After working in consulting and technology for nearly 10 years, I decided to take a break and go to pastry school. I spent three years in the restaurant industry before I returned to consulting. Some might consider this a “resumé gap” – but truthfully, my experience as a pastry chef taught me essential consulting skills that I value and use in my practice today.
One of the largest and most important projects I took on during my short pastry career was the creation of a wedding cake for my favorite former manager and his wife. I remember the ask as follows: “Hey Rachel, do you know anyone who can make a chocolate peanut butter wedding cake to feed about 350 people?”
You’re looking at her.
Much like a consulting engagement, this endeavor took considerable project planning, analysis, testing, construction, and creativity.
I started working with the knowns of the project:
- Requirements = flavor, design preferences, and quantity
- System architecture = cake construction
- Delivery coordination = how to transport the cake from my home to the wedding venue 200 miles away
- Delivery = wedding date… and of course, happy customers
I created an implementation plan and got to work.
- T-5 days: Bake 2 layers each of a 16-, 12-, 8-, and 4-inch square chocolate cakes and freeze them.
- T-2 days: Make several quarts each of peanut butter mousse and caramel buttercream.
- T-1 day: Fill and dirty-ice the base layer of buttercream.
- Transport Day: Load each frozen, pre-iced layer in the trunk of my car, along with several quarts of buttercream, my large stand mixer, decorating tools, and my dress (as I was also a guest), and drive it all in my air-conditioned car from Pittsburgh to Virginia.
The hard part was over! …Right? All I that was left to do was assemble the tiers, finish the final buttercream layer, and hand pipe decorations to complete the cake.
As with any client engagement, I thought I had considered the risks, but I discovered one right before delivery that threw a whisk in my plans. When I arrived at the hotel, however, I learned I was not allowed to use the restaurant’s kitchen to finish the cake.
I was not expecting this scenario. How and where was I going to finish this cake? I had about 15 minutes to think.
What do I REALLY need to do to finish this work, and where could I perform the work?
I asked for the stand that the cake would be displayed on, requested that it had wheels for transport, and I finished that cake in my hotel room, using every possible (thoroughly cleaned) surface to finish.
The final product was a beautiful four-tier, fleur-de-lys-decorated chocolate peanut butter mousse cake with caramel buttercream, adorned with cascading Thai orchids. It remains the most beautiful and challenging cake I’ve made, and I’ve never seen happier clients. From a baking engagement, that is.
Ultimately, the desire of the consultant is a happy client, whether they are tasting a wedding cake or reviewing a change management plan. In pastry, the customer expects a dessert that is beautiful and delicious, while in business, drivers are often operational efficiency, modernization, and transformation.
Each client’s desires and outcomes for success within their organizations can be complex – akin to an individual’s unique palate. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the consultant to always keep the clients’ objectives and expectations at the forefront during an engagement.
I refer to this challenge often when I’m preparing for and executing a project: understand the customer, plan effectively, be creative, and expect the unexpected.
There will always be some element of surprise. But with good planning, quick thinking, and the right attitude, you can still deliver great results.
Further Advisory is a boutique management consultancy focused on converting strategic vision into business reality. We always go the extra mile, equipping our clients with critical insights and plans for navigating challenges and accelerating change.