October 2022  -  Interview

How to Make the Move from Consulting to C-Suite

Irina Kulikova, Vice President Strategy and Corporate Initiatives at Estée Lauder in EMEA, shares the learnings of her transition from management consulting.

Disrupt Your Career: What was your career in consulting and what corporate role are you in today?

Irina Kulikova: I worked in consulting for more than 10 years with Bain & Company in different offices across the globe. I started in Russia, then worked in the UK and in Dubai. Currently I’m Vice President Strategy and Corporate Initiatives at Estée Lauder in EMEA. I’m also the Chief of Staff for the President of EMEA – so I’m playing a double role.

Disrupt Your Career: What specific experiences and skills from consulting did you leverage the most? Which have been most helpful while you transitioned into your corporate role?

Irina Kulikova: First of all, I transitioned into a role which is likely the most obvious transition out of consulting – that is from a strategy consulting firm like Bain going into strategy in a corporation. That’s pretty obvious, because everything that you learn in consulting – how you develop the strategy, structure a project, and deliver major transformation projects, etc. – is very much transferable to the current role that I have. The big part of my role is, of course, developing or updating the strategy for the region. And then on top of this, I have multiple important strategic initiatives, and structuring the projects around these initiatives, for example, interacting with people playing the role of the Project Management Office, which we play a lot also in consulting. So that’s, obviously helpful. Then structuring, logically cutting a problem into small pieces and helping people to structure their thinking around this, is another thing that you bring from consulting. 

But I think one of the biggest advantages of consultants when they get into the corporate role is also the fact that you can learn fast. Of course, you bring a lot of transferable skills from consulting, but at the same time, you are so used to learning quickly, that you start to engage with the different parts of an organization, understanding different processes, what’s happening here and there in a very quick way. Very quickly, you become a go to person for many people, because they have certain questions they want to ask you. In my role, I interact with all the leadership teams in the region. So I need to have this understanding of all these different pieces that they’re working on – at the end of the day, that’s also part of the strategy. But also the strategy implementation requires me to understand all these different elements. When I joined Estée Lauder, I felt that that was one of the most complex organization that I’ve ever worked before, because if you think about the EMEA region, it’s made of multiple markets and multiple brands, and there’s this complex matrix structure where you have a lot of people working on different things and my consulting background definitely helped me to learn quickly and to understand quickly this environment. 

The other thing I would mention is that I’m probably more efficient than many people in the organization. We are so used as consultant to be sprinters. You have a short project, and you really need to organize yourself quickly around things, so you bring this ability to organize your time, to set up priorities, to do things quickly without waiting for something. 

Then, of course, you also leverage the communication skills that you develop in consulting . Because you constantly work with multiple people from different companies, you have to adapt to different styles. That’s also helpful.

Disrupt Your Career: What, if anything, went wrong or was difficult during your transition? What mistakes might you have made along the way and how would you approach things differently if you had a chance to do it all over again? What traps or mistakes would you avoid?

Irina Kulikova: I cannot say that I would approach it differently. As I think about it, it’s not so much what goes wrong; it’s actually more about your expectations. While being in consulting, especially if you’ve been in consulting for a long period of time, you get used to having these efficient teams of well-rounded people. Of course, you always have some junior people in your team who are learning on the way, but they are all so eager to learn, and they want to learn fast, and they want to go the extra-mile every day just to get this learning and be part of this fast-paced environment. This is not exactly the case in corporate, because in consulting, we’re sprinters. In many cases, especially with strategic or M&A projects, these are fast-paced projects: you work there for some time, even for two weeks, or maybe  several months, but it’s very quick. And that’s why every member in your team has to be capable to learn, to develop quickly, but also to be well rounded to support other team members, and also being eager to go the extra mile. This is not the case in the industry, because industry is not a sprint ; it is like a marathon. People there have also their career objectives, they want to learn, but the motivation is different. And so you have to learn how to motivate people who are very different from those people that you used to work with. Then you also have to manage your expectations in terms of what they’re going to deliver, in which timeline they’re going to deliver, how much time you need to invest to help them to deliver these things. So, it’s not the same team as you used to have in consulting. 

Another difference – which requires you to adapt — is that in consulting, there are many projects. One project might be a great project, while another project might not be that great, but you might still be interested in that, for some reason, even if it’s not your favorite topic. In industry, there is no such thing, especially in my role. You come there, work for the company, whether you like things or don’t like things, you need to deliver. And this is not something that you can choose to the same extent because there’s the business. I mean, of course, at some point, when you change role, you might choose something which is more interesting for you, and you might go in other directions, for example go to marketing, operations or commercial, etc. But when you just moved from consulting, and if you move into the role, which is more complex in that it has all these different pieces, it’s not really your choice, whether you like the topic or you don’t like the topic. And I think that’s also something that you need to get used to. 

