Career Transition

How to Make the Leap From Consulting to C-Suite

C-suite

About 5% of CEOs over the last 10 years used to be management consultants. Even though this represents an unconventional career trajectory, one 10-year study shows that companies run by a consultant-turned-CEO perform 20% to 30% better compared to their counterparts.

If you want to transition from consultant to C-Suite, this is great news. Those who make the leap usually excel in their new role—but getting there takes some preparation.

Parlaying Consulting Into Experience

Several high-profile CEOs got their start as business consultants—here are a few examples:

  • Susan Wojcicki was a Harvard graduate and a management consultant for Bain & Company. She became Google’s marketing manager in 1999, orchestrated the acquisition of YouTube in 2006, and took over as CEO of YouTube in 2014.
  • Indra Nooyi rose through the ranks at Pepsi after she was a strategic consultant for BCG. During her 12 years as CEO, she was credited for growing sales at the soft drink company by 80%.
  • Meg Whitman parlayed her consulting stint at Bain into a Senior VP position at the consulting company. She then went on to become an executive at Disney, DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble, and Hasbro. From there, she became the CEO of eBay, Hewlett-Packard, and Quibi, which is where she works now. 
  • Martin Roper went from a consultant at BCG to CEO to Head of Manufacturing at the Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams. He recently retired after 17 years as CEO.
  • Margo Georgiadis worked at McKinsey & Company, helped take Discover Financial public, and went on to become the CEO at Mattel and Ancestry.com.

C-suite

Striking Out on Your Own

Others bypassed climbing the corporate ladder by becoming entrepreneurs:

  • Bain consultant Dave Gilboa co-founded glasses retailer Warby Parker.
  • Another Bain consultant, Eric Baker, co-founded StubHub in 2000. After leaving the company in 2006 (and a subsequent $310 million sale to eBay), he is now the CEO of Viagogo.
  • Steve Hafner was a consultant at BCG and is now the CEO of Kayak, the travel aggregator company he founded.

In all of these examples, consultants leveraged their experience to transition into a corporate leadership role. Not all of them went directly into the C-suite—instead, they spent time in executive positions before moving up, or founded their own organization as entrepreneurs.

No matter which path you choose to accelerate your career, it’s important to pair the urgency, strategic planning, and analytical skills of consulting with the soft skills that are needed to manage change effectively. Appreciate the importance of collaboration, employee engagement, and visionary leadership.


Brush up on your negotiation skills and get ready for the interview.


Strategies for Transitioning to the C-Suite

As an outsider, you’ll face challenges when it comes to relationship-building, evolving the corporate culture, and developing your team.

Relationships

When a company announces a new member has been added to the C-suite, the staff will research that person. Be careful about relying too heavily on your reputation as you move into a new role—focus on building new relationships with your colleagues and starting fresh.

Culture

You’ll need to understand the culture before implementing changes. Respect the culture and evolve with it instead of undoing the work of your predecessors.

Team

In the beginning, you won’t know your team very well. Try not to make assumptions about them. Poorly run companies can still have great employees—they might just need strong leadership to turn things around.

C-suiteDefining Your Leadership Style

Practice self-awareness. By understanding how others perceive you—and learning your strengths, weaknesses, and biases—you’ll communicate and interact with your team clearly.

Your background as a business consultant will serve you well in the corporate world and C-Suite. You will, however, need to adjust your approach to establish long-term relationships with your employees.

Here are 10 strategies as you move into a more hands-on leadership role:

  1. Research your new role and industry. Take a breath and observe before acting.
  2. Check your ego. You’ve been highly successful as a business consultant, but the relationships you make with co-workers and subordinates from this point forward will ultimately determine your success.
  3. Avoid the tendency to say, “When I worked at…” in response to every situation.
  4. As a consultant, you may have had access to top-level executives at a variety of companies. In your new role, that access might diminish. Develop your network of trusted advisors within your new industry.
  5. You’ll also need to revise your language. When talking to top executives, you can talk about things like CAGR, NPV, MECE, AOB, or SME. When dealing with subordinates, you’ll need to use the language of the company.
  6. If Executive Coaching is available, take advantage of it. You’ll need to develop your soft skills.
  7. Hold on to your objective viewpoint as long as you can. The longer you are in any job, the less likely you are to spot the problems.
  8. Be an agent for change, but make sure you take the time to explain the reasons behind any changes and actively cultivate buy-in.
  9. Ask lots of questions! This will help demonstrate that you’re collaborative and value input from your colleagues. 
  10. Communicate frequently and connect action to mission.

As you transition into your new role, don’t be afraid to ask for help. With your background, you’re probably used to being the one others turn to for answers. It can be difficult to admit when you don’t know something—but you’ll need to get over it.

Admitting you don’t know everything will help build your credibility. Drawing from the experience and expertise of others shows respect and wisdom. In the end, it’s not about having the answers—it’s about prioritizing the needs of the business.


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About the Author

Paul Dughi has been in executive management positions in the media industry for the past 25 years. At age 55, he earned his MBA in Business Administration while working full-time as President of a multi-station TV group. He is the author of two books on Marketing and Management.