BTU #144 - Active Duty to the Boston Consulting Group (Kristen Sproat Colley)

"Many times veterans have a huge skill set but they’re not sure how to make it relevant for a civilian employer. A lot of people will say ‘I did x, y, and z’ instead of saying ‘I’m skilled at a, b, and c, because I did x, y, and z.’ You need to translate what you did into what you can do and what you are now capable of. That’s a huge step toward getting your foot in the door with a consulting firm, or any other company for that matter.”- Kristen Sproat Colley

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Kristen Sproat Colley is a Consultant at the Boston Consulting Group in their D.C. office. She started out at the US Naval Academy and earned a MSc from Oxford University in Forced Migration. She served as an officer in the US Marine Corps for eight years, prior to making her transition to BCG. At BCG she has worked on blockchain integration with the global supply chain for a technology company, economic and social strategy implementation for a Middle Eastern government, and foreign business development for a US defense company.

Why to Listen: For those interested in a career in Management Consulting, Kristen does a fantastic job of breaking down what the projects and day-to-day life are like, as well as very tactical steps to prepare for your interview. But even if you're not interested in consulting, Kristen has great advice on how to explain your skills and make a connection with the person interviewing you for whatever job you pursue.

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Transcript & Time Stamps: 


A quick announcement before we get to today’s episode. In just a few days -January 17th- we will be doing our Veterans in Consulting seminar. It’s definitely not too late to register and I highly recommend it if you are at all interested in a career in consulting. We’ll cover everything you could possibly want to know about consulting.


Today is Episode #144 with Kristen Sproat Colley. Kristen is also going to be part of the panel during our Veterans in Consulting seminar. Kristen is awesome and she does a great job of diving into the nitty, gritty details of consulting. She makes this industry very accessible for listeners. A couple reasons to listen to today’s episode. First, Kristen talks about what her day-to-day life is like and what kind of projects she has worked on. Even if you’re not thinking about consulting, Kristen talks about how to re-frame your military experience to be relevant to civilian employers. She also talks about interview prep and provides tangible tips for interview success. Finally, Kristen talks about common misconception veterans have about consulting and what job level is typical to start at.


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Joining me today from Washington, DC is Kristen Sproat Colley. Kristen is a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group based out of BCG's DC office. Kristen is a graduate of the Naval Academy and also earned a Master’s of Science in Forced Migration from Oxford University. She was an officer in the Marine Corps for eight years before making her transition to BCG. Her consulting projects have focused on on blockchain integration, foreign business development, and economic strategies for foreign governments.


Kristen, thanks so much for being with us. How would you explain what you do for a living?

At its core, consulting is about coming up with optimal solutions for messy and complex problems.  We generally know the approximate problem and then we do an in-depth analysis to figure out the root of the problem. We then come up with different courses of action to solve those problems through evidence and data. We make those recommendations to decision makers within the organization. The whole process is actually quite similar to the military planning process.

What does your day-to-day life look like?

It really varies depending on the project. We normally travel to the client site for 3-4 days during the week. It's very important to me that I maintain my morning workouts, even with travel. Usually I’ll travel to the client site early on a Monday morning and get there by 9 am. I’ll usually align with my manager and talk about what needs to get done. Then when I get time to start my work, usually I’ll reach out to subject matter experts for an interview. I also have time when I sit down with the client and brainstorm or talk about possible solutions. Sometimes I’m working on slide content or with other members of the team. We usually get lunch together as a team and then after lunch I’ll check back in with my manager. I keep working on content and analysis. Typically we get together as a team for dinner. Then I go back to my hotel room and talk to my husband. I then continue to work until 11 or so.


And what about during the weekends?

Since I’ve been with BCG, I’ve only had to work two weekends. Usually I like to put in an hour or two on Sunday just to plan my week. However, I have worked on projects oversees and the attitude changes a bit over there but BCG is really good about letting people have a work-life balance. Part of it is also about setting boundaries for yourself.


How do you end up selecting a project?

Each consulting firm has a different model for staffing projects. At BCG, projects are typically anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months. In terms of how I get those projects, we are a generalist firm. That means that when you first start you can be assigned anywhere. When I came in, I had a good sense of the military but really wanted to work outside of that. The first couple projects you work on are to develop your skill set but also focus you on what kind of projects you want to work on. We have a staffing coordinator that oversees everyone’s assignments. I went to her and told her that I was interested in tech projects. She then put me in touch with who would be my project manager and I was able to talk to them about what the project would be like. You can then decide if the project is the right fit for you.


