by Nicolas Doumenc Comments (48)

All About Operational Consulting: Moving Beyond PowerPoint to Add Real Value to Companies?

Nicolas is the founder of 300 Finance Gurus and has advised more than 100 clients on their cover letters and resumes. He also provides strategies on networking, LinkedIn and interview preparation for clients in Investment Banking, Corporate Finance and Private Equity (full bio at the bottom of this article.)

 

What if you want to advise companies but you think that traditional management consulting and investment banking add no value?

And what if you also want to implement your recommendations instead of just pitching them and then taking off after nothing happens?

You probably think that there’s no way to do it; you’re stuck at McKinsey, with a great brand name but no “discernible skills” – and no discernible results.

But you’d be wrong.

In this interview you’re going to learn all about operational strategy consulting – where you actually implement changes at companies rather than just recommending changes.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • What operational strategy consulting is and how it differs from management consulting.
  • What you do on a daily basis in the field, as opposed to in Excel and PowerPoint.
  • If it’s worth it from a salary perspective and how travel-intensive the job is.
  • Actual interview advice from a very senior consultant.

What is Operational Strategy Consulting?

Q: Before we jump into what operational strategy consulting is, could you tell me a little bit about your firm and its clients?

A: Sure. Stanwell Consulting is a new player in the financial consulting field, created in 2006 by two former PwC partners.

We now have almost 90 consultants and have been growing at a steady pace since 2006; we weren’t impacted by the financial downturn in 2009.

Our clients operate in Financial Services, including investment banking, retail banking, capital markets and insurance. We work with companies like BNP, Société Générale, and AXA.

We are based in Paris and we mostly work with French groups but our scope is truly an international one, as companies continue to expand and operate abroad.

Q: Sounds like a good company to work for…we’ll return to it after this interview.

In the meantime let’s talk about operational strategy consulting and how it’s different from other types of consulting.

A: We are “Operational Strategy Consultants,” which is very specific positioning.

The word “operational” is very important because unlike management consulting groups such as McKinsey or BCG, we have a real operational aspect in our projects.

We want to do things and not only do slides.

In Operational Strategy or Transformation, each project is different, so it’s difficult to explain our activities with only one or two examples.

The two main project categories are those with more of a strategic side and those with more of an operational side.

So let’s say, for example, that we have a project with a more strategic side like pricing or the definition of a new organization.

A standard management consulting firm might just go in and make a recommendation on how to change pricing for products and services.

In operational strategy consulting we would actually help them make the change, implement it for different customers and geographies, and assess what impact the change has made and what to do differently.

Then, for projects that are more operational (back-office industrialization or multi-channel distribution implementation, for example), we would focus less on strategy and more on doing the work, speaking with vendors and customers to make the changes, and so on.

Our core business is to help our clients lead major change projects by working on the full change lifecycle, from strategy to implementation.

It’s all about recommendations and execution, as we believe the two are closely linked.

Q: Right, it does seem different. So instead of making strategic recommendations and leaving, you stay to walk the talk.

So do you agree with the common criticism that management consulting firms do not produce tangible results?

A: That’s the traditional cliché for management consulting companies. It’s a bit of an overstatement, but sometimes it is true.

However, I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as saying, “Management consulting only recommends changes and operational strategy consulting only implements changes.”

Sometimes because of budget constraints or because of internal arbitration, we end up only being able to make recommendations or only being able to implement some of our changes.

But in operational strategy consulting you strive to conduct the project from the very beginning, through the definition of the solution to the implementation and the deployment.

Adding Value 101: What You Do On the Job

Q: Ok, so I think we understand what operational consulting is in theory.

But what do you do on a daily basis when you’re an entry-level consultant? How does it change when you become more senior?

A: Junior consultants spend 90% of their time at the client’s office, in meetings or preparing for meetings.

Meetings are very important because they’re how we orient projects and how we give our input.

But if you want meetings to be useful you’ve got to prepare for them – so I’d say that junior consultants spend 2/3 of their time in meetings and 1/3 of their time preparing for them.

They also work on internal projects at least 2 hours per week.

The subjects are very diverse: marketing, recruiting, communication, financial planning… for instance, one of our team members developed an in-house iPhone app that handles our staffing needs project-by-project.

As you become more senior, you focus more and more on the commercial dimension. You “sell” more and more projects and also attempt to win more clients.

So you spend more of your time at our headquarters looking for and pitching opportunities. You also start managing more and more projects and teams.

Q: That makes sense – just like in investment banking, at first you’re executing but as you move up the ladder you have to start bringing in deals.

