Consultant vs. Operator: Lessons in Impact

Project Management ImageWhen I started my MBA at Stanford in 2007, the typical career paths leading into and out of business school — consultant (or professional services), operator, and investor — seemed largely equal. A matter of taste more than anything else. Coming from a professional services role within an operating company that had public shareholders as investors, I wanted to parlay my MBA into trying my hand at being an operator or investor. More precisely, I figured I could become a successful operator, and then build toward being a successful investor.

Professional services career paths often lead into MBA programs, and I think they are great ways to transition out of college and into “business.” I can think of few more stimulating paths that pay as well, and none that provide better training on business operations and market economics. For me, the professional services path started at a top business school, where I researched cases and wrote them up for class consumption. The job led to a consulting-y role at a publicly-traded restaurant company, where I did project management and research to support the executive team. Working there made me really want to be an executive (loosely, an “operator”).

At the time, my reasoning was that the operator created value in companies in a direct manner, while what I did in support of real operators impacted business results indirectly. In retail, we say that nothing happens in the business until a cashier rings up a sale. I wanted to be on the side that figured out how to ring up more sales and better sales. As I entered business school as a student, I was determined to be one step closer to the action, rather than staying on the side of those supporting the people who took the actions.

As I look back, my preference was less in wanting to be a part of the action, and more in wanting to direct the action. In polite company, girls aren’t supposed to want to be in charge. But that desire is an important driver of horsepower in operating leadership. When things fall into a poor pattern, it is tempting and easy to capitulate or to blame circumstances (the people, the industry, the competitors, the climate, what have you). One must have a certain drive to take the responsibility for results regardless of what all is going on and lead the charge in getting teams out of ruts, so that the pattern is growth and success rather than stagnation. These ruts happen frequently in the normal cycle of businesses, so a healthy sense of take-chargeness is useful to have.

This is something I learned to appreciate only after becoming an operator — a Co-CEO to be precise. Streaks and ruts are part of my job, and what I am responsible for managing.

When I was writing business cases, I had some satisfaction in interviewing the top eight or ten executives of a company, interweaving their stories into a cogent whole, and publishing it as curriculum. Watching my work being taught was the icing on the cake, especially if the inaugural teaching went well. I drove the work product, and the feeling of winning was both palpable and clear cut. If I kept winning, I could keep the streak going.

As Co-CEO, these clear cut moments of satisfaction are rare. They happen when we report a strong month, or show growth in a key metric that the team has been working hard to improve. But I don’t personally drive this success the way I used to drive my cases. The nature of operating companies is that the work production is shared, so the wins are shared.

Shared wins feel great — they imbue a magical esprit de corps upon the whole team. They can also lack a certainty around attribution and ownership, as it is tricky to figure out who did exactly what and to what extent to drive the win. In all cases, I know it wasn’t me, so much as it was the team. As such, that feeling of personal ownership that I felt as a casewriter and even as an ‘assistant to-‘ has been replaced by a necessary trust of the team.

What I’ve learned is that winning in previous professional services roles was about my doing my work well. Winning as an executive-operator is about helping our team do its work well: defining roles, setting goals and rewards, providing coaching and feedback, celebrating successes (and mourning losses) — in a somewhat cyclical, non-linear fashion. For just as soon as we report a winning month or quarter, the next period of measurement has already begun, and it’s time to up our game.

This has been one of the most important shifts in my understanding from professional service provider to operator. My derivative sense of impact in professional services that led me to choose an operating role has, ironically, yielded to a derivative sense of effectiveness. Put another way, I still rely on others to drive the wins. The difference is that instead of doing the analysis on behalf of the executive team, I consume and employ the analysis to help my team produce strong results. The real win in being in charge is in the successful enablement of others — and that has been a powerful lesson.