We were lucky enough to speak with Brent Packer, an industry veteran who left McKinsey so he could focus on impact-oriented projects as an independent consultant. Brent narrates his career path from McKinsey through his time at EA-influenced biotech startup, Alvea, all the way to his current project of building NorthLawn, a community founded to help consultants go independent.
Can you tell us about your first exposure to Effective Altruism? How has your engagement with EA evolved over time?
During my 2nd year at Wesleyan University, I took an amazing course called Money & Social Change that first exposed me to ideas behind evaluating philanthropic decisions analytically. In the years after that, I stumbled across the 80,000 Hours website and Doing Good Better book, both of which resonated with me tremendously.
Then, in the beginning of 2022, I joined Alvea, an EA-inspired biotech start-up. Learning from my colleagues and friends at Alvea about EA was incredible. I expect I would have gradually continued my way towards EA, but my time at Alvea accelerated the rate at which I’ve engaged with the EA world.
In between your University years and your time at Alvea, you worked as a strategy consultant at McKinsey. What were you hoping to get out of your time in consulting?
I’ve always been passionate about sustainability and climate change issues. My original plan was to join McKinsey for two years, learn business problem solving and communication skills, then leave to do dedicated environmental work. I planned to use my academic background in sustainability with my McKinsey business acumen to help close the gaps between the private, public, and social sectors.
How did your experience meet and differ from your expectations of working in consulting?
My expectation that consulting would be a world-class learning environment was absolutely met, but there were some pleasant surprises too. I didn’t expect to meet people that would become lifelong friends. Nor did I expect to be so frequently in situations that challenged my own values and ethics. To share some examples:
I view my team's wellbeing and work experience as being directly tied to being able to provide a great client experience. But at McKinsey there are cultural and structural pressures to deliver client work at the expense of your own and your team’s wellbeing. I could not endorse this.
I took issue with how consulting firms, like McKinsey, would try to play conflicting sides of the climate crisis by simultaneously doing fantastic sustainability work with some clients while advancing fossil fuels with other clients. In 2021, some of my colleagues and I came together to write a viral letter to McKinsey leadership on climate action, which was signed by over 1100 employees and written about in a New York Times article.
Was it this value-clash that ultimately prompted you to leave?
In a way. Part of why I left McKinsey was to consistently do more impactful work. I’m a big proponent of skill-building early in one’s career, and after over five years in consulting, it felt like time to do more than I was. I left to do more ESG independent consulting and pro-bono advisory work. At that time, Alvea entered the picture, which I’m extremely grateful for.
At Alvea, what were your goals as Head of Special Projects? What did your day to day look like?
At Alvea, special projects were either important pieces of work that fell between areas of responsibility or work that provided extra support to accelerate a critical topic. The role was as much advisory as it was executionary.
My day to day was varied depending on what topic I was working on at the time. A big lesson for me in this role was realizing that I needed to be diligent in selecting projects and evaluating whether what I chose was of the highest value for the company. Unlike typical consulting work, there was no client telling me what to do – I needed to figure that out myself.
Did you have any misconceptions about transitioning from consulting to doing high-impact direct work at a company like Alvea?
When I first met with the leadership at Alvea, I was worried that I wouldn’t be a helpful addition to the team, especially amidst so many wildly impressive scientists, medical doctors, and other team members. While I had done work in the healthcare and health policy spaces, I had never worked in biotech. Co-CEOs Grigory and Ethan helped assure me that I was not expected to be a scientist, but rather to use the skills I learned at McKinsey. As I started working, I learned that there are many parallels between working in consulting and at a highly ambitious startup: An extreme bias towards action, the need to quickly learn about new topics, and striving for calculated decision making with limited information, to name a few.
There are many parallels between working in consulting and at a highly ambitious startup: An extreme bias towards action, the need to quickly learn about new topics, striving for calculated decision making with limited information
What are you focusing your time on now?
I’m coordinating an independent consulting community called NorthLawn. Independent consulting is one of the best kept secrets of consulting exit options, even as a transitory one. It’s incredibly flexible, both in the type of work done and the hours worked, while typically being paid more hourly than working at a traditional firm. As an independent consultant, I’ve loved being able to focus my time on ESG, impact-based projects, and random topics I was curious about like iGaming, digital proctoring, and real estate investment.
Independent consulting certainly has its challenges: Difficulty getting started, lack of community, mismatched demand, finding new clients, payment processing, etc. NorthLawn will help address these downsides while fostering a collaborative community. I’d love to connect with any EACN members looking to learn more; feel free to reach out.
Independent consulting is [...] incredibly flexible, both in the type of work done and the hours worked, while typically being paid more hourly than working at a traditional firm.
What do you think is the most valuable part about having a global network of EA-aligned current and former consultants?
There’s no shortage of advice and community in the consulting world – it often feels like a university alumni organization. But there’s something special about this subset of impact and EA-aligned consultants where everyone shares a common set of values and way of thinking. We support each other. Maybe it’s because we’re thinking about the same questions related to our constant existential struggle to find our purpose and how we can be the most impactful version of ourselves… Or maybe it’s just that the people in the community are really nice and genuinely want to help each other!
How do you think the consultant's skill set can best be leveraged for solving the world's most pressing problems?
When I think about the consulting skill set, I think of the oft cited skills: Problem solving, communication, work ethic, professionalism, etc. But there’s also a mindset that is equally helpful when addressing critical world challenges: Knowing that you can help make progress on issues without being an expert, being comfortable in switching quickly between topics, eagerly showing results as soon as possible, connecting with different types of people, and holding skepticism of conclusions made without data. All of these skills and attitudes are needed to identify where to focus our attention and to get things done right, rapidly.
[Consultants] can help make progress on issues without being an expert, being comfortable in switching quickly between topics, eagerly showing results as soon as possible, connecting with different types of people, and holding skepticism of conclusions made without data.
What advice would you give to those with a passion for EA who are considering working in consulting?
I’d recommend asking yourself why you’d join consulting over any other options. When I talk to people about this, I find that there are two common red herrings that mislead people into wanting to join consulting: The industry’s perceived prestige and career indecision. Consulting has its benefits but, like any career, there are reasons why it might not be the best fit. It’s best to be honest with yourself about what outcomes you’re optimizing for and which career downsides you’re most comfortable bearing.
What advice would you give to consultants who may be thinking of switching to an EA-aligned organization or role?
Just go for it! We consultants are famously risk averse. If you’re at the point where you are strongly considering a jump to an EA or impact-aligned role, then it’s likely the right time.