What about the skills involved in your daily work – are technical skills or “soft skills” more important?

A: I’d say it’s pretty balanced. You have a lot of interaction with your clients because you’re actually working with them to implement the project and you spend a lot of time in meetings, leading projects, and developing relationships, so soft skills are definitely required.

But sometimes when the project gets technical, you have to learn so you can follow and participate in debates. That’s when junior consultants can become experts on new financial systems, CRM tools or different segments like insurance.

And there’s more diversity in the technical skills than in investment banking because each project is different – sometimes you’re learning about a customer management system, sometimes it’s information technology, and other times you’re learning about finance or risk management.

Q: It’s funny you say that because in one previous article, I doubted the ability of a junior consultant to add value to a project.

How, specifically, can a junior consultant add value in operational consulting?

A: Just look at the price we charge our clients for our services. If junior consultants didn’t add value we would just be cheating our clients.

And we obviously aren’t because they are coming back to us with more projects!

Q: Right, but look at what management consulting firms and banks charge their clients, and how rarely they add value – I don’t think that’s a great argument.

What else can you tell us about this one?

A: “Adding value” is not necessarily bringing in expertise, which is almost impossible when you have one or two years of job experience.

Adding value can be having a new set of eyes on a project, having common sense and asking pertinent questions or applying methodologies to find weak points in a proposal or business process.

So a junior consultant might add value, for example, by looking at a new pricing strategy and the data on what existing customers are paying currently, and then pointing out a flaw in that strategy that might result in the firm losing clients.

Someone who’s been working at the company for 5-10 years might miss that kind of detail since they’re too close to their own clients and the established way of doing things.

So yes, junior consultants can add value to projects. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is possible with the right people. That’s also why we are very selective in the recruiting process!

Lifestyle 101: Got Starwood Points?

Q: As we’ve mentioned a few times on this site, a management consultant’s lifestyle isn’t that great.

Will your lifestyle be better or worse as an Operational Strategy Consultant?

A: The short answer: “It depends.” Some projects involve a lot of travel and you’ll definitely rack up the Starwood points, but some are based in Paris or in another European major city, so you can avoid painful 8+ hour flights.

For instance, we have teams working full-time in Brussels, Rome, Geneva, and part-time teams in many countries such as Morocco, Poland, and parts of Asia and the US where we work on local projects directly.

Your schedule is harder to predict because some projects have a huge workload due to the deadlines and the scope of what the client wants.

And it also depends on the project phase: generally the beginning of a project is more time-intensive than the implementation phase.

The bottom-line: please do not go into anything in consulting and expect a 9 to 5 job, even if the hours are not as brutal as what you get in investment banking.

Q: So the lifestyle is more or less the same, but what about the salary?

Do you make more since you’re actually implementing projects?

A: It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately.

There’s a trade-off if you want to work in operational strategy consulting: you have a very good salary, higher than at companies like Accenture, for instance, but slightly below what you would earn at “pure” strategy firms like McKinsey.

In operational strategy consulting, though, you may advance much faster because roles are not as strictly defined – and if you do very well on a project you’ll get promoted quickly.

It’s particularly true in a small firm like ours, but even at bigger companies, it’s easier to stand out and advance because you have more results to point to in our line of work.

Breaking In: Interview Tips

Q: Earlier you actually winked at me while saying “growing really quickly,” so I guess you’re hiring.

I’m sure our readers would like to know more about recruiting in your field, so what advice would you give to someone who wants to break in operational consulting?

A: My main recommendation is to have an operational & down-to-earth approach to consulting.

Unlike pure strategy consulting, operational strategy consulting is more “real life” so you need to let the recruiter know that you’re not afraid to work on operational subjects and that you’re not afraid to spend a lot of time meeting with your clients.

In interviews, we care more about your past experience working with clients and how you would approach real-world scenarios rather than getting into the arbitrary “How many golf balls fit in a 747?”-type questions you get in management consulting interviews.

As for your background, we work in financial services so a strong interest in the field is an edge, but for entry-level consultants we don’t expect any expertise.

We tend to care more about what you can do than the school you went to.

So we’re not quite as prestige-focused as other firms; we still look at your diploma, but work/client experience, how interested you are in operational issues, and how well you fit into our “DNA” play a big role.

 Q: I can relate to this mindset since it’s very close to what you see in corporate finance.

One final question about interviews: any tips on what to say at the end when they ask if you have any questions about the firm, or tips on what to avoid saying there?

