Saying ‘yes’

Today I wanted to discuss one of the most common self-inflicted weaknesses of graduate management consultants – the word ‘yes’.

This topic is not unique to management consulting but is a very common occurrence among MC graduates.

Have you had experience of taking on too much work? Do you have clever solutions to make sure you don’t? Leave a comment or suggestion below.


You do what? Say yes too often

Taking on too much responsibility is something that most people have experienced, whether doing it themselves or observing others. Most people can relate to the crippling and frustrating feelings of not being able to cope under a (at least partially) self-built mountain of work. It starts with, ‘can you please help me organise an internal training course?’ – ‘Yes, of course!’. And it eventually turns into, ‘Do you have time to review this document for me?’ – ‘Yes, of course! (Oh my god I have so much work when am I going to do all of this!?)’.¬†Unfortunately, for those who fall into the trap, the answer to that final question is often ‘on late nights and weekends.’

So how does this happen?

This issue seems particularly prevalent among young management consulting graduates, as they try to impress their managers and out-perform their peers. Perhaps it’s simply a side effect of the kinds of people who end up in management consulting (often driven, competitive individuals) or maybe a product of the environment (even more driven and competitive colleagues).

Graduates who do not keep a careful eye on their ever-expanding to do list can end up sacrificing personal time, evenings and weekends to catch up and they may end up resenting their job. For some, however, there is a blurred line between how much of this is an unavoidable part of the job, and how much is self-inflicted. So in the end, it’s down to the individual to decide how much they are happy to sacrifice.

What do we say yes to?

Consulting graduates are encouraged to get involved with many different facets of their job, not just delivering results for clients. Here’s a taste of the multitude of other activities available:

  • CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities, like charity work
  • Internal training courses
  • External training courses
  • Conferences
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Social groups (like teambuilding days or clubs and societies)
  • Business development (winning new work)
  • Practice development (building initiatives or programmes internally)
  • Graduate recruitment

And the list goes on. Even under each bullet there are many ways to get involved, and these opportunities are something I love about my job. But the endless list can be a double-edged sword.

What’s the solution?

Rather than focussing on the word ‘yes,’ I’d like to think about the opposite. ‘No,’ is a difficult word to say when you are a new, junior member of a team. It’s especially difficult to say to your manager or other senior colleagues. But the most successful graduates are the ones who can figure out how to say no in a sensible and constructive way.

Its important to always remember that a manager will be far happier with a graduate who enjoys their job and can accurately manage their own workload, than one who over-promises or under-delivers.

Here are some tips for saying ‘no’ the right way:

  1. Firstly, decide if you really need to say no. No one wants to overburden themselves with work but this doesn’t mean you just start saying no to everything once you reach capacity. Think about whether the task’s timeline or deadline overlaps with your current commitments. If it’s a quick 5 minute job, you may be able to fit it in before getting back to work.
  2. Try not to say no without a solid reason. In the worst case you might ask if you can get back to someone once you’ve had a chance to assess your current workload properly. For senior colleagues this may not be acceptable, so try to always have an up-to-date idea of your to-do list in your head.
  3. Have an alternative solution in mind. If you need to say no, perhaps you can suggest someone else who they should talk to. Or maybe you need to have a conversation about prioritisation of your to-do list. When a task is important, your manager may take something else off your plate so you can work on the new task.
  4. Delegate. This should not be a skill reserved for senior management. If you want to stand out as a graduate, start practicing this as early in your career as possible. If you really can’t say no, but you know a colleague who can help, ask them if they can help you deliver on time. Be careful to manage quality and review work when taking this approach, especially if you’ve not done it before.

If I think of any more points, I’ll update this post in the future.

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