L.E.K. sat down with Billy Silk, a former Senior Associate Consultant, to talk about his externship experience at The Obama Foundation. An externship is a temporary leave program in which staff work for a non-profit for a period of time before returning to the firm. Billy worked on strategy for The Obama Foundation’s development team.

"I don’t think I realized before I left for my externship just how valuable what we are trained to do every day can be.” —Billy Silk

Tell us about your role at The Obama Foundation.

I worked in development strategy and analytics. A lot of that included making forecasting models for long-term projections, as well as dynamic models to pressure-test where the development team might overperform and underperform over the next five years. I also served the team cross-functionally on special projects, like creating materials for donors and stakeholders around our initiatives. A formal strategy team doesn’t exist right now, so one project that I helped own was the path design to thinking about what a team like this would look like. 

What did a typical day look like for you? What were the key differences from a typical day doing casework at L.E.K.?

I was usually working on a couple of projects at once, which is different from L.E.K. I would get into work, have some emails to answer — maybe a one-off analysis to send to the chief development officer — and then lots of meetings. The nature of it being a non-profit lent itself to many differences but, with that aside, one big difference was how autonomous I was, whereas at L.E.K. responsibilities are so clearly structured. I also found that there was a lot more need for lateral management and identifying the strengths of others through emotional intelligence. At L.E.K., there is a clear delineation of who you go to for certain answers, but here there is a lot more jumping around across different teams, and that took a little longer to figure out.

Name the top 2-3 skills that you gained at L.E.K. that you think have been most helpful during your externship. Why and how have they been helpful? 

L.E.K. uniquely trains associates to think quantitatively and boil down any problem into a potential Excel-based solution. The models I created at The Obama Foundation were extremely well received; I don’t think I had appreciated the level of rigor that we are given across L.E.K. training. All of this was a huge value-add for The Foundation. I think we take it for granted that we all are so well trained. Being in a different environment helped me to see this with a new perspective.

At L.E.K., we change managers and teams a lot, and if you work at it you can really develop a level of emotional intelligence and learn how to react to different management styles quickly. This was immensely helpful for me in this role. I found that I could meet people at their level and work well with them immediately.

We can also sometimes take for granted how interesting the kinds of questions L.E.K. answers for clients are and how nebulous the answers can be. L.E.K.ers are good at boiling problems down to something we can wrap our minds around. This was incredibly helpful at The Foundation, where many of the questions were very theoretical and therefore putting a number on it could have seemed impossible. But because I was good at breaking the problem down into discrete parts, it helped inform strategy. I don’t think I realized before I left for my externship just how valuable what we are trained to do every day can be.

What was something you learned at The Obama Foundation that you will bring back to your case teams at L.E.K.?

I think there is something very valuable about the ability to prioritize and focus on the right questions. I think that the best consultants and managers I have worked with at L.E.K. have always had a great sense of what’s important to spend a lot of time on and what’s important to leave and move on from. I’ve always admired that in others, but wasn’t there myself before going on my externship. Having to do a million things at once at The Obama Foundation forced me to be better at prioritizing and helped me to recognize that, when done right, it can really improve efficiency. 

If a colleague was considering an externship, what would be your biggest piece of advice for them?

Stepping out of the L.E.K. bubble was critical to my perspective on the work that we do and I came back energized about jumping back in. Folks might be surprised how many different companies and organizations are interested in leveraging our skill set. We have a ton of value to add, and my advice would be to find your passion and create an opportunity for yourself. 

What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

I left the externship knowing that I could definitely be interested in the non-profit world in the future. But I also realized that I don’t need to do it right away, and I want to be at L.E.K. for longer. For a person interested in a long-term career at L.E.K., a break like this, to do other work that is additive, is reenergizing.

Editor’s note:  Billy Silk recently joined the Business Operations and Strategy team at Coinbase in San Francisco, CA.