June 28th, 2010

One of the keystones of consulting is teamwork. The industry would be nowhere without it and it’s one of the major scoring areas in graduate recruitment and induction.

Now, teamwork sounds like quite a good thing; the best person for the job, delegation, learning, knowledge transfer…by and by I’m a fan of teamwork because I can joyfully glean everyone else’s knowledge for my own and ask more learned people for workarounds with my own incompetence.  Oh, and support my colleagues, offer my expertise and so forth.  Teamwork can be a real enabler to get things done however the consulting industry takes teamwork to a whole new level.

Part of the focus on team playing is not that you will get on with people and work professionally with your colleagues – it’s so that you won’t say no to them. It starts with the team dinner and social; a bit of alcohol and a night on the dance-floor soon starts to destroys the professional boundaries we try so hard to cultivate the rest of the time. Throw in a few lunchtime confessionals, shared flights and hotels and suddenly the project “team” becomes the project “friends” and therein lies the secret to the industry’s success. You can’t really say no to your friends, can you? Think about it. If someone you hardly know but work with asks you to work overtime you can easily refuse, suggest that you have family commitment and get out of there. However, if that nice girl you drank cocktails with last week – you know, the one who told you about her boyfriend cheating and borrowed a shirt when she spilt coffee down herself-asks for a bit of help to get something finished it’s a lot more difficult to refuse.

The nature of the work forces people together and demands that they become intensely involved in each other’s lives. You’re expected to travel together, work in the same office all day, eat dinner together, sleep in the same hotel and go to the same hotel gyms (which invariably means being naked in front of your same sexed co-workers and doing your hair and makeup together). You can end up spending more time with you team than you ever would with anyone else in your life. Even when you go on holiday with your other half you can at least go on separate bus tours.  On that note, office affairs are notorious and the big joke about “consultants only end up marrying other consultants” stems from leading this lifestyle. You may only see your partner at weekends but you may spend up to sixteen hours a day with the “team”, which is usually rife with attractive, intelligent young professionals.

Working in a team is also a great way to mitigate risk and pass blame. When you’ve worked with three other people to get something done and then got two managers and partner to sign something off, it can’t *really* be your fault when it all bellies up, can it? I’ll be honest with you – I’m of the firm opinion that whilst you’re a junior member of the team and can get away with making mistakes you should make the best of it. It really isn’t your fault because you can’t be expected to know better – it’s as safe an environment as you’ll get and whilst you’re in the position to pass the blame to another team member, do it. They obviously want the responsibility and worry or they would have left by now.

Teamwork is also a breeding ground for a whole plethora of management phrases which are developed and passed round the office as the team splits out and moves on. To give you a taster, here are three team-orientated phrases which I’ve heard in the past five hours alone: “We should touch base later” –I’ll phone you in an hour or so “I’ll take this offline” – “Let’s not discuss that with everyone else here “Are we strong on that?” – Can we do that nay impossible task? There’s only so much of “team calls” and “hello team” and “team updates” you can take before you start to resent that fact that no one calls you by your name (unless they want something done) or the fact that you don’t seem to have a life outside the “team” or the fact that the same set of pasted on smiling faces are going to see you falling off the treadmill at 6am as have shared your taxi home at midnight the night before.

Lastly, there’s the guilt. The point I alluded to at the start of this diatribe highlighting the fuzzy line between co-worker and friend which seems to permit others to ask anything of you and you comply. I was speaking to a fellow consultant recently who said that he felt bad about leaving his project team working to 3am and going home because they will “resent him”. He only feels like that because he fell for the tricks which let him become close to the guys he works with. His relationships within the team means that he thinks that he owes them solidarity when all he really owes them is a cup of coffee when it’s his round.

It’s not the army, it’s not an operating table, it’s not a rescue mission. Your teamwork may be crucial to the project success but it’s not life or death. Do yourself a favour and go home. They’ll get over it.

5 responses

  1. Chris comments:

    I was working on a paper with two office-mates, due to be submitted at 3am Saturday morning, and felt uber-bad about pissing off at 7pm because I had a dinner invitation. I’m not convinced anyone tricked me into that state of mind though; I just felt I owed them effort matching their own, an idea which has the obvious potential to race to the top and end up with everyone working themselves to death. I suppose what I’m saying is, I doubt management need to engage cunning plan mode to get this sort of thing to happen; I suspect they can rely on humans’ tendency to form alliances in shared adversity to do that for them

  2. Consulting Reality comments:

    Yes Chris but you’re obviously one of those teamwork people : P
    Not everyone would feel bad in your situation. Some of us would feel only the slightest pang of guilt which would be rapidly washed away by the prospects of a delicious dining session.
    Also, point from my post is that these guys were also your friends – if Jimmy down the road phoned you and asked you to stay up all night to help him with a paper you’d feel less bad about refusing.

  3. Consultant Insider comments:

    I definitely agree that becoming friends with your team does mean its harder to refuse work, but I offer up two points –

    1) Its easier to keep your distance from job managers and partners, who are often the source of the work (and keep to better schedules given their family lives which engenders less guilt on your part)


    2) Becoming friends with your colleagues at a consulting firm can actually be pretty rewarding – I can definitely say I have made life long friends in this business, which ten years from now will be far more important than a few late nights

  4. Consulting Reality comments:

    Firstly, I one hundred percent agree with making friends. I genuinely love my colleagues. I’ve never met a nicer bunch of people and I know I’ve made friends for life. What iv’e found though is that I tend to spend more time with the people in the office than the people I’m on project with. I love being part of a project team but being pushed together and expected to be best friends from the word go makes me uncomfortable. It does feel like “the team” should be more important than other friends of family. At least with the guys in the office, I’ve been able to spend a few months getting to know them on a more ad hoc basis and our social events (eg work Christmas do’s) feel more natural.

  5. Consulting Reality » Working Attitudes pings back:

    [...] which I touched on lightly when discussing teamwork, working in consulting makes me feel like my choice is removed. I need to feel like I’ve made the [...]

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