Staff turnover in consulting is a significant issue. Managed attrition — consulting code words for “firing underperformers” — runs from 15% to 20% in a good year. I have laid people off immediately for cause, but most of the time, I have had to follow the process of “counseling an employee out of the firm.”
This counseling process is not therapeutic. Consulting firms do not put underperformers in the basement with red staplers and no paycheck, hoping that they will go away. Managed attrition in consulting is gradual, painful and humiliating.
Perhaps this is why some consultants are expressing a change of heart and suggesting that clients move away from the “up or out” performance evaluation models. Honestly, this new mindset strikes me as a pitch to dismantle HR processes that they may have recommended in the first place. Sorry, not sorry.
Why should you care about attrition in consulting?
You pay for the underperformers directly and indirectly
Consulting firms bleed low performers out of every last chargeable hour, until they get the picture that they are not up to the standard and leave of their own accord. This process takes months of documentation, usually spread across multiple clients.
I worked with a consultant, P, who only seemed capable of parroting back observations. P had no original thought leadership, yet we were charging him out at $210 an hour. The client needed to know that each team member was making a meaningful contribution.
In our first meeting, P had not said anything. I gently tapped on his paper with my pen, next to his carefully rehearsed observation. No reaction. I tapped firmly. No reaction. I roughly shoved his leg. Showtime!
For the next five minutes, P gave a stirring monologue on the merits of IT Infrastructure V2 aligned release management. The client stared at him. His observations were completely off topic. I had to punch him in the leg again to make him stop.
I saw this gentleman repeatedly over the next three years, until he finally left to join another consulting firm.
How to avoid carrying their dead weight
Recognize when you are paying for on-the-job training.
It was my job as the engagement partner to get the team into shape, regardless of past performance. We would rehearse client situations and review industry trends over dinner, before meetings and during the workday. Acclimating to a new client usually took a few days before the training wheels could come off.
My approach varied with the bottom 15%. How do you identify these people quickly? Their client-facing emails may look like rambling Twitter feeds, including emojis, which no one understands anyway. Knowing that they would be jettisoned (at least from my projects), I would bear with them until I could pawn them off to another project after a few months.
Explain your expectations if the team is not proactively engaged after a few weeks. Make a change if there is not immediate improvement.
Use the consulting-to-client ratio to your advantage.
A cardinal rule in consulting is to avoid outnumbering the client if at all possible. It is almost as sacrosanct as not carrying a Dummies book around the office. In the case of P, violating this rule was unavoidable. I had to document his myriad mistakes and missteps. P became my shadow.
As we would walk to client meetings, I would give him a question to ask or an insightful tidbit to contribute. We would debrief meetings over coffee. Nothing worked. By the end of our three months together, P was relegated to taking notes.
When there are three or more consultants for every one of your staff in your meetings, identify the overpaid stenographers and get rid of them.
Ask prospective hires if they are on track for promotion.
Consulting firms use months or years at level metrics to determine if a consultant is ahead of the curve or behind it. Fall more than a year behind your scheduled promotion date and you are typically targeted for dismissal.
When you approach a consulting firm to hire them, it’s usually because they have exceeded your expectations. It’s tough to give a consultant a low rating if the client is asking to hire them away.
It is a different situation when a consultant approaches you for a job. Bad travel assignments, tough clients, longer hours than usual, and lack of coaching are all code words used by someone who is being pushed out of consulting.
Be cautious. If leadership actively encourages the hire, learn if they are being counseled out of the firm and why. If leadership is out of the loop, you could face a penalty for violating your master services agreement.
Consulting grinds through people at a tremendous pace every year. Avoid letting the dead weight drag you down.