How to make it to partner at Bain & Company

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Darci Darnell knows what it is to be busy. Not only has she risen to the senior ranks in management consulting – which arguably requires clocking as many hours as investment banking – but she also has two school-aged children and runs a fitness studio in Notting Hill, London in her ‘spare’ time.

She has worked for Bain & Company for the last 15 years across offices in Chicago, San Francisco, New York and now London, and was promoted to partner in 2007. How do you make it to the top in consulting?

How did you start out in consulting?

I started out in working for PwC in an IT consulting role, but didn’t actually move into management consulting until I’d finished my MBA at Dartmouth in 2000. When I started the MBA I was thinking that I wouldn’t go back into consulting, but I realized that management consulting allowed me to interact with clients, which I love, but also combine this with the strategy skills that I learned at business school.

This may sound like a cliché, but it’s important to go into consulting for the right reasons, and know that it fits with your skills and your passions. You think of investment banking, it’s an area a lot of people go into because they studied finance or economics and it’s similar with consulting – you have an MBA and think it’s a good route without considering what the job really involves. There’s a lot of collaboration with clients and thinking through problems not from your perspective but from theirs along with the data analysis side of things. Be honest, if you don’t enjoy this you’re unlikely to have a long-term career.

What three pieces of advice would you give to someone hoping to start a career in management consulting now?

Understand the job and why it’s a good match for you – be self-aware enough to admit if it’s not. Bring energy and focus to your clients, be prepared to travel to them and put yourself in their shoes. Be intellectually curious – it’s a diverse role that requires a lot of problem-solving.

Consulting hires more MBAs than most other industries. Is it essential to have one?

I would encourage people to consider an MBA, but not necessarily because management consulting demands one. People usually take MBAs in their mid-to-late-20s and it’s a chance to mature, develop confidence and enrich your life. You network with a lot of highly talented people and can leverage that network over the long-term.

From a practical perspective, it allows you to think critically, take apart the problem and focus on a solution. It brings it into the real world, it’s a practical degree and highly applicable. MBAs allow you take theory into practice and that’s ideally suited to management consulting.

What were the key turning points in your career that allowed you to step up to partner?

It wasn’t until I was about six months away from being promoted to partner that I even really considered it a strong possibility – I was just enjoying the ride. One of the key things I would say is that if you focus too hard on the promotion points, you can miss out on the experience and expertise that will get you there organically.

I’ve been with Bain for 15 years, and I’ve worked in San Francisco, Chicago, New York and now London. It’s been a relatively circuitous route, but I went where the learning opportunities were. I didn’t get stressed out about going for promotions, I was just signing up to what I was interested in and enjoyed.

What do you think it takes to make it to partner?

I think resilience is very important – there will be ups and downs throughout you career. Projects that don’t work out or client meetings that go badly, but you have to ride the wave and adapt as you go.

I don’t think there’s been a key defining moment of my career, but having the right mentors and sponsors has been essential to sustain me through the tough periods and help me see the bigger picture. The other thing is an ability to see the long game and not let the bumps and bruises take you off track.

Now that you’re in a position to hire, what do you look for?

I look for emotional and intellectual intelligence, these have to be good as they’re the raw skills for consulting. Then, it’s the energy and enthusiasm to consistently do the job. Finally, though it sounds a little clichéd, intellectual curiosity. You’re presented with a wide variety of problems across different sectors and geographies in management consulting, so you need to maintain an appetite to learn. I’ve known people who have found something they love early on, their adaptability diminishes, so they’re less valuable to management consulting.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman making it to the senior ranks?

I would honestly struggle to say that I’ve hit any sort of impediment or glass ceiling as a woman working in management consulting. There are issues that remain in financial services and consulting – unconscious bias and double blind bias, for example – but most of our financial services clients are focused on having a more diverse team and recognize the benefits of this.

Sustainability can be a challenge – you have to learn to define sustainability for yourself, define your boundaries but also be flexible. Personally, the more engaged I feel, the more I am able to sustain all the elements of my life. I have two school-aged kids, a demanding job and a lot of interests outside of work. I pack every minute of my day and have very limited leisure time. I am willing to do this and fully self-aware of my choices.

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