A: One silly question we hear a lot: “So what are your internal training programs like?”

I assume people ask that because it’s recommended in interview guides, but it’s not a good question in this field because you learn on the job by working with your manager, attending pitches, and so on.

Sure, some training can help when it comes to technical skills or even some soft skills… and that’s why we work with behavioral training experts so that our consultants have better and more productive interactions with clients.

But apart from that, all you need to become a good operational consultant is practice. So please reserve this question for jobs with more theory and less time spent in the field.

The Almighty Exit Opportunities

Q: My last question is about exit opportunities. Your firm is a hybrid between management consulting and more “classic” consulting companies, so I’m curious where you can work after a few years in operational consulting.

Could you tell us about that?

A: My answer is a little biased because our firm is very young – and our attrition rate remains very low.

In operational strategy consulting, people tend to stick around longer than what you see in other fields.

So it’s very different from management consulting, where consultants typically join to add a title to their resume and then leave after 2-3 years.

Here, we invest a lot into retaining our consultants and helping them advance and move up to more senior levels once they’ve proven themselves.

Q: Right, but I’m sure that some consultants leave after a while… where do they go?

A: If you really want to talk about exit opportunities, you could do very well in financial operations or by going into corporate finance at a normal company. You could also work in some type of strategy position at a Global 500 company.

It’s not as common to go into private equity, hedge funds, and so on because we don’t focus on transactions and financial analysis as much here.

But if you find an investment fund that focuses more on operational improvement and turnaround situations, you might be able to pitch yourself and win offers there.

Q: Great! That was a very interesting interview – thanks a lot for your insights.

Now let’s go for a drink and talk about your “recruiting opportunities” at your firm if you don’t mind.

A: Sure, let me just put my interview face on…

M&I – Nicolas: Thanks a lot to Axel De La Forest for sharing his knowledge. I’m sure that his 3 years of experience as a manager at Stanwell Consulting will help M&I readers.

About the Author

Nicolas Doumenc

is the Founder of 300 Finance Gurus, a website where he grills 300 Managing Directors, CFOs, Vice-Presidents, Associates, and headhunters on their best networking and interviewing techniques. He also offers career coaching and resume/CV editing services there.


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  1. Hi,

    I am a current undergrad finance major graduating in a few months. I received a job offer in pricing analytics at a f500 financial services firm. I plan to stay in pricing for at least a year and hopefully move into an FP&A or Treasury role. After 3-4 years of operations and finance experience I want to get an MBA at a top tier school (Ross, Kellogg, Fuqua, Darden). Would this path help set me up to enter an operations consulting or biz dev/ corp dev. type of role? Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

    Thanks

    1. Also, any recommendations for operational consulting firms target schools would be great.

      1. I’m not sure there is a full list, but I would assume the top 20-30 MBA programs are targets.

    2. Yes, but I’m not sure you need an MBA for any of that. An MBA is helpful for moving into investment banking or management consulting, but not as necessary for the others.

  2. Hi, I work in pre-sales of an IT firm and wish to move towards operational consulting in a few years.Can u please suggest on how should I go about this?

    1. We don’t specialize in this field, but you can probably get in with enough networking and some outreach to headhunters.

  3. Many thanks for the knowledge. What is PwC’s status in operational consulting industry? As far as I know, it has a division of delivering deal value in transaction services. Do you know is it anything like operating consultant? Thanks.

    1. Hi Serena,
      Transaction services are different. It’s more about delivering value on a specific aspect of a transaction rather than on a strategic project like operational consulting.

      1. Hi Nicholas,

        Would “delivering value on a specific aspect of a transaction” (i.e. creating value through operational improvements, cost reduction, etc.) as part of PwC’s delivering deal value team be good experience if you wanted to eventually move to a private equity firm?

        1. Hi Peter,
          Delivering deal value team does 1) Pre-deal products, i.e. Operational Due Diligence, HR DD, IT DD, etc and 2) Post-deal products, i.e. carve-out plan, separation and integration, etc. For type 1 products, they mainly focus on risks and for type 2 products, client want them to assess post-transaction risks and costs. In other words, it is more M&A focused, and appears only when doing synergy review or operation models, Delivering deal value team will assess how much operation upsides are there for targets.

          Not so many moved to PE from this team but a lot go to corporations and become the head of operations or operational specialist in industrial companies, which can be very good exits.

          1. Hi Serena,

            A BIG thank you for your response. Very helpful!

            To continue on the private equity train of thought…

            Which products do PE firms typically engage DDV in? My initial assumption is operational due diligence pre-deal and operational improvement/cost reduction (branded as FasTrack in the UK) post-deal.

