How to thrive in a professional services firm as a young consultant

By: Janki Patel

I never once uttered the phrase “I want to be a consultant when I grow up.” But over four years ago, I nervously tried to squeeze in everything I had learned in my life until that point into succinct interview answers for a job at a large consulting firm. I’ve been a consultant ever since.

Most children don’t think to themselves, “I really can’t wait to work for a Big Four accounting firm,” or “My dream is to work as a financial advisor for a midsized RIA.” A lot of us start thinking about careers in professional services in our later years of college or perhaps even after pursuing another career for a few years. And while there are specific skills we acquire from our degrees that aid us, classes rarely teach us how to practice as professionals. Before accepting a job at Accenture, I’d never taken courses in client service, business development or project management. However, these are all skills we are expected to acquire relatively quickly when progressing through our firms’ career tracks.

There are many external training programs, and advisory firms also try to offer mentoring and training to their new professionals. But if there is one thing I have learned in my young career it’s that the responsibility for learning really belongs to young professionals themselves. It’s incumbent on us to identify sources of information and knowledge, to absorb the lessons, to seek the teachers and ask the right questions. These things cannot and should not be delegated or abdicated.

Though my expertise is still evolving, I’ve learned a few lessons that have contributed to my growth and personal fulfillment while I work in professional services.

Lesson 1: Learn proactively from those around you

One of our main priorities as young professionals should be to seek out mentors and role models we respect and can learn from. The best way to learn how to service clients, develop business and manage competing priorities is to learn from later-stage professionals who have had time to home in on their craft. While larger firms such as Accenture typically have formalized programs where young professionals are assigned mentors, smaller firms may not have structures in place. However, that doesn’t mean mentorship at smaller firms is harder to come by. I’ve been able to learn from fantastic consultants at both the Ensemble Practice and Accenture. I simply had to ask. And research shows that only 25% of professional training relationships are initiated by the mentors—the majority either develop naturally or are initiated by the mentees.

Almost 50% of the conversations I have while facilitating strategic planning sessions for RIA owners are centered on how to recruit and develop advisory talent. This indicates to me that leaders at advisory firms want to help their young professionals on staff, but a lot of times don’t know how. As young professionals, we should ask to be pulled onto specific engagements that interest us or to shadow our firms’ best business developers at prospect meetings. The worst thing that can happen is that we’ll be told no. Either way, asking will show initiative, and I have a feeling most leaders try not to turn ambitious future firm leaders away from opportunities.

Lesson 2: Find the skill gaps that exist within your firm and fill them

One of the best things we can do early on in our careers is figure out the areas in which our firms need improvement and build up our own skills to fill those gaps. If you work at a small enough firm, it’s generally pretty easy to get a sense of what your firm should be doing better. If your team has a marketing expert on board, for instance, the website shouldn’t have comic sans on the front page. It often feels tough to make an impact on your organization when you’re working with colleagues that have so much more experience than you. One of the best ways is to build a specialty in a space where knowledge is lacking.

When I first joined Ensemble, I was incredibly intimidated to be working so closely with three extremely knowledgeable and experienced consultants. I was completely unfamiliar with the financial advisory industry and thought it would be months before I said anything useful at team meetings. However, I quickly realized that whenever client questions about human capital came up, no one seemed quite as eager to jump in as they were when discussions about financial benchmarking or equity and valuations came up. Here was my opportunity to fill a gap. And it was a good opportunity, since professional service firms’ biggest expenses are people after all.

I spent some free time during the first few months at Ensemble reading books and articles, watching TED Talks and listening to podcasts about recruiting and retaining people. My manager quickly realized that this was not only an area I was interested in but also one that I had a baseline level understanding of. In the past several months, he has given me opportunities to work with clients on human capital strategies, partly because he’s interested in my professional development but also because I was the logical choice—the only one on staff trying to develop expertise in this area.

