by Chad Oakley
Chief Executive Officer at Charles Aris Inc.
About 10 years ago, shortly after I had left Bain & Company and was ramping up my executive search practice here at Charles Aris Inc., I was in Atlanta meeting with one of my clients – the Executive Vice President of Strategy & Corporate Development for a market-leading $10 billion company. When I walked into the EVP’s spacious office, he was seated at his desk, working feverishly on his computer, and I couldn’t help but notice that on his screen was a relatively complex Excel model.
“Hey, look at you,” I joked, “dusting off the old Excel skills?”
I never expected to see a direct report to the CEO for a company that has tens of thousands of employees waist deep in an Excel model. The EVP chuckled at my response.
And then he really surprised me.
“Truth is, Chad, I’m in Excel at least four to five hours a week – and sometimes four to five hours a day when we’re closing in on a deal,” he said. “When we’re buying a company, we can’t afford to leave the details to junior analysts. I’ve got to know the ins and outs of a deal better than anyone in the organization. Sure, I might rely on junior staff to help me with some of the due diligence, but I’m the quarterback, and the quarterback has to know everything.”
I was shocked. Didn’t executives graduate from building models and PowerPoint decks and start playing a quality-control role around the Director or VP level, much less the EVP level?
Fast-forward a decade, after hundreds upon hundreds of discussions with former consultants who are now in corporate America, and I have learned the following: The best never hang up their cleats.
The most successful performers – those who climb the career ladder fastest – are still doing the heavy lifting themselves. They still run their own models (at least all the important ones) and they still build out their PowerPoint decks (at least the “million-dollar slides”).
Do they use junior staff? Yes, but selectively – and partly because they care about the next generation of leaders at their company and they enjoy coaching and mentoring. In short, the best do their work as though they own the company themselves, and they don’t leave anything to chance.
I have another compelling example to share. At this point, roughly one-third of Charles Aris clients are private equity firms, and those firms often engage us on a search for a “Chief of Staff to the CEO” or a “Head of Transformation” for one of their portfolio companies. Regardless of the title, the roles are similar and the desired profile is always the same: The P.E. firm wants a former strategy consultant who has since moved into corporate America, and who has a track record of [insert generic phrase such as “making it happen” or “moving the needle” or “pushing the company to its full potential”] by rolling up their sleeves. And then they all say what they do not want: an ivory-tower thinker who likes to delegate the real work to junior staff.
The inspiration for this article was a conversation I had with a candidate just this past week. He expressed concerns to me about the true seniority of a position for which he is interviewing, as the role only has one direct report.
“I want to make sure that this isn’t a glorified analyst position,” he said.
I fully understand his concerns, for as a principal in consulting he’s used to having teams of four to six consultants reporting to him. Thirty minutes later, I shared his thoughts with my client – but already knew the response I was going to hear because I’ve heard it so many times before.
“Chad, our group doesn’t have a bunch of junior staff running around. I’m an SVP and I still build models and slide decks, and so does my boss,” the hiring authority said. “If this candidate doesn’t care to do that work anymore, then unfortunately this probably won’t be a great fit.”
Now I’m guessing that some of you aren’t loving this message; you were hoping that the heavy lifting eventually goes away. But I do have good news: There’s no better joy in business than being the person who knows all the answers. You become the go-to person, the trusted adviser, the expert. And best of all, you become indispensable.
So … my advice? Keep those sleeves rolled up. Don’t ever lose your sense of curiosity. Relish the details. Your career will thank you!
Lastly, know that I’m in this with you. Our annual Strategy Consulting Compensation Study that we release every January? Well, it’s a beast. In the end, it’s 900-plus data points displayed throughout 12 tight slides, but it takes tens of hours to produce. And who builds the model and creates all the slides? Yup, it’s me.