For me, I specifically requested a project in the Middle East. I got staffed on a public sector project that I really enjoyed. I’m currently in that matching process again now to find my next project.


I think one thing that’s so great about consulting is that you have the opportunity to experience many industries and projects in a short period of time.

Exactly. I think that’s my favorite part about it. I’ve been able to try out a bunch of different things and decide what my passion is. There’s so many different types of problems. Every client and every project is different. So it’s never the same thing twice. It’s always a new set of problems and a new set of analysis that needs to be done.


What does the typical team look like and how is work divided up amongst team members?

Each project can vary drastically. For example, I was assigned to one project where it was myself, the project manager, and one other person. I’ve also had a project in which it was a team of 25 people. So just depending on the size of the project, it can be very different.


Could you give an example of a project you worked on?

Sure I can start by talking about the blockchain project. We were hired by a technology client that was interested in learning about different uses for blockchain. This is the same technology that is behind bitcoin. The client understood blockchain, but applying it to international trade and shipping was a new application, and they wanted to understand how the two might come together. Our job was to learn about blockchain and how it could be used in global supply systems. We came up with both short and long term pathways for the company.


During the research period on the project, I visited a local shipyard to look at all the paperwork that goes along with incoming shipments. We put together some product ideas and made recommendations to the client about what they would need to do if they pursued particular routes.


It seems somewhat like being a junior officer in the military in that way. Typically, a junior officer isn’t a subject matter expert but he or she is going to different people to find information and then help create a solution.

That’s right and that’s a question we face a lot - you’re an outsider and not part of the company. How can you solve a problem the company can’t even solve themselves? It’s not that we’re smarter or more capable. It’s that we can bring a different lens and focus. We get up to speed using resources from the company. We also work with the client to fill in our knowledge gaps. Then we come up with possible solutions, so it’s really a problem solving endeavor. The skill that we bring is being able to break down a complex problem into smaller pieces and offer solutions.


Do you have any insight into what direction the company eventually went? Some of the frustrations I hear from the consulting industry is that you come up with a solution and deliver it to your client but you never know how it turns out.

This also depends upon consulting firms because some firms are more involved in the implementation whereas others are not. My advice for someone going into consulting is that if you know you would be frustrated not seeing how the strategy is implemented, join a consulting firm that is typically more involved in strategy implementation. For me, I really love the planning process, so that’s why I stick with a firm focused on strategy consulting.


In terms of actually seeing what happens, in the past I’ve seen our strategies start to be implemented. I’ve seen articles written about the company that mentioned some of the strategies we had recommended. That’s really gratifying to see the strategies being implemented. Sometimes the client doesn’t end up liking the recommendations and doesn’t move forward with them. But with most of the projects I’ve worked on, the client has implemented our strategies.


Could you share one more project with us?

I worked for a United States defense company that was starting a Middle East subsidiary. They had been operating in the region for a while but there was a lot more business development that needed to happen. My team and I went in and helped them figure out the right strategy for meeting with and working with key stakeholders. And then we also made suggestions for what kinds of people would need to be on their team in order to successfully implement their strategy. We then worked with the CEO of the subsidiary to make recommendations and help him start implementing strategies.


It’s rare to go straight from active duty to a Top 3 (BCG, Bain, McKinsey) consulting firm. How did you accomplish this?

I got my Master’s degree immediately after college in Forced Migration Refugee Studies. The specific content of this degree doesn’t really translate to my work at BCG but the critical thinking skills definitely do. My last job in the Marine Corps was as an Information Operations Planner. So I was flying into different places and augmenting the staff on the ground to re-frame issues they were facing and coming up with solutions. I knew I really liked that kind of problem solving.


When I was getting out of the military, I was considering going back to school. I learned about consulting, and realized that it was a similar process to the thought process I used in the military. I think that experience was also ultimately critical to me being able to get the job. I was able to say ‘I know how to look at a problem and break it down’. Also being able to translate my experience in the military to civilian terms and make it meaningful to a civilian organization. Many time veterans have a huge skill set but they’re not sure how to make it relevant for a civilian employer. A lot of people will say ‘I did x, y, and z’ instead of saying ‘I am skilled at a, b, and c, because I did x, y, and z.’ You need to translate what you did into what you can do and what you are now capable of. That’s a huge step toward getting your foot in the door with a consulting firm, or any other company for that matter. I also prepared myself for the interview process which is different than a standard job interview. I talked to veterans that were already in my target firms and then went from there.


