Consultants provide a wide range of services to businesses. They identify managerial and institutional problems, perform in-depth quantitative and qualitative analyses, recommend and develop solutions, and assist in implementation. Time-constrained senior managers often rely on consultants to bring unbiased outside perspectives to problem solving. A consultant’s independence allows for enhanced access to information from internal sources, as well as from the competition. Consultants may bring many resources to the table, including unique industry-specific knowledge and experience.
Recent economic developments and corporate trends have increased the number of consulting firms. The rapid expansion of the Internet and the emergence of new technologies added to the groundswell. Also, many companies are choosing to outsource activities previously performed internally. This trend, combined with corporate downsizing, has caused many former executives and recent B-school grads to join the ranks of consulting firms.
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What Are the Biggest Consulting Firms
The industry began with the founding of Arthur D. Little in 1886. Today’s roster of prominent firms includes Bain & Company, PwC (PriceWaterhouseCoopers), the Brattle Group, McKinsey & Company, and the Boston Consulting Group. Many firms focus primarily on one industry or function. Some of the most prominent IT firms are IBM Global Services and Accenture. Likewise, The Advisory Board Company is prominent in the health-care arena, while Oliver Wyman specializes in financial services.
Trends in Consulting Jobs
Recent years have brought a spate of branding advertisements from several consultancies. As the industry undergoes consolidation, it is increasingly important for firms to differentiate their offerings. Protecting brand reputation took on even more importance in the wake of corporate scandals such as Enron and the resulting questions about independence of consulting and auditing functions within a single company.
How Do You Get Hired as a Consultant?
Depending on the school, as many as 30 to 40 percent of MBAs enter this field. Most major consulting firms actively participate in both on—and off—campus recruiting. Many also host special presentations on campuses to inform and educate MBA students about their unique missions and cultures.
What is the Salary Range of a Consultant?
Just out of business school, you can expect to make anywhere from $85,000 to $180,000. Packages generally include benefits and bonuses (10 to 50 percent of annual salary), and some offer additional perks like a company car. Senior managers make $200,000 to $250,000. Partners can make anywhere from $400,000 to more than $1 million a year.
What Are the Hours of Consultants?
Consultants’ office hours generally aren’t as grueling as those of investment bankers. However, many consultants spend a great deal of time on the road traveling to client work sites. A heavy travel schedule results in most consultants’ logging 60 to 70 hours per week. Crunch periods are more intense, with project teams working 75 to 80 hours a week. Whether you’re an associate or a partner, you can expect to work a lot. The nature of the work will differ, as lower-level staff do more number crunching and analysis, while more senior staff focus on business development activities and strategic decision making.
As mentioned, most consultants travel at least three to four days a week. The typical schedule is Monday through Thursday at the client site and Friday in the home office. Of course, this can vary from project to project. Sometimes you will be lucky enough to have a client in your home city. We did talk to a few consultants who only have to travel one or two days a week or 25 to 30 percent of the time. They seem to be the lucky few, though. One technology consultant says that she “traveled every week for three years, leaving home on Monday and returning on Friday.”
What is the Office Culture of a Consulting Firm Like?
Collegial, friendly, and close-knit are terms that came up often in discussions of the atmosphere in this industry. Team bonding is an important part of most projects. As one senior manager explains: “You’ll be spending 10 to 12 hours a day with these people. You want to get along.”
There are many happy hours and team dinners, especially when working out of town. According to one insider, “project socializing is frequent and expected.” One summer associate agrees that “an emphasis is put on social gatherings.” Client dinners, for example, are staples of a consultant’s lifestyle. A technology consultant says, “After a short time it feels like your only friends are from work….Sometimes the expectation of a ‘work-family’ is a bit too much.” Many thrive on the social atmosphere, however, and one associate even says, “We don’t do as much bonding as we need to.”
Though a couple of conservative companies still cling to dark suits and ties, most consulting firms these days are business casual. When on the client site, however, the motto is, “We go by their rules.” Most clients are also business casual, but you should have a few suits handy just in case.
An important caveat: The consulting culture varies not only from firm to firm, but also from project to project and partner to partner within a firm. A recent MBA in the industry explains, “Social life depends on the client situation since much of the socializing takes place on the client engagements.” She finds it “hard to specify a ‘culture.’ How do you build a culture when your employees are seldom gathered in one place? Employees work at client sites four to five days per week. How do you imbue them with certain values and attitudes?” Many consulting firms are international, so the atmosphere “varies from country to country, and, within countries, from office to office.”
