Carving her path: Karli Pensabene shares her journey in management consulting

Photo of Reference Point's Karlie Pensabene, manager, with quote saying, "Challenge yourself and allow yourself to fail from time to time. To really grow and learn, you need to stretch out of your comfort zone."

“I have always been someone that has enjoyed problem-solving, critical thinking, and tackling complex issues,” Karli Pensabene tells us as we sit down to chat about her career path.

In college, this meant Karli elected classes like engineering economy, decision analysis, and optimization models. “The common theme was how to find the best solution for something in the most optimal way, whether it's the most economical, the most environmentally friendly, the fastest way to do something, and so on.”

When it finally came time to begin her career, consulting proved to be a perfect match for her skill set and professional interests.

Management consulting is about helping clients think strategically and overcome complex challenges. Karli, whose focus is on strategic and technology-related projects in the financial services industry, loves the nature of it. “The day-to-day changes constantly, it's very fast-paced, and there are always additional ways to add value and opportunities to help clients more.”

From developing confidence as an entry-level consultant to now leading a team as a manager at Reference Point, Karli knows what it takes to carve a path in consulting. We caught up with her to learn more.

First steps

“The idea of being a first-time consultant was a bit daunting because you're someone just out of college supporting an expert team that's supposed to advise leaders,” says Karli. “I was nervous at the time, and it took a little bit for me to build up my confidence.”

Her first job was at one of the Big 4’s advisory divisions in what was then called their Technology Advisory Program, where she was continually rotated on different projects for her first two years.

“With consulting, you're frequently placed on new projects for different clients. Projects typically follow a similar theme, depending on your particular practice area, which in my case is technology and strategy-driven. However, each project is unique because you are helping clients with varying backgrounds, different organizational structures, and situational problems,” she says. “So there's always some sort of learning curve at the beginning of any project.”

Karli managed the imposter syndrome by, in her words, “becoming a sponge.”

“My goal really is, and has always been, to just be a sponge from the beginning, try to absorb as much background information on the client as possible, in the shortest amount of time. This facilitates a rapid ramp up, which allows me to add value from the onset,” she explains.

Her confidence grew quickly, and Karli describes how she’d “learn something new at each project that she would add to her skill set — which she could then apply to the next engagement.”

Thriving at Reference Point

After a few years at her first consulting firm, Karli had developed a certain level of specialized experience in the technology transformation space. She felt she was ready to move on to a more boutique firm that provided new opportunities for growth and to shape her career.

Reference Point, with its unique model of pairing top-tier consultants with practiced industry experts, was perfect for that.

“All of the people I met throughout the interview process were amazing people to talk to,” Karli says. “I was able to quickly appreciate the types of projects RP focuses on and the promising growth, both of which were extremely attractive to me.”

Plus, Karli noticed something special about the company culture and the people she would have the privilege to work with day to day.

“I feel as if a lot of companies just put their values on their website,” she says. “But Reference Point takes them very seriously, and they're inherent throughout the teams that we build and the day-to-day work that we deliver; the drive, humility, integrity, and inclusivity are important in how we operate and interact.”

Growing into management

Six months into joining Reference Point, Karli went from executing to leading. “The idea of stepping back from an execution role and more into an oversight role was very different for me. That was both appealing and challenging,” she says.

Reference Point’s Manager training really helped. But her role isn’t just about managing teams on consulting projects. There is also performance coaching, where she consistently oversees coachees and advises them on different aspects of their performance while providing guidance on career-related goals.

“Being a performance coach has also been an amazing experience because I have the opportunity to provide advice to my coachees on whatever challenges they may be facing, and am also able to learn and grow as a manager,” Karli says.

One managerial tool Karli strives to deliver is iterative, continuous feedback. “No one wants to wait until the end of the year to figure out how they're doing. Having continuous feedback and knowing when things are going well, or where there are growth opportunities, helps you grow and be more dynamic in that growth. This is something I have always valued that my managers have done for me.”

3 ways to grow as a consultant

If you’re building your own career in consulting, Karli leaves you with three pieces of advice:

  1. Listen, listen, listen. “Sometimes it's helpful to just listen, sit back, and hear what other people have to say. You typically will learn something and also set the proper communication dynamic in the team. Not to say that you shouldn't have a voice, but others should as well.”
  2. It's okay to fail. “Challenge yourself and allow yourself to fail from time to time. To really grow and learn, you need to stretch out of your comfort zone, which won’t always be successful.”
  3. Lean on your team. “It's okay to lean on trusted people around you. Get input and feedback when needed. Teams are often built with individuals who have unique backgrounds, skill sets, and experiences. The diversity is maximized when all are contributing.”
Interested in growing your consulting career with Reference Point, a boutique firm focused on delivering impactful solutions for the financial services industry? Explore their career opportunities here.
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