Almost all firms struggle with producing high-quality marketing content. Advisory firms are no exception. Blog posts are a chore for partners and lead advisors. Short videos are also effective marketing tools, but few bosses want to take the time producing them. That’s another way we young professionals can stand out and fill the gap. While developing content is hard, we offer invaluable skills if we can go through the process of researching and developing our own thoughts on a topic and boiling down those thoughts into a blog post or video.

Advisory firms also benefit from having certain young employees become “super users” of their latest software and communication methods. For example, if a firm uses Tamarac for performance reporting, it could be a worthy investment of time for a younger professional to become the firm’s resident expert on the application. Other tools like Slack are slowly but surely establishing themselves in our fairly conservative industry. This is a golden opportunity for our more tech adventurous generation. If your firm chooses to pursue any strategic projects related to software, you would likely be asked to play a significant role. You may even be asked to drive that initiative.

Lesson 3: Treat your senior colleagues the way they treat clients

Every professional services firm has two different modes: a client mode and an internal mode. The expectations of communication, professionalism and even preparedness often vary between the two. Often the same partners that answer every client call immediately take five months to write performance reviews for their subordinates. While this is something that we quickly observe as young professionals, we should actively try to avoid adopting the behavior.

We also shouldn’t act differently when clients are around. Maybe we might dress up a bit more, but our behavior should be the same regardless of their presence. One of the best ways to prove to your bosses that you are ready to play a larger role in your firm’s client relationships is to show them that you’re already acting like a relationship manager. It’s just that the relationships you’re managing at this stage are those with your managers and colleagues.

Providing Client Level Value

Advisory firms are always striving to add value for their clients and blow them away with the level of service they provide. In the same manner, we should strive to add value for our managers and colleagues and blow them away too. This means that when we’re given an assignment with specific instructions, but also think there might be a better way of completing it, we do it both ways to give our managers options. It also means we should communicate with our managers frequently and answer their inquiries thoroughly as soon as we can.

Personally, my goal is to answer every e-mail within 1.5 hours if it’s sent during the workday or by 10 a.m. the next day if it’s sent after 5 p.m. It might be worth outlining expectations about these response times with your managers if you’re unsure about whether they’re happy with your current system.

Making Meetings Count

We should also be prepared for internal meetings and take advantage of the time we have scheduled with managers and leadership. If we’re struggling with an assignment we’ve been given, we should outline what specifically has been troubling us and how our managers can help us instead of merely saying that we’ve had a hard time with the assignment.

We should also outline the steps we’ve taken thus far to get the assignment back on track and outline the plan. Basically, we should strive to answer any questions our managers may have before they even have to ask. I’ve found that when you specify what information and support you need from your manager and colleagues, they are more likely to help you in a timely manner.

Honoring Internal Deadlines

If we are treating our higher-ups like clients, that also means we’re taking the deadlines they set seriously. And we need to tell them if we’re not going to make the deadlines as soon as we know, then set up a mitigation strategy. Clients hire financial advisors to make their lives easier, and in the same way we should strive to make the lives of our managers and colleagues easier however we can (within reason—if you’re only being asked to rotate PDFs for your first year on the job, you can and should look for something else). In addition to doing what we’re asked to do, we can and should proactively seek out projects and assignments that have not been delegated to us. If we see areas for improvement in our firm, we should speak up and develop a project plan to address pain points.

There are three main reasons millennials and Gen Zs leave their jobs: 1) they are dissatisfied with pay; 2) they haven’t had enough opportunities to advance; and 3) they aren’t getting enough development and training. While many advisory firms pay pretty competitively, they have some work to do on giving their underlings opportunities to develop and advance. I firmly believe the industry will continue to evolve. There’s a lot of work already being done to make advisory firms optimal work environments for motivated young professionals.

In the meantime, as many firms still lack mentorship and training infrastructure, we should take our professional development into our own hands. We can do this by learning from those around us, developing expertise that is lacking in our firms and servicing our managers as if they were clients.

A version of this article originally appeared in Financial Advisor Magazine.