            Would concentrated experience with these PE-relevant products make a stronger case when looking at a PE exit? Or is there still a considerable gap in transferrable skills?

          2. Hi Peter,
            No worries. You are absolutely right on products PE firms typically engage DDV. It is my understanding that PE firms rarely engage DDV for operational DD in the first place. It always tags along with Financial and tax DD. PE firms nowadays do not hire DDV much for post-deal services neither because they don’t need carve-out and integration like industrial company buyers. FastTrack could be one of the a few exceptions. I do see some PEs want FastTrack products to quickly improve operation in order to flip and sell.

  4. Mahyar

    So is it worth getting an MBA at all from a non-target? It seems to me like you would just be wasting your money otherwise. Thanks Nicole!

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Yes, I don’t think its worth it, unless you go to a target. https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/mba-investment-banking/

  5. Mahyar

    Great article, I really enjoyed learning more about this. Working at a big4 in the IT audit field, I feel like I’ve gotten branded as only ‘IT’ although I want to do something more finance based. I know everyone will tell me it’s crazy to try to jump to a completely different field but any suggestions? I’ve been doing it for a little over 2 years now.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Getting an MBA at a target may help you rebrand yourself https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/business-school-rebranding/

      1. Mahyar

        Is it really necessary to get an MBA at this point? I’ve only been out of college for 3 years and this IT auditing role has been my only experience so far.

        1. Well as Nicole a MBA is pretty good to rebrand yourself completely. If you really want to get into finance I suggest taking more and more assignments related to finance rather than IT and changing your image internally, then make the transfer through heavy networking.

        2. M&I - Nicole

          No, it is not necessary. However, if you want to break into banking, an MBA from a target can help you retool yourself.

  6. Thanks for clarifying all the categories. In the case of the firm interviewed here, they mix strategic consulting and operational consulting in what they offer to clients.

  7. Thank you for another great post! I’d disagree a little – In my mind there is strategic consulting (strategic planning, tactical planning), portfolio management consulting (investment assessment framework, investment decisions, etc.), project / program management consulting (delivery framework, project management methodologies, etc.) and operational consulting (operational portfolio, operations management, operations, etc.). Interviewer seems to mix strategic consulting with operational consulting, but then – if it brings money and grows company to 90 people – why not?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Thanks for your input!

  8. If your looking for a consulting position. interviewers often think. Could I put this guy in front of a client? Professionalism is key.
    regards,
    peter
    @
    operationconsultinggroup.com

  9. @George
    I would more look at operation/implementation consulting with the F1 formula racing analogy, with the client being the F1 car and the track is the market or objective, and the other cars are the competitors. Everyone knows the recommendation: get to first place. But at what speed should the client navigate the turn when X competitor is at Y distance or when the wind factor is at Z and tire grip is at G in order to maintain the top average speed? These are calculations that are best left for consultants to quickly carry out for the client, so that tangible results can be delivered and implemented in a shorter span of time.

    1. Hi AQ,

      Thanks for the metaphore, I never thought of it that way.

      @George, it’s hard to convey that completely in one article but I studied some of the work they’ve done and trust me it’s very concrete (think redesigning the product offer AND implementing it in all the banks of the country).

      Nicolas

  10. This is a nice little sales pitch, but there seems to be a lot of confusion when it comes to consultants’ ability to produce “tangible” results, which supposedly happens through operational consulting.

    Yes, there are strategic and operational projects. Strategic projects command dramatically higher rates and are dramatically more difficult to sell. Implementing someone else’s recommendation might sound like you are “creating value” but in reality you are, well, implementing someone else’s recommendation. Here are some companies that do mostly that type of implementation work: Deloitte Consulting, Accenture, Capgemini Consulting.

    There is management consulting, and there is management consulting. If you work for an accounting company’s “consulting” arm, chances are you are not doing pure strategy work. And there is a big gap between than and any other type of consulting work.

  11. What do you think about working in the Corporate finance dept of a bluechip company which is into say Mfg FMCG products as against CF in the Big 4
    (i read the article about ‘ a day in the life of CF)
    Is their more strategy involved in the first option like strategic buyouts or acquisitions,pricing policy,cost management , which i think is true because of the size and nature of business of that bluechip org

    1. Hi Rohan. I’m probably biased because I took the “Corporate Finance in a bluechip company” route. The difference for me is that when you work at a big 4 in CF you come at a “strategic time” because your client is probably going to raise some money, acquire another company etc. When you work in CF within a big company you’re actually designing the strategy. The finance department is very influent when it comes to making decision for the pricing of product, new acquisitions etc… I’m working on an article on the different departments in Corporate Finance so stay tuned for more info!

