Tales from A Modern Consultancy : How I Discovered Stimulating Client Work Without Living Out of a Suitcase

January 23, 2019 Jim Olson

For decades, the consulting industry has bred an army of road warriors with hefty travel expenses.  New Signature’s 20% onsite delivery model is leading the industry to a far more sustainable balance, both for those looking to make a career of consulting and for the clients who are footing the bills.

Career Chapter 1:  Achieving Work-Life Balance (Not)

When I started my consulting career nearly three decades ago there was an industry standard way to think about work-life balance:  On balance, work was your life!  It was typical to travel extensively week-to-week, spending most working hours at the client site to deliver project work.  As a junior consultant in his early 20s getting acquainted with the ways of the world, my travel routine and long work hours were fun and exciting.  On occasion, I wondered who on earth was paying for all the airfare, hotel rooms, per diems, happy hours, and team dinners.  In proportion to my bill rate, I thought it must be costing someone a fortune – upwards of 30% of the cost of me being there was spent on me just being there.  But this was the way the consulting business worked, and recruiters of consulting firms made it very clear:   Be prepared to travel 80+% of the time. 

Career Chapter 2:  Frequent Flyer Club

As time went on in my career, my client project work was exhilarating.  With new technologies emerging and industries transforming, our clients needed outside expertise to keep up with the pace of change – and I found my consulting career to be highly rewarding.  I was also racking up some serious loyalty points, just as my life outside of work started to become even more complex and fulfilling than my life on the road.  In the span of a few years, I found myself getting married, having children and buying a home – which made me want to be at home much more frequently.  Meanwhile, I simply loved the challenge and the complexity that accompanied my work in the consulting business.  And so, a dilemma was brewing. 

 I began to inspect the status quo.  Does it always make sense for me to travel to the client site 16-20 days out of the month?  This sort of “80/20” consulting model had become standard operating procedure – 80% at the client site, 20% working close to home.  It is a very familiar sight, maybe even one you’ve seen for yourself:  On Monday morning, a line of consultants wheeling “rollerboard” suitcases into the client’s office with Starbucks in hand; on Thursday afternoon, those same consultants roll out of the office single-file with Advil in hand.  There go the consultants again… I hope they get some rest this weekend.  The routine had begun to get a bit tiring. 

Career Chapter 3:  A New Balance

Over the course of my career I’ve thought a lot about this 80/20 model, and I’ve become convinced that in most cases it is excessive and antiquated.  In the modern era, collaboration tools and ubiquitous connectivity facilitate productive, remote work every day — even more productive at times than working on location, where cubicle space and conference rooms are increasingly difficult to book at the client site.  As a lifelong consultant, I find clients themselves have become more geographically distributed in recent years, and they are increasingly leveraging the same Microsoft 365 tools that we consultants use.  In fact, showing up to a client site on any given Wednesday may only give you a 50/50 chance of seeing your client in the flesh! 

 So, what’s the answer?  What is the new balance?  How do we ensure high-quality work, on-target solutions and premium customer service, while not being onsite upwards of 80% of the time? 

 At New Signature, I believe we have achieved a better balance that is more appropriate for the modern, cloud era of consulting services.  Since we are fully connected at all times across multiple devices, video meetings, multi-site collaboration and cloud-based file sharing decrease the need for co-location and increase the chances of getting to a Little League baseball game during the week.  

However, with these new options there is great risk of swinging the pendulum too far:  never meeting our client stakeholders in person, struggling to achieve end-user empathy, misconstruing important environmental context, and never sharing a bite to eat to discover latent personal and project success criteria.  Helping clients succeed in their digital transformation is a very human activity.  I believe the new balance for the modern consultancy is closer to “20/80”, whereby consultants and clients come together in-person on a recurring and purposeful cadence 20% of the time to facilitate relationship-building, trust-building and context-building – and the remaining 80% is spent working productively from a home office or New Signature office location.  Well-planned “3-D” time allows consultants and clients alike to prioritize project activities that require high-fidelity interactions, which as a byproduct enable much more effective “2-D” collaboration at all other times.  This modern 20/80 standard might manifest in the form of working together onsite one week out of five or one day out of five, depending on project circumstances and the distance of travel. 

 Make no mistake, getting eye-to-eye with our clients remains as irreplaceable as it has ever been; however, at New Signature we believe our 20/80 balance broadens access to diverse consulting talent and ensures our clients’ budgets are focused on creating business value instead of rewards points. 

Jim Olson is New Signature’s Chief Operating Officer and lives (and works many days!) on Long Island, NY with his wife Christa and three teenage kids, McKenna, James and Brogan.

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