The atmosphere can be very transient. One manager with a strategy focus says, “Since most people travel a lot there aren’t any permanent desks. We use the ‘hoteling’ concept and make a reservation for a desk when we will be there. Thus, you have no idea who you will see when you walk into the office. It’s a very congenial atmosphere because people have a lot to catch up on when they run into each other.”
The overall consensus from the consulting crew is that they love the people they work with. “The people I work with are the best part of my job, one associate says. “They are an incredibly bright group of people to brainstorm problems with as well as a really fun bunch of folks to hang out with at a baseball game.” Another says: “Everyone is smart—mostly Ivy League, top B-school grads—motivated, and hard-working. I also find most people fun—that’s the only way we can be together 12 hours a day!—and very interesting.”
This concept of work-fun balance surfaced again and again. “People typically have some industry experience, are highly self-motivated, and hard-working,” one consultant says. “However, the same people are very easygoing and we have a lot of fun at team dinners, outings, etc.” Another says, “My coworkers are analytical and curious, professional and serious, yet have a fun side.”
In some areas, like strategy, almost everyone has an MBA. Other sectors are more academically diverse. One associate at a management consulting firm says his colleagues come from “extremely diverse backgrounds—MBA, J.D., M.D., international degrees, Ph.D.s in everything from physics to literature.” Another associate, at one of the industry’s oldest and most elite firms, says, “There is a fantastic diversity of backgrounds and previous work experience, which adds to the richness of team dynamics.” She says that in addition to Harvard and Wharton B-school grads, her colleagues also include a “potpourri” of Ph.D.s, M.D.s, and J.D.s.
Many of the large consulting firms are very international. One MBA at such a firm says: “My particular practice is not as diverse as it should be or needs to be. On the other hand, the firm as a whole is very international. When I visited corporate headquarters, I was amazed at all of the different languages being spoken” Others commented on their multilingual colleagues and the plethora of people who have studied or lived abroad.
Smaller or start-up firms are the most diverse in the industry. A managing director at one such company says: “It is much less prescriptive than Big Five or other, more staid consulting firms. We have more creative and technical folks and fewer MBA types.” One strategist at a small e-business consulting firm boasts: “We have computer science grads, philosophy majors, cognitive-skills sets, business backgrounds, and lots of masters degrees in arts and sciences. This is the most creative, diverse group of people I have worked with in my life.”
There are definitely more women in this industry than in banking or finance. One senior consultant attests that his big firm is “extremely balanced in terms of gender. Less so in terms of race; however, recent hiring patterns demonstrate strong efforts to produce a more diverse workplace.”
How to Get Into the Consulting Business
Consulting firms recruit quite heavily on B-school campuses. We spoke with many insiders who took this traditional route to get into the industry. Others networked their way to the position they wanted (particularly those interested in e-business or Internet-related jobs). All offered myriad tips on the best way to get your foot in the door:
How to Get Started in Consulting
- Don’t cast your net too wide. There are different kinds of consulting. Know which one you are interested in.
- Learn as much as you can about the companies that you would like to work for.
- Be familiar with the industry—talk to friends, set up informational interviews with recent grads, use your alumni base.
- Read Consultants News, Consulting Magazine, BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, etc.
- Hands-on experience is the best way to get an idea of what a particular firm is all about. Summer internships are competitive but can be invaluable opportunities.
Resume Tips for Consultants
- Highlight leadership experiences (president of consulting club in B-school, etc.).
- Explain what you did to make an impact on a specific project, either in words or in dollars. Demonstrate that you identified a problem, analyzed the problem, found solutions, and implemented the solution successfully. Provide an example of the results.
- Highlight any global experience.
- Demonstrate technical knowledge and experience.
- Include extracurricular activities. Employers like to see that you have a life outside the job. Charity and community work are a plus.
- Stress communication and interpersonal skills as well as analytical and research skills.
- Don’t inflate something into more than it is. Says one veteran: “It will come out during the interview, and misrepresentation will surely kill you.”
- Show that you can adapt quickly to new situations and are not afraid of travel and change.
- Key words: analyzed, managed, led, formulated, assessed.
See: Resume How To
Networking Tips for Consultants
- Attend industry events in your area. Get to know a few people at each one.
- If any of your friends are in companies that are hiring, find out what their hiring process is. Many companies like to hire people who are friends or acquaintances of the people they have already invested in.
- Attend company events and get to know people you can refer to in your cover letter. This also lays the groundwork for the interview process, and you have a better chance of getting in if you have an advocate(s).
