Wendy van Tol, Consulting leader PwC Netherlands, Member of the Advisory Board at PwC NL & Europe

When you look at all that Wendy van Tol has achieved at PwC, it’s hard to believe that she never intended to have a long career in consulting. In fact, when she went for her interview, she was convinced that the firm wouldn’t be the right fit. “It’s probably too corporate; it won’t be hands on enough,” she remembers thinking on the drive to the office. “It’s probably too hierarchical.” The partners she met that day changed her mind: “They were telling me stories about the great transformational work they were doing with clients. I really felt like — this is going to be my dream job!”

It’s lucky her preconceptions about the company didn’t get in her way, because to hear her tell it,  that initial impression was spot-on. Now, she’s keen for other young women to see that, while it may be intimidating from the outside, the consulting world offers incredibly exciting opportunities for everyone making the same daunting drive to the interview.

Whole fields of possibility

Van Tol has certainly embraced the many possibilities consulting has to offer and notes that those possibilities become all the more evident when one has an open mind and a positive attitude. Take, for example, her rigorous travel schedule. While many consultants will tell you this is the bane of their existence, van Tol describes it at as “something that makes life extremely interesting, and opens up whole fields of possibility.” For van Tol and her husband—also a consultant—those opportunities extended to the personal: “We were travelling anyway for work, so we’ve met up in very interesting places around the world. We have used the travel as an opportunity for us to see places.”

This knack for turning challenges on their ear is an obvious advantage when juggling a career with family life. Indeed, in van Tol’s case, this proved an asset from the earliest stages of parenthood. “There are some things you can’t really plan for,” she tells us. “When I got pregnant I was in the process of becoming a director in the firm. I had no idea how we were going to do this! But I just stepped in with an open mind, thinking that, in the end, children are the most important thing in our lives, so we would fold work around the family.”

Fold work around the family

This desire to prioritise family is not uncommon among young parents, but Van Tol observes many consultants selling themselves—and their firms—short by assuming this necessarily means an antagonistic relationship between home and work. “There are a lot of preconceived ideas in consulting that things like travel and hours are non-negotiable,” she says. “I’ve always experienced that they are negotiable.” Van Tol believes that a consultant who is honest, who understands her value, and who is ready to ask for what she needs, will likely find more flexibility than she assumed. “In the end, if you are there for a longer career, then you have to have a good dialogue around what is possible and what is not possible. Once I had put the issues on the table, there was a really good understanding that when you have a family and you and your husband are both consultants, it is sometimes a logistical nightmare, and the firm that you work for needs to be flexible.”

Indeed, the benefits of an open dialogue can extend beyond one’s firm. “Clients are often more flexible than we think,” van Tol explains. “In consulting we live by the client’s agenda, but I have always found in my career that you can have a dialogue with clients and say, ‘Actually, can we do this in London instead of Frankfurt, and can we move this to Friday instead of Wednesday?’” Those under similar pressures may be especially receptive: “I’ve worked with a lot of women on the client side, who will say, ‘I’m so happy you rearranged it because the Wednesday’s also a nightmare for me!’ It just shows – we’re all human beings, and we all have these struggles.”

Of course, flexibility is a two-way street, and van Tol stresses that she has not been able to achieve the balance she requires without a lot of hard work and a measure of sacrifice. “If you have a young family and you make the decision to get some hours with the children at the end of the day, to make sure you are there to put them to bed, don’t be frustrated that you have to open your laptop again at eight o’clock and finish your work. In the end, the work is not going away. This job is a tough job, especially when you’re in a leadership position.” Again, it’s an open mind and positive attitude that make it work: “If you are flexible, so much is possible.”

Nurturing this sense of possibility in young women is important to van Tol, perhaps because she did not start her career surrounded by female role models in leadership positions. “Traditionally, consulting has been a masculine environment,” she acknowledges. “I was the first female partner in Advisory in the Netherlands. Luckily, it’s different now, because we do have lots of women in the partnership. And we’re still increasing the number as this is needed.”

An opportunity to create change

For this to change, van Tol believes women need to be ready to challenge their own expectations. “We still have so many women who just assume that things are not possible because the culture shows you that they’re difficult,” she explains. “But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s not possible. I had two children in my career, during which time I got promoted to director and went through the partner process (when I was pregnant). Six years later, I was asked onto the board. So, it is possible. It’s not easy, but it is possible.” Simply not expecting the worst when opening a dialogue with a manager can be an important step in the right direction: “If you see this as a big fight, then it’s not going to work.”

Van Tol also encourages women to approach such conversations with an eye on the bigger picture. “See it as an opportunity to create change. You might pave the ground for lots of women to follow.” She stresses that this shift to a wider perspective can help women to become powerful advocates—for themselves and for others. “When you shift your mindset to seeing it as an opportunity to make a change, then it changes the conversation.”