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why is the MBB workday the length it is?

 
#1 why is the MBB workday the length it is?
12/06/2009 23:15

eric schmidt

Hello friends -- I am a potential hire for one of the big 3 management consulting firms, and I hoped to ask your opinion on this:

In talking to some people I know (current consultants), a not-atypical workday may end no earlier than 8pm, and sometimes I've been on the phone with them at 11pm and they're still not out, depending on the assignment.

I'd like to understand better what drives the length of the workday. What causes this? Are there not enough staff per engagement? Would putting an extra business analyst or associate on a project allow everyone to go home earlier? Or does it not scale that way -- is it work that cannot be divided amongst more people?

Or do the partners kind of tacitly promise timelines to clients that cause 80+ hour workweeks? And although I'm sure many staff wear it as a badge of pride, does the long days grate on your stamina after a while? Could everyone's workday be shortened to more reasonable hours, and do they want that?

thanks! I'm just trying to get an idea of what's driving these things, sort of a preview for the forces at work for when I begin working in this environment.

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#2 RE: why is the MBB workday the length it is?
13/06/2009 10:52

anon to eric schmidt (#1)

Eric, all of your suggestions can be true in some cases. In my experience, the reasons for long hours vary quite a bit:

1) "Crunch time" on projects - consulting is a project-based business, so consultants are exposed to "crunch time" more often than if they worked in a continuous fashion. Each project is a one-off event for its respective client and so they are keen to go for an extra-ordinary effort, especially as the finishing line approaches. As consultants are premium-priced resources, clients expect (and consultants sell themselves on the basis) that they will be exceptionally productive, motivated and hard-working. Although consultants do have some specialist tools and techniques that boost their productivity, it often comes down to putting in raw hours to churn through the work. Towards the end of a project, there may be some tasks that cannot be easily divided or spread across time (e.g. you can't write the final report until client teams have reported in with their data). In this way, "extra-ordinary crunch time" on the client side can become an "ordinary" event on the consultant side.

2) Poor project management - too few resources, too little time budgeted, ineffective communication and leadership styles. A number of firms appoint fresh MBAs without prior experience into project management positions, or promote strong individually-performing Analysts into project management positions (per the "Peter principle"). The assumption is that they can learn on the client's dime and the best project managers will stay on. The knock-on effect is that consultants on the project may have to work long (often unrecorded) hours to make up the time, or may waste time on re-working deliverables to suit a changing brief.

3) Improperly incentivised sales - selling without accountability for the profitability or deliver-ability of the work. This takes effect in a similar fashion to the poor project management described above, but originates further upstream. In some firms, partners, client relationship managers, or other dedicated salespeople will work independently of the project manager and delivery team to develop their proposal to the client. They may over-promise, may not have experience or deep knowledge of the work, or in the heat of competition/under pressure of the economy, may consciously under-price work in order to notch up a win on their sales tally. There is rarely a "claw-back" clause, and sales targets are often based on headline revenues rather than the profitability of the work.

4) "Face time" culture - under which consultants are evaluated according to their presence in the office/at company events rather than by their productivity. This is more commonly found in banking where the team is permanently office-based, rather than in consulting where the team may be spread across a large area during the week. However, "face time" is particularly found at firms where a strong and homogeneous culture is an important part of the firm's selling points. The long hours spent at work may not be spent continuously working and may not be intensive - consultants may work until 6pm, go out for dinner together until 9pm, return to the office and continue working until 11pm, go for drinks until 1pm, then go home and send an email or two. In these more cost-conscious times, dinner and drinks may be replaced by take-out and surfing the internet (or sitting in a taxi on the way back from the client site). Even where consultancies have instituted "home working" policies, at some firms there is a culture of monitoring IM online status and it is expected that anyone working from home is still sending regular emails to the team. Obviously, all of this has an effect on productivity, and the moral of the story is that total "working" hours don't tell the whole story.

5) Individual bravado - where individuals take pride in demonstrating their ability to leave work until the last minute and complete it under pressure without a team. This can be common in firms which hire large numbers of fresh engineering graduates, who bring the "expert loner" attitude with them. You might think that working in teams with a large number of similar people would lower the barriers to delegation and teamworking. However, it actually serves to exaggerate the effect because of the perceived need to outperform the "competition". Therefore, work is concentrated on a few resources rather than "levelled" across the available pool. Those few resources need to put more hours in to complete the work. A great study of this attitude and its effects can be found in the <a href="http://journals.aomonline.org/inpress/main.asp?action=preview&art_id=458&p_id=1&p_short=AMJ">Academy of Management Journal</a>.

