Five lessons from a consultant that moved from retail to consulting

28 August 2018 8 min. read
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Skylar Vanderbilt-Smith joined Thought Provoking Consulting, a boutique management consultancy for the retails sector, in September last year. Reflecting on her first ten months with the firm, she reveals the five main things she has learned since moving from industry to consulting.

Thought Provoking Consulting (TPC) is a specialist retail consulting firm based which is headquartered in the UK, but has been expanding on a global basis in recent years. The firm arrived in the US in 2015, and has enjoyed success of its own since establishing an office in Carlsbad, California, before purchasing US consulting firm Change 4 Growth in 2018. TPC provides a range of services and solutions in Pricing, Merchandise Planning, PLM (including 3D), Programmes of Change, Supply Chain and Change Management, aiming to Make complex challenges simpler through experience and pragmatism, while attempting to provoke long-term thought amid their client base on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the autumn of 2017, Skylar Vanderbilt-Smith joined Thought Provoking Consulting’s UK wing as a Business Consultant. Prior to joining TPC, she spent five years working in Merchandise Planning at retail brands Burberry, Hugo Boss and Charles Tyrwhitt. According to Vanderbilt-Smith, while she loved the job and product, as well as being being a self-proclaimed “Excel nerd”, she found herself ready to do more of what she enjoyed most in the merchandising field. As a result, she put out feelers for work which would include more problem solving, working cross-functionally, and thinking about the wider company strategy, in a job hunt that would eventually lead her into consulting.

Heading to a new industry came with challenges of its own, however. As a result of her experiences, Vanderbilt-Smith has shared a number of steps with, in order to help others looking to transition into consulting make what can be a daunting move as smooth as possible.

Skylar Vanderbilt-Smith, Business Consultant at Thought Provoking Consulting

1) Prepare for continuous learning

Every new job presents employees with a learning curve as they commence their work. While these challenges arise regularly, however, there usually comes a time for staff when they can finally settle into a rhythm and spend some time on “auto-pilot”. What Vanderbilt-Smith primarily noticed at TPC is that this is not the case in the consulting industry. She said, “With each new client or project you’re effectively starting a new job, so constantly getting up to speed quickly is part of your day-to-day now. For example, I worked on a project where we had 3 weeks to understand the organisation, map out end-to-end processes, investigate whether an issue existed (and if so what it was), and design several solutions for them.”

Newcomers to consulting would do well to bear this in mind, according to the Business Consultant, as in the first three weeks of most merchandising jobs in her own experience, a company may rarely expect you to know how to navigate the building, let alone understand the company and design new high-level processes, but a period of adjustment for management consulting work which requires quick transitions to a client’s workplace is very different. She added, “This is the most noticeable difference  I’ve  experienced  since moving from industry and without a doubt one of the biggest challenges yet most exciting part of the job.”

2) Think creatively

Secondly, according to Vanderbilt-Smith, consulting isn’t just about analysing data and making slides, and though those have their place in the work, thinking creatively is at least as important to defining and solving unusual business problems and applying that experience in new ways. This contrasts to industry work, where there tend to be a larger number of existing processes for new employees to follow, meaning it is largely up to consultants and their teams to take the initiative and create optimised solutions before evaluating them thoroughly.

She expanded, “This is not to undermine those PowerPoint skills though. Getting creative with PowerPoint slides can make them a lot clearer and easier to follow (plus it can be fun!). Communication is one of the most critical competencies in consulting and tailoring your visual and written presentation styles can go a long way to effectively getting your message across.”

3) Think big(ger)

“A big shift for me from moving from one large retailer to a consultancy, with many different clients and types of businesses, was spending more time thinking about the health of the entire business, not just a part of it,” Vanderbilt-Smith explained. “A consultant’s involvement with clients from all areas of an organisation up to C-level will demand that they engage with the big picture, however this is something which consultants always want to keep thinking about.”

“Consulting can be long hours and will certainly test your creative problem-solving… however I have found it be the best test and use of my skills and an incredibly rewarding move to have made.”

She further elaborated that by doing so, new consulting professionals can best prepare to tailor their discussion and presentation styles more often, while always considering how one area in which consultants work with a client can impact other areas of the client’s business and bottom line. This is increasingly important in modern consulting, as cost-wary clients look for a custom solution, rather than a one-size-fits-all toolbox, with a holistic focus to improve the running of an overall operating model.

4) Consultants wear multiple ‘hats’

“Throw away the hat-rack, you’re wearing them all at once,” Vanderbilt-Smith declared, before explaining, “My main daily focus in Merchandising was my category within a department, however as a consultant the remit and scope of my work is constantly changing. Due to the nature of consulting versus a typical job in industry, consultants will likely be asked to wear many hats. One week may see professionals leading a long-term planning project at Client A; the next they may be supporting pricing  business development for Client B. Then suddenly you’re supporting a team with a deadline at Client C, all whilst carrying on your important work for Client A and managing your own internal work simultaneously.”

Compared to a day in the life of staff in industry, this represents a huge shift. Generally, this would see them focus on single tasks, with a focus on one particular industrial remit, but consulting presents the opposite. Vanderbilt-Smith believes this is not only a challenge, however, and suggested that it actually presents a fantastic opportunity to hone a whole range of skills and bring lessons from one type of work to another on a regular basis – one of the main draws to the industry for many of its inhabitants.

5) Expect to have fun

Finally, the TPC staffer outlined that consultants can expect to forge strong and rewarding relationships with team members, thanks to an “in the trenches” attitude, where staff working together on an intense project can lend itself to a great sense of humour to keep employees going. As a result, despite being under pressure for key deliverables, Vanderbilt-Smith reported that she has managed to have a lot of fun with her co-workers along the way, adding, that she and her colleagues had enjoyed, “some drinks to cap off a job well done at the end of a phase always has its fair share of laughs!”

She concluded, “In consulting, you’ll likely be spending a lot of time on a project with the same few people in a small conference room, sometimes in a city away from your home town. Through hours of brain storming and trips to get (yet another) coffee, expect to speedily bond with colleagues that you may not have made friends with as quickly as in industry. Ultimately, consulting can be long hours and will certainly test your creative problem-solving side of your brain, however I have found it be the best test and use of my skills and an incredibly rewarding move to have made.”