A day in the life of Joseph M. McNerney,
What I Do
As a manager at an Australian consulting firm focusing on growth strategies, I am in charge of a major piece of a project for a particular client. Perhaps unlike other larger consulting firms, a manager here does not have responsibility for more than one client at a time. We have a partner or high-level principal at the client site day to day and several managers like me running different pieces of the engagement.
Generally, with any client I am responsible for business process design on operations or technology-based projects—these projects are available in two flavors. At the high level, I might do a strategic piece of work to help a client launch a new type of business or change an existing one.
This could involve establishing management structure; planning physical changes, infrastructure, and technology; setting up marketing, sourcing, and call centers; and making everything work together. Or at the implementation level, I might do a “value management” project to actually turn the high-level strategy into an operating reality. The best kinds of projects are [those in which] I can do the strategic development first, and then move into the implementation role and finish the job.
In a typical week, I leave Monday and travel to the client site until Thursday or Friday. A project might be two to three months or nearly a year long. Strategic projects are usually shorter and staffed with smaller teams, so I might not be managing any firm or client teams. For a longer implementation-focused engagement, I might manage zero to three other team members, and I’m likely to manage a bunch of client teams of three, four, or five people at a time—all working toward one overall project objective.
What I Enjoy Most
I like the feeling that I make a big impact every day. My clients are paying a lot of money and they expect that big impact; the top people at the client company are interested in my results. I am always under a microscope, and I like that; for me, this is a rewarding type of pressure when I successfully deliver, but I don’t expect this would be true for everyone.
What I Enjoy Least
Constant travel is the obvious drawback. The travel is difficult because I have a wife and small child I miss when I’m away from home all week long. I had no illusions about this coming into the consulting industry; I decided it was an appropriate trade-off to have rewarding work. Given that I travel anyway, I appreciate the fact that this firm lets me live where I want to live and where it makes sense for my family.
Perhaps the less obvious drawback of consulting is that there are a lot of frustrating days because many times you are only the adviser. Often the client doesn’t do what you know in your gut is the best course of action. I’ve had to adjust to this dynamic when I’m not in control of making the decision or living with the decision. In my prior life, I had some authority to make those decisions, especially when I worked in a small company.
Why I Chose This Career
I really enjoy the project-based work—I have the opportunity every six months or so to do something new. I wasn’t sure that I wanted a big corporate job again after having had both small-company and large-company experiences before returning to school for an MBA. While I was in business school, the start-up and dot-com mania was running strong, but I didn’t feel it was worth the risk unless it was a project I really believed in. Therefore, I turned down a few of those opportunities to pursue consulting.
I’ve done a lot of business operations, manufacturing, and supply chain work, so this led to my naturally falling into those types of projects as a consultant.
Desirable Traits to Be Successful in This Career
You need to understand how financial and managerial accounting works and how it is used to make business decisions. Be able to demonstrate how you have made conclusions and tough or insightful decisions using data.
You must thrive under pressure. I tend to think well and perform well under stress, and that knowledge gave me the sense that I would do well working under tough time “C-level microscope.” However, you don’t really know that until you live it every day. Consequently, having an internship in a consulting firm and talking with consultants about living with that daily stress is important before you take a full-time consulting offer.
Words of Advice If You Are Considering This Career Path
I knew I wanted a consulting job for the summer to try it, so in the first year of business school, I focused on getting that summer job. Especially if you are a career changer, you need to focus on this, because the firms are going to be most interested in offering internships to MBA’s who have already been analysts in consulting firms. Take all of the career services stuff to heart—the case interviewing practice, the resume redo, the interviewing strategies—and focus everything on consulting. Pretend that getting the internship is your sixth or seventh class. I spent about 15 hours a week on my internship search.
My personal experience has always tended toward the hands-on, so I tend to like the implementation stuff more than strategy. However, especially now that I have recruited MBA’s for my firm and have been here awhile to see how it works, my advice to people coming into this industry is to not get hung up on whether you are going to be in a strategy or implementation role. The reality is that your clients will need all of those skills. Pitch in where they need you to pitch in and come in to learn and try many different types and levels of engagements.
What I Did Before This (Including Pre-MBA and Post-MBA Jobs)
I had five years of pre-MBA experience. My first year out of college, I worked in my family’s business (a printing company) and had good access to seeing all that goes into running a business.
Then, I spent three years working for a privately held subcontractor in San Jose, California, manufacturing components for the big computer manufacturers. I started as an application engineer, then became an engineering manager, then a business unit manager. The business unit I managed represented U.S. $12 million of the roughly U.S. $30 million company.
This role allowed me to develop some general management skills—I did everything from sales and marketing to business development, engineering, manufacturing, and distribution. It was a fabulous experience because, in a sense, I was winging it in a safe environment where the leadership had a lot of experience and offered mentorship when I needed help.
A larger electronics sub-contractor purchased my company, and I decided it was time for me to take my general management skills to a “bigger pond,” so to speak.
My industry contacts helped me secure a position with Hewlett-Packard (HP) as a supply chain program manager. This role was actually very much like a consulting engagement in that I was tasked with developing an “alternate” supply chain for HP’s retail personal computer group, including setting up new retailer relationships, launching new products, and building new manufacturing and distribution infrastructures.
I also gained experience and an appreciation for the technology infrastructure and applications of a large Fortune 500 company, which has helped greatly in my current consulting position. I worked at HP less than a year full time before going to business school for the MBA, a decision that my boss supported and was aware of before I joined. I also had the opportunity to continue working part-time during my first year of business school, doing business development work with our retailers. This was difficult, considering the time required for school, but it helped me to stay focused and to continue to build and maintain my industry network.
My MBA internship was at the consulting firm where I accepted the permanent offer. I joined as a senior associate and was promoted after one year to manager.
Educational Background (Undergraduate, MBA, Other)
In MBA Programs, I’d Suggest You Look For…
I looked hard at schools that were strong in general management, because this seemed right for the consulting path and my career interests. Michigan has a strong general management program, but I tended to focus on elective courses in corporate strategy, finance, and accounting.
In hindsight, finance and accounting were the most valuable courses for the job I now have, and I would’ve taken more marketing research and market development electives than I did. If you decide to attend a school that forces you to specialize or have a concentration, focus more time on all the hard-core analytical stuff—finance, accounting, operations. This is excellent academic preparation for consulting.
My personal belief is to shoot for the best school you think you can get into, and do everything you can to boost your application. Considering the investment you are about to make, put the time and discipline into it. This includes studying for the GMAT®, submitting a strong application, interviewing at schools, etc.
Then visit the school—spend several days and determine if you are comfortable there. Spend the money to do that. I was very happy with my decision and was very impressed with the staff helping us with career placement issues. I saw the evidence that they not only had the industry contacts I needed, but that they would help me market myself well.