The Resilient Consultant (Part 1 of 2): 5 Steps to bounce back from failure
My heart was beating through my chest, and my mind racing. The same thought kept replaying over and over again within my cerebral cortex: “I’m not prepared for this meeting. How did I allow myself to get into this situation”? After my colleague and I entered the client’s palatial office, I calmly sat down and distributed the packet of information that we would be reviewing. I was confident with the early part of the presentation but was struck with an escalating sense of foreboding as the conversation progressed. His eyes said it all, but his words would remove any doubt: “I was expecting something very different. I am now stuck in the unenviable position of having to make a difficult decision…Either postpone tomorrow’s board meeting, yet again, or trust that this presentation will be properly fixed by tomorrow morning”. His comments, coupled with my senior colleague’s less than stellar support, shook me to my very core. I was thrown under the proverbial bus, and I knew there was no coming back from it. Less than two weeks into a new engagement, I was surreptitiously rolled off the client. Just like that…I was done.
Never in my career had I experienced such a profound sense of failure and anger, in both myself and the project’s leadership team. I cannot put into words just how deeply my confidence had been shaken. In many cases, a consultant’s effectiveness is directly tied to his ability to exude confidence. Had I lost my Mojo? Had my personal brand been tarnished? How could I recover from something like this?
Thankfully, I received tremendous support from a slew of colleagues. They sprang to my aid with eerily similar war stories from their own pasts, and how they managed to overcome the adversity. Strangely enough, the more colleagues I shared my story with, the more stories of commiseration I received in return. I was blown away! Why had I never heard of these stories before? Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s just not something professionals feel comfortable opening up about to just anyone. And you really can’t blame them. What’s important to note here is that such failures, whether justified or not, happen to consultants a lot more than you may realize.
The following guidance will help answer the following question: How does a consultant mentally bounce back from an engagement failure?
Before I proceed, I feel it’s important to establish some context. Although the focus on this article is targeting consultants, the guidance is applicable to all professionals. I do find these tips to be especially critical for consultants given the unforgiving nature of the profession. At its simplest form, a consultant’s success is mainly measured by how profitable they are over the course of a fiscal year. This includes both sales and project delivery. In order to do that, a consultant must always be on the hunt for their figurative food. As you can imagine, this can be a challenging feat. Successful client engagements can quickly build brand momentum for you, which can translate into getting staffed on new clients faster. Unfortunately, the same holds true for negative client engagements, as the stink of a failed engagement can linger for a while and ultimately impact your ability to be included in client pursuits or even be staffed on already sold projects. If you can’t get yourself staffed, then each day you’re on the bench, the less profitable you become to the firm. Believe me when I tell you, it doesn’t take very long for your numbers to plummet if you get sucked into that vicious cycle. Low profitability + negative perception = target on your back. No one wants to be in that position.
Five Steps to Bounce Back:
1.) Embrace the moment: There’s no way to sugar coat how it feels after a failure. It’s just horrible. Even if you wanted to circumvent your emotions, you won’t be able to do so completely. So, embrace them! It’s not that different from the grieving process. Just let it run its natural course by clearing your mind the only way you know how. It took me about three days to get over the initial shock. I spoke with my mentors and spent time with my family. Hitting the gym hard was my release valve.
2.) Collect information: In my case, the details regarding my abrupt dismissal were pretty clear; however, I didn’t leave any stone unturned. I followed up with my engagement manager, partner and other colleagues to collect as many details as I could so I could better understand the “why” from everyone’s point of view. Do the same wherever you can. Collect the good, the bad and the ugly so you have a robust data set with which to work.
3.) Analyze your performance: Begin analyzing all of the data points you managed to collect. Remove the subjectivity from the process by answering the following questions honestly about your performance:
o Was your work delivered on time?
o Were your efforts on or under budget?
o Was the work scoped properly?
o Was the work delivered at the level of quality required?
o Were you responsive and effective in addressing all client needs?
o Were you responsive and effective addressing all internal team needs?
o Did you communicate effectively with both the client and your internal team?
o Did you have a positive or negative relationship with the client?
o Did you have a positive or negative relationship with your internal team?
o Are there any other noteworthy items that may have cast a negative perception on your overall performance?
Organize your answers into any type of logical format with which you’re comfortable. Provide supporting examples to compliment your answers. Once you’ve put your thoughts on paper, review your answers and highlight the areas where you may have experienced challenges. Again, be honest with yourself!
4.) Grow from the experience: By putting your thoughts on paper, you have eliminated all ambiguity and only have the facts to consider. The data can point to one or even many areas of deficiency, or none at all! Remember, sometimes there are variables that are simply out of your control. Acknowledge the areas you struggled in and think through what you could have done differently. This exercise can be a difficult one, since sometimes the right answer isn’t obvious or even available. I actually received some help with this process as I took my analysis to my boss for an unbiased perspective. The self-introspection was very liberating. My biggest takeaway: Always bring a healthy dose of professional skepticism to new opportunities. More to come on this in my next post: The Resilient Consultant (Part 2 of 2): Five Steps to Minimizing Project Failures.
5.) Get your Mojo back: OK, so you’ve embraced the moment, collected information, analyzed your performance and grew from the experience. Now it’s time to get back in the saddle. You may still have with a little self-doubt lingering at this point, which is completely normal, but it will quickly pass once you knock the next one out of the park. And you will! The key is to take what you’ve learned and push forward. You’re now armed with some very powerful experience. Stay positive and get involved with client pursuits and engagements wherever you can. Remember, you deserve to be there, otherwise you wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. If anyone thinks differently, take that as additional fuel on your journey towards proving them wrong. “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
My personal failure was a defining moment in my career, and one that I will never forget. In retrospect, the experience forever altered my mindset and convinced me of one undeniable reality: My career will always be a succession of lessons, which must be lived to be understood. The following quote from the leadership guru Warren G. Bennis is eerily similar to feedback that I received from one of my closest mentors. The essence of this message helped pull me out of my funk then, and continues to inspire me today:
“The leaders I met, whatever walk of life they were from, whatever institutions they were presiding over, always referred back to the same failure something that happened to them that was personally difficult, even traumatic, something that made them feel that desperate sense of hitting bottom–as something they thought was almost a necessity. It’s as if at that moment the iron entered their soul; that moment created the resilience that leaders need.”
I would like to close by pulling an excerpt from an article I wrote on the Consulting Career Path: A Big Four Employee Perspective. The quote is in reference to how I feel about the professional services career path: “It’s a rollercoaster ride of unparalleled excitement one minute, which can be punctured by more sobering realities the next, all of which are experienced at break-neck speeds with little to no time to recoup. I firmly believe it takes a special type of person to thrive mentally in such an environment.”
One Final Note: Approximately two weeks after my failure, I started a new project in Germany which would end up becoming the most incredible career and life experiences I’ve ever had. Had I not been unceremoniously dismissed from my previous engagement, I would have missed the opportunity entirely. Call it luck, karma, fate or whatever; I just don’t know. What I do know is that I’m fairly certain I’ll be knocked down again in the future, one way or another. With that said, I also know that I have the intestinal fortitude needed to get back up and fight with every fiber of my being to get my Mojo back. Are you ready to get yours back? Make it happen!