BABE #110: ELIZABETH DUNBAR, Senior Strategy Consultant @ IBM
Today’s babe personifies the kind of ambition that we hope will inspire women all across the workforce. Elizabeth is a global citizen, having grown up in places like the United Kingdom, Venezuela, China and the U.S. She recently went through a career transition, taking an intense leap to begin her consulting career at IBM (NBD), and we’re super impressed by her remarkable and brave dedication to commit to a new and unfamiliar field. Keep up the hustle, Elizabeth; we can’t wait to see where this new role takes you!
Hometown: London, UK
Current city: Washington, D.C.
Alma mater: George Washington University; University of Denver
Degree: MBA (Concentration: Consulting); BA (Double Major: International Studies and Communications)
Very first job: Babysitter
Hustle: Senior Strategy Consultant @ IBM
Babe you admire and why?
When I was in 6th grade, I had to do a project for school about an inspirational famous American. I picked Oprah, and it was a disaster. I got so nervous that I forgot all my words. At the time, I picked her because she was the only successful black woman that I could think of, but since then, I’ve added many more to the list. Today I admire Oprah because she built an empire by tapping into our universal need for human connection. She used her own struggles and experience combined with passion and determination to inspire others.
How do you spend your free time?
It changes all the time, but it’s a combination of spending time with family, going out with friends, meditation, learning a language on Duolingo, reading (not always something substantive) and binge-watching a TV series. At the moment I’m obsessed with Game of Thrones, but I’m only on season three—so no spoilers, please!
Favorite beauty item?
A good foundation - which in my shade, is hard to find.
What’s one thing you wish you knew more about?
At the moment it’s probably something to do with the home-buying process, which is my next goal.
What’s something most don't know about you?
I’m bidialectal, which means I have (and use) two different dialects of English. Essentially, I speak with both a UK Standard English accent and a Midwest American accent, depending on who I’m speaking to. Both are my natural accents, which developed as a result of moving a lot as a child.
Tell us about your hustle:
I am a senior strategy consultant at IBM, with a focus on talent and engagement. Basically, that means I, along with a team of other consultants, partner with organizations to solve complex workforce problems. Example: Two companies are merging, and they have different missions, visions, and values. They might need help blending the cultures of the two companies, and I might work on helping them do so.
What does your typical workday look like?
There is no typical day in consulting. Most consultants either work with a client or are looking for client work on any given day. I’m new at my company, so I fall into the latter. That means doing lots of training, making introductions, offering my help where I can, and keeping my ear to the ground. Once on a project, no day will look the same because the job of a consultant is to help the client to achieve a desired future that is not yet their reality.
How did you land in the world of consulting? What has your journey in the industry looked like so far?
It’s a long story. I left my previous industry in Relocation and Global Mobility to pursue an MBA degree because I felt like there wasn't much room for growth. I applied for jobs in other industries, but I found that my skills were not as transferable as I’d hoped. I was at a crossroads, and my dad suggested I consider business school because it was the best thing he’d done for his career—all I knew was that I needed a master’s degree for the proper skills to level up considerably within a two-year period. Before business school, I didn’t even know what consulting was. A colleague tried to explain it to me in all the vague terms that consultants usually use, but it just didn’t make sense to me. When I got to business school, however, I found myself really intrigued by consulting, and took every opportunity I could to practice it. It took me a year to realize that consulting was something I absolutely wanted to do and that I might have any skill. I’m brand-new in the industry, so I can’t really say I’ve had a journey yet, but I'm excited to have one.
What was the application and interview process like for your role with IBM?
I got my job via recruiting through my university. I applied on our student career site and also had to complete my application on the company website. I was contacted within a couple of weeks. While I can’t share specific information about the IBM interview, consulting interviews (at least at the MBA level) take place with a few interviewers in a few rounds, which can take place all on the same day or over a few days, and usually consist of a combination of case and behavioral interviews. Behavioral interviews are the typical interviews most people are used to, where you walk through your experience, your interest in the company, and how you would behave in a given scenario. A case interview is when the applicant is presented with a business challenge, and is asked to solve it. The interviewer will ask a case question to see how you think about a problem, rather than to see if you can give the exact right answer. They want you to take them through your thought process just the way a client would if they asked you how they should go about solving a challenge. I had never done case interviews before, so I bought a case interview preparation book and practiced with my classmates, career coaches and friends until I felt comfortable. When I got around to interviews, I wasn’t nervous about case questions anymore—I was excited for them. Interviewers can smell fear, so if you’re prepared and excited, you’ll leave a good impression.
How have your past internships + pro-bono work helped shape you into the employee you are now?
Without those experiences, I wouldn’t have received my job offers. It’s all well and good to have an MBA, but if you’re not taking the opportunity to stretch yourself and gain skills and experiences outside the classroom, you aren't going to stand out. I would say about 25 percent of the things I learned took place in the classroom. The rest was from speaking to classmates, networking, internships, pro-bono work, side project, travel, etc. Not once did I discuss with an employer any of the classes that I took, but my pro-bono work is featured prominently on my resume, and I talked about it in every interview. That’s because prior to now, I had no professional consulting experience. All of the skills and experience I have in consulting, I learned during those projects.
