Transitioning from Consulting to Startup Operations and Chief of Staff
For those currently in management consulting and looking for their next career opportunity, startups can seem exciting—yet the transition can seem daunting. How do you apply a broad consulting skill set to a hands-on startup environment? How do you find a company and a role in strategy, operations, or the Chief of Staff function that is the right fit?
We recently hosted a panel with three of our Primary Mastermind Network members, all ex-management consultants turned startup Chiefs of Staff and operators: Marissa Lauber (Head of Ops at Dandy), Maxine Litre (GM at Nuts.com), and Sophie Truscott (CoS at Chief). Here is a recap of their advice on how they navigated this career transition and shaped their startup roles.
Given that you all started your career in management consulting, how did that role set you up for success in your careers? What are some of your key learnings?
Marissa: Communication, specifically meeting preparation. Before any meeting, I can identify answers to key questions such as, “what do I want to get out of the meeting?” or “who is a decision maker?” In a startup, your manager often doesn’t have a lot of time, so leveraging those 20 minutes strategically will help you really accelerate and get projects done faster. Additionally, consulting teaches you how to view your time as finite and valuable, which in startups will help you critically evaluate which projects will move the business forward.
Maxine: Structured thinking. In consulting, you’re always taught to have a framework or a way to split a problem or strategy into three buckets. Also, consultants have a bias towards output: Being able to take the first stab at anything so the next person that’s working on your project is not starting from a blank page can be a big point of differentiation in the startup world.
Sophie: There is also something about just having a consulting skill set that is pretty recognized by most professionals—a majority will have at least some understanding of what it is, so it makes you more likely to be on the receiving end of various projects and the opportunity to get exposure.
Did you face any challenges positioning your consulting experience? What did you try to amplify during this process that landed you your startup operations role?
Marissa: There is a bit of the negative sentiment of “consultants are super sharp, but they’re not used to executing.” So in interviews, always lead with how you would actually go out and execute. Think about a consulting project you’ve worked on and the scrappiest things you’ve done to find missing data or get two opposing clients on the same page. Speak to those examples rather than the actual frameworks since interviewers will know you already have that.
Sophie: I didn’t come across this in interviews, but I think one of my biggest reflections on the startup experience is that a lot of the things we do and problems we evaluate, especially in earlier stages of the company, are sometimes done with less rigor than a consulting team might apply. I was initially uncomfortable about this—like there is always another analysis we could do to feel 100% about something—so there is a mindset adjustment to make. You can definitely make that switch but will just need some kind of prompting to do so at first.
How would you recommend potential candidates to evaluate these types of roles?
Marissa: Always evaluate a role relative to what you want out of the experience. There are so many different aspects you can prioritize in the startup world. For me, Dandy checked all of my “must-have” boxes. By being clear on what you want to gain out of the experience and knowing, “I’m looking to learn X, Y, and Z skills,” or, “I’m looking to work for a manager who has previous operational experience,” you can navigate some of the inevitable twists and turns of startups.
Sophie, the Chief of Staff role is known to be nebulous. How did you navigate that with your role at Chief, and what does your day-to-day look like now?
Sophie: There’s a huge opportunity to design the role to how you would like it to look, but that can also lead to differing expectations. So, when I first started the role, it was important to both my CEO and I that we had a clear mutual understanding of what I would be doing. Opening that dialogue early has been very valuable. My biggest piece of advice to anyone starting a Chief of Staff role would be to have that conversation early and keep coming back to it.
Today, my role falls into three general buckets: business operations and strategy, strategic projects, and board management. I generally try to have one strategic project on my plate at a time on top of the ongoing business ops and board work.
Marissa, how has your role as “Head of Operations, Strategic Projects” changed as Dandy has scaled?
Marissa: My role has evolved immensely during my time at Dandy. There have been three main phases so far: marketing, traditional strategy & ops, and customer operations. Each has been a crash course in a different subject matter. If you are looking to go down a generalist path, an undefined role similar to mine is a great way to explore different areas of the business. It will also benefit you if you decide to stay in a designated lane (like marketing for example), as you will often have the ability to do so.
Maxine, after your Chief of Staff role at Group Nine Media, you’ve helped with senior leadership roles across strategy operations, GM at Equinox, Slice, and now Nuts.com. What did you prioritize along the way to get to where you are today?
Maxine: The first thing I prioritized is people, meaning those who manage me and allow me to pursue my general philosophy that “the most important thing you can do in your twenties is find powerful people who really care about your career.” It makes the difference by building promoters who have some important influence or can say your name in rooms of opportunities.
Second is how important it is to be strategically aligned with the business. Even if you are happy at your job, staying motivated for an extended period of time becomes difficult if you don’t feel like the company can win.
Finally, I spent quite a while optimizing around learning which meant more business model exposure, network exposure, and new opportunities like zero-to-one stuff. Now, I think what I am really caring about is “ownership” and being able to speak to my direct impact.
In regards to choosing the right startup, is there a framework or a kind of due diligence for startups before choosing one to go with?
Marissa: My advice would be to look for a company that has already found product market fit and is preparing for the scaling phase. You can usually hear the energy on the other side of the phone for companies that are in this stage as it’s an “all hands on deck” mentality. This will give you the best shot of growth and learning within the company. If you see the growth happening here and now, that’s a great indicator you’re going to get some of the diverse experiences we’ve mentioned here.
How do you focus on what you want to be doing under the umbrella of Chief of Staff, Operations, and Strategy roles, and continuously shape them in a direction that you want to move in?
Maxine: You have to do the groundwork of learning a lot about the business and having visibility and relationships. From there, you can not only start to jump on the interesting opportunities, but also get other opportunities off your plate by building a bit of infrastructure to allow someone else to handle it.
Often in startups, you have the opportunity to generate a lot of ideas for your own work, so if you are generative and come up with opportunities, you can advocate for those ideas internally. There are a million problems to solve but not that many people are developing against those problems. So, if you put some groundwork into “this is going to be something I’m going to solve,” people typically will be excited to support you.
If you're looking to transition or grow in your startup role, we encourage you to join Primary’s Mastermind Network for community and programming focused on accelerating careers. Want to get operating experience a fast-growing startup? You can fill out this form here, and we’ll connect you with our portco’s talent teams and founders.