All of these factors play some part in all consultancies and they interact. For example, you might get factors 4 and 5 playing a strong role in some firms: a few people working hard late into the night, while the rest of the team hangs around until they're done. At other firms, only factor 1 may play any significant role, so people only work late on the last few days of a three month project.

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#3 RE: why is the MBB workday the length it is?
13/06/2009 11:30

Cynic to anon (#2)

Anon - I really like your style of writing and would love to hear more from you!

Another minor point to add to the list is that some clients hear that you're "getting paid" £1200 per day or whatever, and think you must be on MEGA bucks. They see the analysts working hard and keen to impress - and, rather than understanding that these are often just competitve, diligent workers - think they are being motivated by an enormous paycheque. This builds resentment and jealousy, and they expect you to deliver something super-special for the "salary" they think they are paying you.

Also, very importantly, is the oxymoron of "team work". Consultants for some reason think that everything has to be done in "teams". I've yet to see a consultancy assignment where people have clear roles and accountabilities. This lack of clarity inevitably leads to people fudging their way through, not knowing what they are supposed to be doing, trying to delegate/palm off rubbish tasks to other people, trying to score points off of each other, etc.

The one point that really drives me nuts however is how you have to re-build your reputation on every single project. You can't just do a good days work and go home. Instead you have to do all that rubbish about building relationships with people who, one the project is complete, will probably swan back off to Brisbane or wherever and you'll never see them again. A complete waste of emotional and physical energy, in my opinion.

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#4 RE: why is the MBB workday the length it is?
14/06/2009 09:36

eric schmidt to anon (#2)

anon, thank you so much for your very insightful reply. I will keep many of those things in mind for the future.

I guess the whole topic is similar to the other thread, about working hours at Bain. I don't mind having long hours if in return it's generally stimulating work with people who are smart and easy to get along with.

I've been told that the teams where I potentially will be working have good mechanisms for feedback, regarding satisfaction for how the project is going, the hours, etc. So hopefully it will not feel like you're trapped in a bad situation and have no way of changing it. And although I know that not every project will be incredibly interesting, I would hope that the variety of experiences and chance to learn new skills (particularly coming from a non-management/MBA background) will make up for it.

thanks!

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#5 RE: why is the MBB workday the length it is?
14/06/2009 19:14

eric schmidt to anon (#2)

anon, thank you so much for your very insightful reply. I will keep many of those things in mind for the future.

I guess the whole topic is similar to the other thread, about working hours at Bain. I don't mind having long hours if in return it's generally stimulating work with people who are smart and easy to get along with.

I've been told that the teams where I potentially will be working have good mechanisms for feedback, regarding satisfaction for how the project is going, the hours, etc. So hopefully it will not feel like you're trapped in a bad situation and have no way of changing it. And although I know that not every project will be incredibly interesting, I would hope that the variety of experiences and chance to learn new skills (particularly coming from a non-management/MBA background) will make up for it.

thanks!

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#6 RE: why is the MBB workday the length it is?
15/06/2009 07:27

erm to eric schmidt (#5)

You only have to look at how most of MBB's outputs work in the real world to realise that operational matters aren't their forte - this applies equally to their inability to run their own processes. Perhaps if MBB actually hired more people with operational experience they might be better at planning effectively.

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#7 RE: why is the MBB workday the length it is?
15/06/2009 09:42

Anon to erm (#6)

Call me skeptical, but my interpretation of "good mechanisms for feedback" would be "keep your gob shut and do the long hours if you want to keep your job".

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#8 RE: why is the MBB workday the length it is?
15/06/2009 09:58

anon to Anon (#7)

" ... but my interpretation of "good mechanisms for feedback" would be "keep your gob shut and do the long hours if you want to keep your job ..."

Wrong for three reasons (I work for one of the MBB);

1. Where I work, there is an absolutely good mechanism for feedback. If the team works more that 55hrs that the manager will be called by HR to explain the situation.

2. Every two week there is an anonymous feedback on the overall satisfaction about the project which is then discussed with the team.

3. Most important, there is an annual process of "upper feedback" that impacts dramatically on a manager career progression and compensation.