What is your work environment and company culture like?
The structure here is very flat, which lends itself to the collaborative and friendly culture. Everyone is given a lot of autonomy and is encouraged to choose their own adventure. People are very hard-working and take their jobs seriously, but there seems to be a sense of balance.
How do you manage to stay on top of things in your work?
It’s important to prioritize and speak up. You want to be busy (with the right kind of work) and you want to be invaluable, but do not take on more work than you can do well—and I mean well, not perfectly. If you get caught up in perfection, you might not ever get anything done, as most of the job is entirely ambiguous.
What traits or habits do you think all great leaders need?
The most important quality of any leader is listening. A great leader should be a good listener, an effective communicator, confident, inspirational and adept at solving problems. A great leader is able to both create a unifying vision and navigate an organization or a team and its members through milestones and challenges in order to achieve it.
How has your bilingual skill set influenced your career?
I was going to say it hasn’t influenced my career, but that’s not completely true. In my previous job, because of the difference in the structure of Spanish and English sentences and because of the different cultures I’ve been exposed to, I was able to understand and communicate with my customers better even if they do not speak English as a first language or hail from my culture. While some of my previous colleagues sometimes struggled to understand customers or perceived some of their communication styles as unusual or rude, I recognized it as completely normal and respectful in their native language or cultural context.
How have your experiences across various cultures affected your work ethic?
Different cultures approach work in vastly different ways. Americans live to work. They work very hard until quite late in their lives and take very little time off for vacation. In America, being a workaholic is a badge of honor and people are rewarded accordingly. For most of my career, I worked in my home country of England, where people work to live. They take pride in their work, but value time spent with family, friends, and personal pursuits more than the time they spend working. In the UK, people work as many hours as they need to and leave work at a reasonable hour. They get about a month of personal time off every year—before public holidays—which they make sure to take full advantage of. I think my work style falls somewhere in the middle. I like to maintain a work-life balance, but I recognize that I’m pursuing a career in the United States because hard work can lead to rapid career growth in a way that is uncommon in the UK.
What’s one of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work? How did you overcome it?
In my previous job, I discovered an employee I was training who had less experience than me was making more money than me. That was the push I needed to advocate for myself in the office. I sat my boss down and asked for a salary increase, but despite making a case based on industry benchmarking, was turned down. She said I should apply for a promotion (it was half a step up) which I did, but I recognized that after that, the next promotion would be three to five years away. Furthermore, neither the salary increase I had asked for nor the one that came with the promotion would have been enough to help me to reach my financial goals. I had already taken the GMAT and had applied to business school not long before because I felt stuck in my job, but had not yet decided whether to take the plunge and go to business school. Then, the interviews for the promotion rolled around. There were five rounds of interviews for a position that my boss had already identified me as the best candidate for. At that point, I knew that I had to leave. It’s important to recognize that your relationship with your employer goes both ways. If the relationship is not working for you, maybe you need to find a place that’s a better fit.
What would you say is the skill you most need to improve?
Resilience. Resilient people are successful people because they’re able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and forge ahead. It’s not that they experience less failure or disappointment than the rest of us, they just have the bounce-back needed to get past those stumbling blocks. I’ve been working on this for years, but I haven’t quite perfected it.
What’s your ultimate dream job?
What advice would you give to a Babe trying to break into your industry?
Read books, attend information sessions, take advantage of the internet, reach out to consultants for coffee chats, and request informational interviews. LinkedIn is a good resource. Reach out to people in your networks—friends, family, alumni of your alma mater, etc.—who are already part of the industry. Come up with some questions and ask for 15-20 minutes of their time to talk about their experience. From that, you'll receive advice, build up knowledge about what it’s really like to work in the industry or in their company, and what a successful candidate looks like. In terms of case interview prep, I recommend the book Case in Point by Marc Cosentino. Practice as many cases as possible, with others and alone. People say it takes least 30 practice case questions to prepare someone successfully for case interviews.
What helps you wind down and manage stress?
It could be anything from meditation to a glass of wine and an episode of Game of Thrones—it just depends.
What motivates and inspires you?
My parents. They are children of working-class Jamaican immigrants and grew up in England with very little. My parents worked hard to establish themselves in their respective careers in a way that had not been possible for their parents, who had limited education and opportunity. My father went on to get an MBA, worked his way up the corporate ladder, and subsequently started his own company. His achievements have far exceeded the expectations society had for him, and I’m reminded every day of what’s possible if you dream big, educate yourself, grasp the opportunities available to you, and work hard.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
I think it depends on what your goals are. If I was advising my younger self, I would say this: don’t let fear of the GMAT or complex math stop you from going to business school, because the benefits waiting on the other side are vast.
In partnership with: HelloFresh
HelloFresh is a meal delivery service offering farm-fresh ingredients, chef-inspired recipes, and flexible subscriptions based on your dietary preferences, schedule and household size. Try it today and enjoy $30 off your first delivery! You can pause, modify or cancel your subscription anytime. (Spoiler: you're going to love it.)