- Always be ready. One MBA at a management consulting firm landed his job after sitting next to one of the partners on an airplane. He is now a partner himself.
- Have a sense of humor. A potential employer will be more likely to say, “I could stay up until 5 a.m. with this person.”
- Don’t rely on a cover letter. Build relationships.
- If you say you’re going to call, call. Otherwise, you stand a larger chance of leaving the impression that you don’t follow through than you do of “bothering” the person.
- But at the same time, don’t hound the people you know at each firm. Have quick, meaningful conversations with them at cocktail parties or on the phone and then leave them alone. You will make a better impression this way.
Interviewing Tips for Consultants
- Express enthusiasm for the work.
- Make sure you are very comfortable with the case interview—practice, practice, practice.
- Don’t underestimate the “soft skills” (basic etiquette and social skills). Some applicant’s are already “dead” by the time they get to the case part.
- Act “fun.” Everyone wants to have fun, hard-working people on his or her team.
- Before you go in, read the Wall Street Journal archives and the firm’s Web site for recent news, alliances, mergers, divestitures, etc.
- “Firm knowledge is overrated. You need to know the basics, but an exhaustive knowledge of the firm alone won’t get you the job. You have to have the skill and analytic fundamentals the firm is looking for. “Demonstrate leadership abilities and experience.”
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If I could do it again, I would:
- “Research more of the history of the firm and the direction it wants to take in the future.”
- “Focus more on learning about the firm’s values and approach, and match those to my own values and skills.”
- “Practice more case interviews” (a very common sentiment).
- “Establish a greater understanding of the different types of consulting.”
- “Research which areas within the firm offer the best chances for advancement.”
- “Tailor my responses much more to the culture of the organization.”
- “Go to firm-hosted behavioral-interviewing technique workshops.”
Before I entered the consulting industry, I wish I had known:
- “You won’t be passionate about every project; yet you must become at least somewhat interested in it if you are going to survive working the long hours on it.”
- “You don’t always have a say about which project you are assigned. You need to lobby and network to get on projects that are right for you.”
- “Some projects go on for months and months. You want to get on projects that have short time-frames in case you hate them.”
- “Not all projects are glamorous. The majority are not.”
- “I would spend a significant amount of time working on client documents.”
- “Clients aren’t always easy to work with or grateful for the assistance.”
- “The travel demands would impact my life.”
- “Traveling all the time and living in a hotel is not at all glamorous.”
- “That you rarely get to travel to ideal locations, and even when you land an assignment in a really great town, you will likely work so much that you won’t see much of it.”
- “The skill set required changes as you move from senior consultant to manager to partner.”
- “Networking is paramount in this industry.”
How to make the final decision to become a consultant:
Your final choice should be determined not only by the growth opportunities and the money a firm offers, but also by its culture and the people that you will be working with. Insiders can’t stress enough that the culture of a firm makes a big difference. As we said, culture can vary significantly across firms in this industry. Make sure you visit offices to try to get your finger on the pulse of the place before you make any decisions.
How to Move Up
Many describe the consulting culture as “up-or-out” with “tremendous upward mobility.” An associate at a mid-size consulting firm reveals that “people move up in title, responsibility, and compensation very rapidly. We have some people whose compensation has nearly doubled over a two-year period.” The standard time to remain in a position seems to be about two to three years. At most traditional firms, it usually takes about five to nine years to make partner, if elected. Of course, though these ranges are typical, they are not set in stone. Promotion typically happens when the individual is ready–i.e., has acquired the requisite skills. “Although there are more or less set time patterns for progression, you do advance according to your ability,” one insider says.
However, many people aren’t sticking around for promotions. “More and more senior people are coming from outside the industry because junior people find it hard to work their way up due to the demanding lifestyle.” By some rough estimates, almost half burn out after the first two or three years and move on. One MBA stayed in his position at one of the industry’s elite firms for only nine months before he left to join a small health-care strategy firm. He estimates that only about one out of every 40 associates at his old firm stays and makes it to VP. Other insiders, however, argue that this extremely low number is atypical.
Small companies are much less hierarchical. Career paths aren’t as clearly defined. Says one member of a 100-person e-business consulting firm, “As opposed to the big consulting firms where you are always looking to the next level to make an impact, regardless of my title, I am making that impact.”
