sitting down across a desk is apparently still how things get done. It’s probably my favorite aspect of the job — solving often complex problems by working with the most senior people at the client. I see my primary task as being able to channel the existing wealth of client knowledge (subject matter expertise) into a set of clear decision-making frameworks so that “impactful” decisions are made. Sorry. I was trying to see how many “consulting-ese” words I could get into a single sentence.
11.10 a.m. The analyst looks like she’s either ready to cry or to throw the telephone at the wall. I should check up on her. She’s been trying to set up interviews with high-level industry personnel as part of a benchmarking exercise on best practices. And I suspect she’s getting one too many rejections. I sit down with her and go through the script she’s been using. It happens all the time and, for someone new, it’s a baptism by fire. I’ve been through it and it’s a skill set that one just develops over time. Most of us, and most certainly not me, are not naturals at this kind of thing. It’s 30% science and 70% art. I change a few things in her script and give her a pep talk, one that I’ve given a few times before — I’ve got that part down to a science anyway!
11.45 a.m. One of the clients calls fifteen minutes before I’m due to meet with him and tells me that he has to deal with an emergency “safety-related” issue and can we push back our meeting to tomorrow at 7 a.m. Everyone at the client organization starts at 6.30 — I suppose it makes sense in Houston if you want to limit your commute to under two hours. At least it’ll be 8 a.m. on the East Coast.
12.30 p.m. At least now I can make the partner call. The head of the operations prac- tice, which I’m part of, wants to know the sta- tus of some of the “leads” that we’ve been working on. I try to stay silent while some of the others talk about how they’ve set up meet- ings, put together proposals, and, in one case, that they’re close to a “win.” Thankfully, as a new partner, I get cut some slack. I promise myself I’ll spend at least 8-10 hours next week on making some progress. I have no idea when or how but I’ll figure it out. Juggling multiple roles and tasks is a fact of life in consulting. Some may find this stress- ful but it’s another huge reason that I’m still here after three years. There’s never a dull moment and for someone who’s easily bored, that’s really important. Oh sure, it all gets to be a bit much at times but at least it keeps things interesting.
2.25 p.m. Of course, when you actually want a client meeting to be shorter, it ends up going long. Murphy’s Law, and it means that I might actually miss my flight back to Boston. And I haven’t endeared myself to my team since this affects them all.
3.30 p.m. We’re at the gate just about in time, having run all the way through the ter- minal and cut through the security line. And wouldn’t you know it, the flight is now delayed by two hours — something about a mechanical problem with the aircraft. Well, at least they figured it out before we pulled out of the gate. This is the third week in a row that this has happened. I wonder who’s responsible for aircraft maintenance at Continental and what his performance reviews are going to look like at the end of the year. Time to find a relatively quiet spot and try and do a little work — might as well try and be productive.
4.00 p.m. You know all these people who treat airports, planes, taxis, buses, that house public transport as their personal offices? They spread out their papers, open up their laptop, pull out their cell phones and proceed to yell extremely loudly at someone about why revenues are down this year? Well, I’m sorry to say that, on occasion, I’m one of these people. So I apologize to anyone who’s been in the unfortunate position of being forced to be a part of my life story.
5.30 p.m. I have managed to organize two calls, a team update and a Friday dinner with friends — very productive. It turns out that the two-hour delay is actually a three-hour delay since they haven’t been able to “isolate the problem.” And the three-hour delay is a guesstimate at best, a SWAG at worst. Now I know why they haveBrookstone stores at airports — for frustrated travelers like me to use up some time by throwing good money at completely unnecessary travel-related products. Over time, I have built a collec- tion of random Brookstone knick-knacks — travel pillows, 4-in-1 chargers, extra batteries, neck massagers, laptop bags. They invariably end up on eBay within two months.
6.45 p.m. They’ve apparently exchanged the aircraft for one that presumably will not come apart at the drop of a hat. We’re board- ing at last.
7.10 p.m. OK, if there’s a cardinal rule about aircraft travel etiquette, it is that you cannot bring a bucket of spicy fried chicken aboard a crowded plane. unless you’re will- ing to share it with your fellow passengers. My stomach is growling and I know there will be nothing, or at least nothing appetizing, to eat for the next four hours.
7.30 p.m. Apparently, thunderstorms are passing through Houston and therefore we will hang out on the tarmac until they have passed completely by and air traffic control allows us to take off. I have hit the travel mis- ery trifecta today but I just laugh mirthlessly and take it with admirable calm, even if I do say so myself. Three weeks ago, I spent twelve hours on a plane due to weather problems, including six hours on the tarmac in New Orleans, so I consider three and four hour delays as practically being on time these days. It’s wonderful when you have such low expectations.
8.45 p.m. (CST) We’ve been in the air about half an hour and I start feeling guilty that I’ve only put in a seven hour day. Since I’ve seen Click five times on the plane already, I pull out my laptop and proceed to re-organize my inbox — 400 emails in my inbox and 5,400 in my sent items. That should take up an hour or two. I have an exit row seat so I don’t have to worry about the person in front of me leaning their seat back and crushing the laptop. I also have lots of leg room — thank goodness for small mercies.
10.00 p.m. (CST) I open up the project work plan and modify it to suit the realities of the project. I find that the only time I have for “quiet reflection” and forward planning is when I’m stuck on a plane with nowhere to go and no one to talk to for a few hours. For that reason, I don’t as a rule chat up my fellow passengers, who are also probably equally happy not to be bothered by yours truly.
12.57 a.m. (EST) We have finally arrived. Everyone on the plane reaches for mobiles and PDAs. It’s like everyone is itching to get in touch with someone — anyone — after being cooped up in a tin can for over four hours. I have a couple of voicemails from friends wondering where I’ve been the last couple of weeks. My mother wants to know how I am and whether I’ve been eating well.
1.45 a.m. Home sweet home, and an inviting bed. I get under the sheets. it’s very late but at least it’s Friday. It’s time to see what Joshua Fisher is up to now.