There is also the question of working hours and how you’re going to apply this in industry now. Again, you will have this tendency at the very beginning to work hard. But then you will quickly realize that not everyone works this way. And we know it from previous experience, when we work with a client who needs something in the office at 6pm, we’re used to working that way, because this is how consulting works. You will face the same issue once you get into the corporate world and people will be leaving the office at 6pm. And if you need something in the late hours, well, your HR team may tell you “You know what, this is not how we work, you don’t have to bother people after 10pm.” or something to that effect. This means you have to adapt your style and make sure that you understand how the organization operates and the most efficient way to get results, while not really applying the same way as you did in consulting. I think that’s probably the thing that you have to understand. And it’s helpful if you know it when you move there because despite the fact that I knew it, industry works very differently. But with my 10 years of consulting experience, it’s also a bit of a professional deformation because you’ve been working in a very different environment and then all of the sudden you switch to the new environment. And you’re still playing the same rules of the game as you had in consulting and this doesn’t work. And you will quickly realize that it actually doesn’t work. 

So you need to adapt yourself and bring only those things which actually make sense — the positives from the experience perspective –, while leaving behind those things which will never work in industry. That takes a bit of time. If I think about this, “Could I have done a faster career if I’d done it a bit differently?”, probably not. Because 10 years of a certain experience shaped you as a professional in a certain way. It took me quite some time to adapt, especially my expectations and understand that sometimes you’re valued for different things compared to what you were well valued for in consulting. 

Disrupt Your Career: Let’s build on that last piece about expectations and how you manage people differently. If you could give a bit more advice to others who are making this transition – what is important to think about when you’re adapting to different management and leadership styles, different employees’ styles? 

Irina Kulikova: I think you have to invest enough time in understanding your team. And really understanding them at the professional level, and the personal level, because unlike in consulting, these are not people who will stay with you for a couple of weeks or several months. These are people who will work for you again, in the long term. And you need to build this relationship, which actually will allow you to achieve the best results in the long term with these people. You need to understand their strengths, you need to understand their points of improvement, you need to have this full clarity in terms of how you can you can bring their strengths into play, while helping them to develop some of the additional things without actually pushing them to the limits. Because that’s what also happens sometimes in consulting: you still push people to the limits, but it’s the nature of the industry, people know why they come in there, they understand that they need to learn fast, and they need to basically progress fast and deliver results. In industry, everybody has his or her own pace. And you need to clearly understand this. And in fact, it’s not only about your team, it’s also about your co-workers, your colleagues, your boss, etc. Everyone has a certain agenda to some extent and this agenda is not similar. In consulting, people come there, and then there’s a very clear career path. So they know where they’re going to be in two years and three years, etc. And it’s very clear for them also from the capabilities that they need to develop throughout these years, but in industry it’s not that obvious. And sometimes when you have a conversation with your team members about their next steps, this is not clear. You need to adapt the way you motivate people because it’s not that they have this carrot in front of them that you know, in two years, you will become a manager or in two years, you become principal like it is in consulting. So, it’s about finding their sources of motivation, understanding what motivates every single person in your team, what makes him or her happy and how you can help them with this. But from the other perspective, you also risk being too empathetic sometimes. This may create issues because then you start trying to understand everyone and everything, it’s such a challenge, I know it from my own experience. People also have this tendency to drop things on you, and that’s much more common in industry and much less than consulting, because in consulting again – I don’t want to call people like an army or soldiers – but it’s a bit like this. You have your task and you need to deliver, no matter what. Everybody knows that in industry, the more you give to people sometimes the more they start to feel relaxed and they just basically start dropping their tasks on you. So you need to keep constantly this balance, with your colleagues but also with your employees. I don’t mean to generalize this: of course all people are different, but you will clearly see that this type of thing is also happening.

Disrupt Your Career:  We thank you for going into the detail about those particular people management motivations — it’s so important. And it’s definitely one of the areas where some consultants fail dramatically.

Irina Kulikova: It’s so different. And that’s probably the time you need to invest the most there. As a consultant, you will always deliver results. You can produce slides, you can do the calculations, the models, etc. But I think people management, that’s something which you don’t learn in consulting.

Disrupt Your Career: And not everybody who’s been recruited into a position like yours actually understands that, and that’s where it can end up in failure. But it’s wonderful to hear how smoothly you adapted. And if it was a bit difficult along the way, it sounds as though you really have made the shift.

Irina Kulikova: It’s not smooth at all. Despite the fact that I was always a people person – even in consulting as I   was trying to understand this deep motivation and help people – it was not smooth for me at all. There are so many things where I’m still failing sometimes. I’m trying to understand how to make these things work within this environment. But if I move to another company, that’s probably going to be different again, because, it’s also part of the culture – companies are so different. You have to adapt and to learn, and you need to find the right approach with people. Consulting companies are probably a bit similar, even though they have different cultures, but there are some similarities in the way we all think. So that’s why for me, it’s so easy to connect with someone from BCG, McKinsey, or others, and have a discussion because we speak the same language when I talk to people in the industry. Now, it’s not the same language at all.

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