Can you take us through how you applied to the Boston Consulting Group and what the interview was like?

When I started doing my research, I narrowed down my search to 5 firms I was interested in working for. I went to a service academy career fair and I was able to chat directly with 2 out of the 5 firms. I also identified people I knew working at those companies who were able to introduce me to others. I had one friend that I had deployed with that helped get me up to speed with the interview process.


For the interview itself, there’s two parts - the case interview and the fit interview. The fit interview is more similar to a traditional interview. The case interview is a bit different. The interviewer will give you a very generic question. For example ‘Our client is interested in sending people into space for a 15 minute tourist excursion.’ And then you will need to discuss things like how this would be accomplished, how much the company should charge customers, etc. What this does is force you to break down a problem and ask the right questions to get to a solution. There were a couple books that I read to prepare as well as doing a whole bunch of practice cases.


How many practice cases do you think you did prior to your interview?

By myself, I probably did about 30 or 40. With someone else, I probably did about 10. You have to get comfortable and know that you enjoy the process.


It seems like the interview process can also be a good indicator of whether or not you’ll like that kind of analysis and problem solving work.

Yes absolutely, that process of figuring out what data you need, breaking down a problem, finding possible solutions. That process of problem solving that you need when doing the case interview is similar to what I now find myself using during different assignments.


Do you remember the names of those books that you mentioned?

There’s two big ones that I think most people read. Case in Point by Marc Cosentino and Case Interview Secrets by Victor Cheng. I also read a third one - Crack the Case System by David Ohrvall. I also had a couple buddies in business school that were willing to share their practice cases with me.


With veterans you’ve interacted with, are there any common misconceptions you see about the interview process or consulting as an industry?

I think one of the common misconceptions for veterans coming into consulting is that in the military they are used to leading people, doing problem solving, running operations. But your first year in consulting is not that. You’re getting an understanding of how the firm works. You’re digging into data and refining presentations. Sometimes that adjustment is tough for veterans. Plus you don’t have people working for you anymore. It takes a couple years to get back to a management level.


Veterans sometimes think that because they did all these great things in the military, they should automatically start at a higher level. But the truth is, we’re really good at some stuff but we suck at other stuff. You have to start from the ground up and build your skillset within the industry.


I love that description because I think that’s exactly right - it can be frustrating for some veterans that have to take a step back when entering a new industry. But I think veterans can take that as an opportunity to build their skill set in that field and before long they will be moving back into those leadership positions.

And while they’re building industry-specific skills, veterans can use their other skills to really shine. For example, many veterans are good at briefing and I’ve found myself at BCG delivering presentations to very high level individuals. I had the full confidence of my team to do that. Overall it’s just a matter of being patient and giving yourself the opportunity to learn.


Have you seen any common trends for what people do after consulting?

For people who stay in consulting, you start as the person that’s putting together the slides and doing the analysis. Then you move into your first management role where you have a few people under you. After that, you move into the sales side of things where you’re working on bringing business to the firm. Finally, you become a partner in the firm where you’re managing the client relationships. The timeline to reach partner is about ten years but can be shorter or longer.


It’s quite common that people leave consulting after getting a few years of experience. I’ve seen a lot of people working in Operations roles. Some people move into Corporate Strategy roles. Many people also go into start-ups. These are the main exit points that’s I’ve seen for people leaving consulting.


Are there any other resources that you would recommend to listeners?

I would advise service members to have a basic understanding of life outside the military. For me, that meant reading The Economist every week. I also read the Wall Street Journal. I listened to the NPR Marketplace podcast. This helped me just get that basic understanding of what was going on in business. Having that general knowledge allowed me to know a little more about the context potential clients would be operating in.


Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?

Think very critically about what it is that you bring to the table. This all goes back to translating your military skill set into something that is tangible for civilian clients. Identify your weaknesses and be willing to work on them. Know your strengths as well and take advantage of those whenever you can. This allows you to be humble but also capitalize on your strengths and knowledge. Every veteran I’ve came across has a couple core skill sets whether its being able to communicate to senior leadership or project confidence in a room full of senior executives.


Thanks so much for your willingness to share your knowledge, Kristen. You’ve really demystified the consulting interview process as well as provide listeners with a taste of what your day-to-day is like.

Absolutely, I was only able to successfully step into consulting because of the veterans who were willing to help me along the way. Honestly, I had never heard of consulting up until six months before I transitioned out of the military. But it has all worked out really well for me. And now, I’m more than happy to help other veterans who want to do the same thing.