What It Takes to Become a Consultant
- Communication and interpersonal skills are integral to success in this business. The team-client relationship is very important. You must be able to communicate complex concepts effectively one-on-one, in front of larger audiences, and in written documents. Consulting is based on selling ideas and concepts, so you must be persuasive and aggressive when necessary. You will work closely with your team, so you need to be able to get along with a variety of people.
- On a personal level, some say that to succeed in this business you must be very driven, and either unmarried or with an exceedingly understanding and supportive spouse.
- Successful consultants are analytical and possess strong deductive—and inductive—reasoning skills. They are also confident with numbers, can think logically and challenge assumptions, and have a basic thirst for problem solving.
- There will definitely be crunch periods in most projects. Good consultants remain calm and focused under tight deadlines and manage their time wisely. Stamina is also an important quality. As one industry insider bluntly puts it, “You need to be able to stay up late without getting cranky.”
- Flexibility in this business is key. You must be willing to rearrange your schedule at any time and have the adaptability to work under any circumstances—in the office, at a client site, over a conference call. This can be a nomadic business. You need to function well in an unstructured environment. You won’t always have an office, a desk, or sometimes even a phone. Also, your work may move in cycles: You can be very busy for a couple of months and then slow down considerably for a while.
- The learning curve is steep. You need to be able to get up to speed very quickly. An appetite for constant challenge helps. Know how to focus on core issues while removing distractions. You should also be deliverable- oriented: Approach projects with the end in mind, not as an academic exercise.
What is the Typical Day of a Consultant Like?
Most consultants are hard-pressed to define a “typical day.” The most common response is, “There isn’t one.” Many consultants hardly know when and where they’ll be traveling, and schedules vary from project to project. That said, here’s what we managed to draw out of a few of them.
- A manager at one of the largest firms:
“In a typical week, you fly to the client site early Monday morning. You will have a desk or a work space (maybe in a conference room) where you work on your computer on the part of the project you’ve been assigned to. You will have multiple meetings during the day with the client and/or with your team. Depending on the time-frame of the project (really short time-frames can mean really long hours), you will either work until 6 to 7 p.m. or midnight. Your dinner may be ordered in, or you may feast on vending machine food. Personally, I am a huge fan of the order in or the ‘Let’s take a break for an hour and go grab some food’ options.”
- A second-year associate at a large firm:
“I get into the office around 8:30 a.m. and generally leave by 9 p.m. I am rarely in the office on the weekends, but spend part of every Sunday reviewing materials at home. I divide my time between interviewing and otherwise tracking down information, problem-solving and synthesizing findings with my team, and document preparation. My time is evenly split between my home city (New York) and two other cities (in my case, London and L.A.), with one week on, one week off. I don’t mind the travel because I am home most weekends and I like the cities, stay in top hotels, and eat well. Since I am involved in recruiting, I have lunch with prospective candidates once every week or two. I enjoy meeting new people, and we go to great restaurants. At least once every month or so, my whole team does a fancy dinner or goes to a ball game or another fun event.”
- A partner at an e-business management consulting firm who’s been in the business for seven years:
“You fly to the client site in the morning and meet with the client team to review progress and deliverables. You attend meetings with client senior execs. You make phone calls/visits to prospective clients for sales calls. You develop proposal letters. Most days end with answering e-mails and voicemails [from client team members or internal initiative leaders] in your hotel room.”
- A tech consultant who’s been in the business for four years:
“I arrive at the office by 7:30 for some quiet work time. I spend 20 minutes checking e-mail and deflecting enough issues to have a free hour from 8 to 9 during which I try to make progress on actual deliverables (preparing a presentation, reviewing work of one of my direct reports). By 9:30, I meet with my team members to ensure that everyone has a manageable amount of work and isn’t facing any big issues. I generally spend from 10 to 4 in meetings or chasing down issues related to the project. After 4, I check on my team again and then reply to all of my e-mails. Around 6, I do some more solo work, prepare for the next day and then get dinner (usually with someone from the project), and go home.”
- A first-year manager at a large management consulting firm:
“I either wake up in the hotel or really early to get to the airport. We all get to the client site around 8 a.m. The day is usually filled with team meetings, some meetings with clients and often a meeting with the senior manager or partner we are working with so we can bring them up to speed. There is some individual work at the client site, but most of the solo work usually takes place back at the hotel. We sometimes dine as a team, and evenings are for catching up on e-mail/phone calls.”
