Professional Services as Business Training (Excerpt 4)

As we’ve seen, one of the most frequently pursued paths for achievement- minded college seniors is to spend several years advancing professionally and getting trained and paid by an investment bank, consulting firm, or law firm. Then, the thought process goes, they can set out to do something else with some exposure and experience under their belts. People are generally not making lifelong commitments to the field in their own minds. They’re “getting some skills” and making some connections before figuring out what they really want to do.I subscribed to a version of this mind-set when I graduated from Brown. In my case, I went to law school thinking I’d practice for a few years (and pay down my law school debt) before lining up another opportunity.

It’s clear why this is such an attractive approach. There are some immensely constructive things about spending several years in professional services after graduating from college. Professional service firms are designed to train large groups of recruits annually, and they do so very successfully. After even just a year or two in a high-level bank or consulting firm, you emerge with a set of skills that can be applied in other contexts (financial modeling in Excel if you’re a financial analyst, PowerPoint and data organization and presentation if you’re a consultant, and editing and issue spotting if you’re a lawyer). This is very appealing to most any recent graduate who may not yet feel equipped with practical skills coming right out of college.

It seems like an incredible set of benefits. How can there be any downside either to the individual or to the economy that a significant proportion of our top graduates are being professionalized as bankers, consultants or lawyers?

The nature of professional services dictates that you work on a deal or a client engagement that lasts a brief period and then ends. You’re usually staffed on a deal that will last for a finite period until the deal either comes through or falls apart. You begin a new transaction or client engagement every several months, perhaps longer if it’s a protracted consulting project. You’re used to relationships measured in weeks or months, or only hours or minutes in the trading context. Clients arrive and demand a flurry of activity until a transaction is complete, then disappear. Senior managers at your firm maintain relationships with clients, but you’re a level or two removed. You often develop strong relationships with colleagues due to the long hours, extensive travel and intense work environment. But you’re used to people coming and going very quickly as teams either shift and change or people leave the firm. For example, the attrition rate at one top consulting firm is 30 percent per year, which is one reason they’re always hiring.

The constant flow of different deals is presented as a selling point by many consulting firms and investment banks. They’ll say it’s “fast-paced,” things are “changing all the time,” and that you’ll work on one deal or project “and then move on.” Most operating companies, in contrast, typically rely upon long-term relationships to function well. They require a significant commitment in which the time frame is measured in years, not weeks or months. Turnover is detrimental to developing a good management team; building a business, and building up the value of one’s equity and relationships within an industry, takes time.

As a professional service provider who is changing clients or transactions every period, it’s hard to become emotionally invested in your work. It’s like trying to be concerned about taking care of a car you’re renting. Your clients are themselves big companies, and your interaction with them will often be limited to the occasional meeting with a senior executive or a manager. If you’re a consultant, you’re generally set up in a conference room from Monday through Thursday in a far-flung city; then you fly home on Thursday night. You’re there as a transaction cost because someone wants to get something done. One ex-consultant I interviewed noted, “It’s hard to get personally attached or invested when you know you’re only there for a number of months. I had assignments and deliverables that I knew would get changed after six months because we were a stopgap solution — I knew my work would disappear in a little while after the new system was put in.”

Your appetite for risk generally diminishes as you get older. This can become even more pronounced in a professional setting. You spend your working life in nice offices around well-compensated people.

You often have support staff from day one. The only people you interact with work at large public companies. Your expenses creep upward over time, and you get used to having nice things. Your interpersonal obligations mount, and the people you’re dating and family members expect you to earn lots of money. As you adapt to your role and circumstance, taking a risk professionally becomes more and more of an abstraction.

Once, while I was having drinks with a friend of mine after she started working at a top-tier consulting firm, she said, “Before I got here, I thought I could do anything. Now, I feel like you can’t do anything unless you have a budget of millions of dollars.”

In the minds of college seniors, and thanks to prodigious investment on the part of the firms themselves, professional services — financial services and management consulting — have become conflated with “business” when really they’re a narrow subset or category of businesses with distinctive features.

If you work in professional services you will be paid handsomely and have a brand-name firm on your résumé. You’ll gain skills, confidence, and exposure. But you may also become heavily socialized and specialized, more risk averse, and accustomed to operating in resource-rich environments with a narrow set of deliverables. You’ll be likely to adopt an arm’s-length relationship with your work. You won’t build anything; instead, you will compartmentalize and put the armor on each day as deals, clients and colleagues come and go.

Professional services are being used as a de facto training ground for our top college graduates — with mixed results for everyone concerned. In particular, going into banking or consulting to learn how to start or run a business is not always ideal; the processes are very different, and give you a sense of companies trying to do different things. It’s like trying to learn how to become a chef by going to a company that runs analyses for large restaurant chains. Yes, you’ll get a better grasp of how chain restaurants work. But will you learn to cook?

There are, of course, any number of successful business builders and entrepreneurs who started out as professionals, as one would expect given that literally half our top graduates have pursued these paths for the past couple decades. David Gilboa worked at an investment bank before co-founding Warby Parker. John Delbridge worked in equity research before co-founding Mimeo. People have long careers that aren’t defined by their first few years.

And it’s easy to get excited about a potential hire if he has spent a couple of years at a top firm. There’s a good chance that this person is smart, motivated, capable of long hours and detail-oriented work, and is looking for a change. If applying to work at a startup, he probably expects a pay cut and has the right motivation.

But if I had a dollar for all the bankers, consultants and lawyers I’ve met who told me that they were “really interested in entrepreneurship,” I’d be awfully rich. Meanwhile, they struggle to transition into different roles, and many of them have lost some of the qualities that would have enabled them to take on their original ambitions.

Their problem isn’t just theirs — it affects all of us. We’re breeding large battalions of indifferent professionals in a handful of cities, when what we need is something very different. We need committed builders.