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#9 RE: why is the MBB workday the length it is?
15/06/2009 10:13

Anon to anon (#8)

I'm also an MBBer and other than a 360-degree appraisal (where nobody except an idiot would say anything bad about their boss), the "feedback mechanisms" are not easy to use. If I gave my manager some "feedback" about the hours he makes us work, I can be certain he would swiftly see to it that I get some "feedback" in the form of an up-or-out at my next appraisal.

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#10 RE: why is the MBB workday the length it is?
15/06/2009 10:14

Anon to Anon (#9)

I do like the sound of the anonymous feedback thing you mention, however.... my firm doesn't do that, but should.

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#11 followup
15/06/2009 19:51

eric schmidt to anon (#8)

anon, I have a feeling I may be joining the firm where you work. Would you be able to describe what kinds of areas an associate is graded on, and what is an example of someone who does really well and advances in a "strong" to "outstanding" way? What qualities do they show? i.e. how do I know if I'm cut out to continue successfully in the long term?

thanks!

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#12 RE: followup
16/06/2009 13:21

Tony Restell (Top-Consultant.com) to eric schmidt (#11)

A great thread - takes me right back to my consulting days!

I would add to the above points a couple of other factors:

1) Are some members of you team working away from home?? -- if a significant proportion of the team have flown in to the project location from other office locations, then at the end of the day they are actually returning to a hotel room rather than home. This isn't nearly as powerful a motivator to get finished and out the door as, say, going home to family or out on the town to catch up with friends. Hence any firm whose projects involve a lot of travel / international project teams will tend to see a long-hours culture at least during the weekdays -- and even those who live locally to the project will get sucked into staying late if most of the rest of the team are.

2) Compartmentalising work -- on most of the projects I've worked on (strategy), there's a lot of time needs to be spent interacting with members of the client team (sourcing data from within the organisation, seeking input from the management team, conducting workshops, ensuring you have buy-in from key executives for the expected recommendations, etc.). There are also endless interruptions and unexpected meetings when working on the client site during regular office hours. Hence "after hours" can often be the only time that consultants are actually able to knuckle down and get on with the analysis / presentation / etc. that the project demands as the next output / deliverable.

I think the hours culture is largely endemic and can only really be countered by firms introducing this goal as a target that managers have to achieve in order to secure further promotion. Only if driven by the leaders on a project can this ever be changed - so hats off to those consulting firms who are going down this path.

Tony Restell - Top-Consultant.com

<a href=http://events.top-consultant.com/UK/careerconference.aspx?ID=413>Revitalising Your Consulting Career --- Securing a Career Move in Consulting in 2009</a>

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#13 RE: followup
16/06/2009 14:26

mac to Tony Restell (Top-Consultant.com) (#12)

"I think the hours culture is largely endemic and can only really be countered by firms introducing this goal as a target that managers have to achieve in order to secure further promotion."

This is spot-on, but the problem is often that only billable hours are reported, and a billable 'day' is often 7.5 hours.

I frequently worked 12 hour days but only reported 7.5. When I mentioned 'face time' and overwork in my exit interview I was told that I couldn't have been working that hard as I was only reporting 37.5 hours per week!

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#14 RE: followup
16/06/2009 14:58

Ex-MBB to mac (#13)

A colleage of mine once got seriously yelled at because he was recording his 'true' time on his timesheet rather than the bog-standard 8 hours per day that everyone puts down by default. I do not know a single person who ever actually worked as little as 8 hours in one day for that firm, unless perhaps they had an accident halfway through the day and had to go to hospital or something.

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#15 RE: followup
16/06/2009 15:43

rollercoaster to Ex-MBB (#14)

The actiual recoding of hours vs the 7.5 'billable' issue is sure to blow up sooner or later.

Imagine the legal case for someone that crashes driving from one office to another on clietn assignement after a week of long hours. The company could be sued for contributory negligence in asking the employee to work so many hours.

Also isn't there a european working hours directive? Oh yes! We all hav to opt out or we'll get 'managed out'.

Being a consultant is a joy isn't it...

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#16 RE: followup
16/06/2009 16:05

Anon to rollercoaster (#15)

I didn't even get a realistic option of 'opting out'. On my first day of employment, in front of a Partner and the HR department, I was asked to sign my contract of employment. There was a clause in there saying I agreed to opt out of the EU working time directive. As if I was going to kick up a fuss on my first day in the job in front of HR and a Partner....

Classy, real classy.

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