A first-year associate at one of the industry elite:
7:30 > Team huddle, plan for day
8:00 > Start analysis, conduct interviews, gather facts, start presentation production
1:00 > Team lunch
1:30 > Visit client site for update meeting
4:00 > Back in office, continue analysis
7:00 > Dinner with/without team
9:00 > Continue working back in hotel/team event once a week
11:30 > Respond to e-mail and voicemail from hotel
A senior consultant in the manufacturing sector:
6:30 > Wake up and check e-mail
7:30 > Meet with team for morning breakfast meeting (every other day)
8:15 > Arrive at client site and have second meeting for daily planning
8:15-5:00 > Conduct interviews, run spreadsheets, develop PowerPoint presentations, schedule interviews, meet with other team members to discuss project issues, conduct research
12:00 > Lunch—could be a hot dog at your desk, meeting with the team, or dining with a client
4–5:00 > Client leaves; we may touch base with them before their departure so this usually means a quick meeting of some of the team members with client members
6:00 > Conduct a status check and decide where we’ll eat dinner
Note: These are descriptions of typical days on a project. While not on a project, training and research are typically conducted in the home city, providing a great deal more flexibility.
- Business model
- Value proposition
- Value chain
- Knowledge capital
- Horizontal and vertical industry structures
- Organization building
- “On the beach”
- Myth: Consultants work all day and all night.
- Reality: A consultant’s hours tend to ebb and flow depending on the project and client.
- Myth: This is a glamorous industry.
- Reality: “Hotels and airline delays are not glamorous. Your clothes are always wrinkled, and you will do day trips to New York City two days in a row just so you can sleep in your own bed at night.”
- Myth: You have to travel to succeed.
- Reality: There are actually some firms that are finding alternatives to this “rite of passage” in the consulting world.
- Myth: The travel is hellish.
- Reality: “My firm is really flexible. I can go from an out-of-town project to an in-town project if I want to. We are accepting of others’ schedules. Everyone needs flexibility to go to the dentist, etc.”
- Myth: “We are a bunch of arrogant, know-it-all business school bozos.”
- Reality: “Well…”
- Myth: Once you get into a prestigious firm, you’re home-free.
- Reality: You must prove yourself during each project, and the expectations grow over time.
- Myth: Consultants travel to exotic locations.
- Reality: Your location is dictated by your industry-client combination and it’s frequently not exotic. Even if it is, you’ll have little opportunity to play tourist.
- Myth: Consultants fly in, tell top management what to do, and fly home.
- Reality: “In general, top management will be a pretty bright group of people. To tell them something of value requires a great deal of work. At the entry level, it’s unlikely an individual will directly advise top management. Undergrads and entry-level MBAs do mostly analysis and research. It’s a couple of years before you are interacting with key executives.”
- Myth: Junior people play a large role in crafting strategy.
- Reality: Senior staff does most of the strategizing while junior consultants generally (there are exceptions) do the supporting analytics—number crunching, research, PowerPoint, etc.
Pros & Cons
- Fun, energetic company culture
- Great training
- Extensive professional networking. “You work with high-level clients in some of the top businesses in the world.”
- Exciting topics
- Intelligent, high-energy colleagues
- Competitive salary
- Fast pace, always learning something new
- Opportunity to create a significant impact
- Intellectually stimulating: “My mind is running a constant marathon and I love it!”
- Excitement of a new job every time a new project starts
- Transferability of general skills acquired (communication, project management, analysis)
- Long hours
- Rigid up-or-out system
- “You aren’t really a master of one topic. The client usually knows more than you about their industry.”
- Travel, travel, travel
- Possibility of being assigned to a project that doesn’t interest you
- “Your workload and happiness are to a large extent dependent on your project manager.”
- Difficult to balance life and career. One respondent went so far as to say, “I might never have a successful relationship as a result of this job and this travel.”
- High level of social integration required for success at many firms
- Four weeks’ vacation
- Full family medical, dental, and vision coverage
- Season tickets to athletic events (usually for entertaining clients)
- Business-class travel
- Fancy company dinners
- Cell phones and BlackBerries (or a combination)
- Big events and parties
- Frequent-flier miles. A consultant can often redeem enough miles for a vacation for the whole family from all the travel over the course of a year
- Even though it is usually hard, many consultants do have the opportunity to visit fascinating locales around the world
Opportunity to stay in the client location (for example, if you have a project in San Francisco or Puerto Rico, you can stay there for the weekend) or fly somewhere other than your home city
INTERESTED IN CONSULTING JOBS?
The Largest Source of Consulting Jobs in the WorldHow to Get Consulting Jobs and What it is Like Being a Consultant by Harrison Barnes