In a heartfelt letter, Maria Belfrage, Engagement Partner at QVARTZ, shares some of the things she would like to tell a younger version of herself, back when she had just started her career in consulting. Who would have thought that the colleague she thought was kind of a douchebag would become one of her best friends?
“Hey you,” I say, stepping into the taxi.
“Hey ...” you reply, clearly in disbelief of seeing me there. Granted, it’s quite incredible.
“We’re going to have a talk,” I say firmly. “I know you never listen to other people’s advice, especially not advice given by people claiming to be ‘older and wiser’, but who once upon a time were just like you. I know you never read any instructions, always being too eager to try things out yourself. It’s not until you are clearly in the wrong (like when the IKEA wardrobe won’t close, which you know is one of its key features) that you go back, read and re-do. But you like that process. You prefer finding out on your own, rather than having someone else tell you. I know you, because I am you.”
“So …” I say, snatching your earphones and cell, “I thought this would be the best way. No distractions. Nowhere to go. Forty minutes or so until we reach Arlanda Airport, during which I will share some reflections from my first six years as a consultant.”
“What?! SIX full years?!” you exclaim and continue in frustration, “You were supposed to be in and out of there in three years, sucking up knowledge and steep learning curves like a sponge and be well on your way to greater things by now … what happened?!”
“Well, calm down! That’s a general life advice, by the way, calm down. You see, you had it all wrong from the beginning.” You scoff. You don’t like to be wrong. To be honest, you rarely think that you are. You have always been fairly self-righteous.
“It’s okay, though,” I say. “Everyone has it wrong from the beginning. You’re not alone. But if you listen to me – and I mean actually listen, not just pretend – you might take away a few things that will be useful to you in the years to come.” You stare at the road, clearly not convinced, but you nod.
“Okay,” I say, glancing over at the six years younger version of myself. A bit more nervous, with a clumsier carry-on and no manicure – otherwise the same. You wear a blouse that I still have hanging in my wardrobe. In so many ways, it feels like it was only yesterday that I was sitting in your seat, biting my nails nervously. “Well, you need to start asking the questions,” I say.
“What are you talking about?”
“No client and no QVARTZ partner expects a 24-year-old graduate to have deep industry knowledge about anything.”
“I know you think consulting is all about solving complex problems. And it is. But you won’t get anywhere if you think you’ll be the one providing the answers. You need to start asking questions again, like you did when you were young, before the Swedish educational system had you putting more pride into providing correct answers to pre-determined questions rather than asking the questions yourself. Remember all the whys, the what ifs, the how comes you kept nagging your parents with?” You smile at the recollection of never-ending conversations on topics such as outer space and life after death. “You need to go back to that. I know you have hundreds of questions buzzing inside your head. Answers are overrated, the questions are what matter!”
“But …” you say doubtfully, “I don’t know which ones are stupid questions. I don’t want the client to think that I don’t understand the very basics of what they do.”
“Well, to be honest, you’re two weeks into this. You don’t understand the very basics of what the client does, do you?” You shake your head reluctantly. “So, what do you do?” I say, already knowing what you will reply.
“I Google … a lot,” you admit.
“I know,” I say. “And that’s fine. I still Google a lot, actually. But your career can’t rely on Google. It takes up an awful lot of your time and not all industry dynamics are elaborately explained in some obscure industry report that you’re able to find online. You will inevitably run into a wall when your Google backlog is too long and you have no other choice but to start relying on the knowledge of your colleagues and clients. So, you might just as well start now. It’s not until you dare to let go of Google and ask the questions – granted, some will be stupid, some will be purely clarifying, some you will have to ask many, many times – that this steep learning curve of yours will start to materialize. And once in a while, you’ll ask a really, really good one. One that makes people reflect and maybe even change their perspective a bit. That’s what consulting is all about! If it helps, no client and no QVARTZ partner expects a 24-year-old graduate to have deep industry knowledge about anything, you’re not fooling anyone.”
“Okay, okay. I will!” You laugh and raise your arms in a gesture signaling surrender. “What more?”
“In so many ways, it feels like it was only yesterday that I was sitting in your seat, biting my nails nervously.”
“I know you’re a bit disappointed with me for sticking around for so long.” You open your mouth to interrupt, but I raise my hand to stop you. “And if it would have been true that I would learn less and less with each year passing, I think I would have quit by now. But, it has actually been the opposite; I’m constantly developing in all aspects. I might not be focusing on honing my Excel skills to the same extent that you’re doing right now, but believe me, I’m learning every day. So, I guess I just want to say that I think you should prepare yourself for a slightly longer ride than what you expect right now.”
“You’re not going to like this,” I continue, “but you need to know when to ask for help, you need to accept helping hands, and situations will occur where you’ll need to confide in and rely on others much more than you would prefer. Your colleagues are fantastic, brilliant people who will always help you out, but they are not mind readers. You need to ask them for help when you need it.”
I look sternly at you. I can tell you don’t believe me. Why would you? You have never found yourself in an academic or professional situation that you could not handle – not yet. I can tell that you think I have gone soft over the years. I smile a little.
“Well, you don’t need to believe me. You just need to know who to turn to when it all feels overwhelming and you desperately need to talk to someone in the know.” I can see that you are starting to compile names in your head. “They’re all good!” I say, “but there is one addition to that list. You know the guy who you think is kind of a douchebag?” You nod slowly. “Well, he will become one of your best friends. So, put him on the list, right at the top.”
We are approaching Arlanda Airport and time is running out. You pay for the taxi, prepare to get out and give me an awkward smile. My eyes follow you as you enter the airport, the clumsy carry-on trailing behind you. I know you won’t listen. But it’s okay, you’ll figure it out eventually.
Engagement Partner, QVARTZ
From London to Kolkata
“If you are willing to look at the consequences, then you can really create the life you want.” - Lisbeth Johansen, LittleBigHelp