Consulting Annual Review Process 101 (Part 1): How It Works

Each year consulting firms go through an exercise to rate their talent and make promotion decisions. The environment is incredibly competitive and the formula for success is anything but black and white. When you understand how the review process actually works, however, you can greatly increase your odds of success. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the company training on this one. Unfortunately, no one is likely to tell you the skinny on the annual review process when you get hired.

Here are a few things HR probably didn’t mention to you when you joined…

It’s subjective. Many firms label themselves as a meritocracy, meaning that those who exhibit certain talents, aptitude or skills get rewarded. The challenge for you as the consultant is that this is also highly subjective. In many cases, even though your firm may outline certain factors used to evaluate your performance, they can often lack clarity and specificity. With the human element so largely in play, it’s rarely black and white.
Space is limited. There are a generally a set number of slots for each rating and a set number of slots for promotions. Landing one depends largely on your ability to justify to the powers that be that you deserve it and are already playing at that level consistently. Nailing one project out of three in a year isn’t going to cut it. Promotions and good ratings are rewards given for proven ability, not potential.
You have to stand out from the Jones’. You will be ranked against your peers, or the others at your level. This gets interesting because rarely will you have the same role description. Frequently there will be situations where a test team lead is pitted against a change management consultant for one last spot. The work is like apples and oranges so it will all come down to how well each is positioned and who has the more compelling story.
Air time is short. Everyone, including you, the person speaking on your behalf, and the partners in your practice, are super busy all the time, making it very hard to remember all the great things you did throughout the year. On top of that, firms often use a series of conference calls or meetings at various levels (team, account, practice, etc) to evaluate performance. If you’ve ever been in a fraternity or sorority it’s a lot like the recruitment process. It’s quite common for your representative at the table to have only two to three minutes to make their argument for why you deserve the rating they recommend. Regardless of what you actually did over the past 12 months or what was written in your performance review, what they say in that short time can very easily determine your fate.
Politics are in full play. When disputes happen, and they often do, she who has the most respected supporters and compelling story wins. There will be one person at each meeting speaking for you, but the others in the room carry as much weight or more in the final decision.
Feeling down in the dumps about your prospects? Don’t give up just yet. The upside is that, while the environment may be competitive, those who are willing to invest just a bit of time to work the system and market themselves to those with influence, get great results.

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