      1. I work in internal audit in an audit firm.It is also called operational audit.We look in depth at the effectiveness and efficiency of operations,accounting,compliance and some other depts too.Could that be a part of operational consulting?

        Plus i am also biased in favour of bluchip because you get alot of exposure in different areas(esp when you are an intern) and there are many ways of looking at things rather than a narrower approach at a big 4

        1. Buyouts & acquisitions work is often done by corp development people, maybe together with corp finance people but sometimes not. Pricing policy, cost management, promotions etc would be done in corp fin, and in FMCG cos finance teams are often organized by prod area. So, you be part of the finance team in the paper products division, but you wouldn’t work on skincare products.

  12. Great article and nice to see less consultant bashing on M&I! I also work in operational management consulting with a major IT consulting company. When I first started I was parked at the execution stage of a lot of IT transformation projects (change management and that sort of thing) which at first did not seem very glamorous but as I progressed I have started to do more ‘strategy’ work which is pretty cool.. I have been offered a position in audit for financial services with a big4, I really want to move into big4 corporate finance (mid market M&A advisory minus the financing) and I think audit may be my way in within a few years through leveraging my consulting experience with the accounting/finance work I will have done. Does anyone have any advice on this? I know what people say about audit but I think its a realistic route. If I stay in consulting I will never get the exposure to finance which I want. Any thoughts?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      If you have already been offered a position in audit for financial services with a big4 and your goal is to work in corp fin for that same company, I think you have a chance of transitioning to the corp fin team as long as you network a lot internally and can prove your value to the team. With the above being said, spaces are relatively limited from what I’ve heard, and I’d suggest you to figure out whether you would enjoy the work at Audit or not & a plan B option. If you don’t think you’ll enjoy your work in Audit (even one year can be hell), I’d rethink about the offer.

      1. Thanks for the feedback, I do have a little time to think about it and also try to develop other possibilities but I think I will actually enjoy audit and the accounting professional qualification will open doors.. hopefully :)

        1. M&I - Nicole

          Ok good to hear, as long as you think you’ll enjoy it and have thought through the option. Follow your gut!

    2. Hi Ollie and thanks for your comment. For me having an IT + audit background is not the best way to break into big4 corporate finance. I don’t say it’s impossible but you have a disadvantage compared to someone who is a “pure” auditor.

      My advice would be to find an auditor position specialized in IT. Banks and internal audit services in big companies are starting to recruit people with IT background because of the complexity of the reporting/accounting systems.

      It’s a good way to leverage your IT experience and to gain some financial exposure.

      1. Thanks for your comment, I understand where you are coming from but I’m not actually an IT/technical consultant (they get paid way less :) and I have only been doing this for less than 2 years so I feel that Im still fresh enough to rebrand myself several times.. The audit role would not be IT audit but pure financial statements audit for financial services. Would that make a leap into big4 corp finance more feasible?

        1. In that case it’s different. If you have a short experience and not a very technical IT position you’re not branded “IT material”. If you thing you’ll enjoy audit, then try it and see for yourself. It’s a very good path to CF positions even if, as Nicole said, it’s quite tough to make the move.

  13. I just wanted to say thank you to M&I for posting articles very frequently, I love reading what you guys post.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Thank you for being our fan!

    2. Thanks a lot John. We like to read your comments and answer your questions too!

  14. Re: Exit Ops

    Don’t most large PE firms have an operational arm these days? Ex KKR Capstone.

    1. Good point Michael. Thanks for raising it. It’s part of the business model of PE firms (In Europe at least). Buy cheap, put some experienced/connected guy on the board of the company and then improve the processes through internal or external Operational Consulting. So that’s definitely one exit opp.

  15. Vivien H.

    Thanks Nicolas for your diligence?

    What was Brian saying…? :)

    1. Bryan was right. It’s just that it’s one of the first interview were the interviewee is ok with not staying anonymous.

  16. Vivien H.

    Well that was interesting nut couldn’t you name the guy who granted you that generous interview?

    1. Thanks. Generally interviewees don’t disclose their names if they’re still in the industry, otherwise he would have mentioned it.

      1. Thanks for your comment Vivien. In fact I didn’t want to do it without an authorization. I just received it by mail today so I’ll edit the article.

        Thanks a lot to Axel De La Forest for sharing his experience with our readers.

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