What do you tell people you do?
If someone casually asks me what a Management Consultant does, I’ll tell them that we help our clients solve their most important problems. There are a number of disciplines within consulting but they’ll all say that. Some examples are fixing operational problems, optimizing human resources processes or helping our clients to implement mission critical software.
What do you really do?
It’s a little more complicated in practice. On the one hand, our job is to make money for the firm we work for and we do this by finding problems that our clients might have and try to convince them to let us work in it. The truth is, we’ll work on any problem the client has a budget for and will pay us to do. It’s rarely the most important problem. Usually they don’t have the capacity to do it, sometimes they don’t have the capability.
What does this actually look like? I spend a lot of time in email, PowerPoint, Excel, team meetings and client meetings (on Zoom or, shockingly, in-person). There is a scope for the project but often a lot of requests coming in, regular content updates with the client and often very little time to work on the big picture (the actual important problem).
What is the biggest misconception about the role?
Probably that the industry is more advanced than it really is. Consulting remains about selling time and materials based work. The time sheet is still king. Many consulting firms are body shops that are incentivised to maximize your utilization through large programs of work at big clients. They want you out at a client, billing your time. They are not that interested if it’s fun, useful or valuable. It’s a misconception because they spend a lot of time trying to market and brand themselves otherwise.
Why do most people get into this role?
Everyone is different and there are a lot of motivations to join a consulting firm as a management consultant. I think that common themes among people are the opportunity to learn a fundamental skill set, the variety of projects across various industries and for the experience at a brand name firm (read: the logo on a CV for the next job).
How do people typically enter this role?
Two ways: through a graduate program or as a lateral hire. Some people at professional services firms are true believers that the best and only way is to join through a graduate program and move up through the ranks with fit-for-purpose training and on the job experience. However, to fill out capacity and capability consulting firms will often pull in lateral hires - people from other industries but with a specific skill set or client relationships that we’re lacking.
I’d say the typical path to enter is as a graduate.
What three main skills do people need to bring to this role?
Again it depends, because there are a lot of different disciplines within consulting. Broadly speaking the three main skill sets that go across disciplines are problem solving, communication and project management skills.
What opportunities do people typically get after this role?
You can move up in the firm, or move to a corporate. There are other exit points but these are the two major ones. More and more ex-consultants are moving on to technology companies like Google, Facebook and Salesforce.
An important benefit is that if you work as a Management Consultant at a firm with a good reputation, then this qualification will follow you around your career and open doors later down the track. It’s a really good baseline for the rest of your career.
What did you least expect in this role?
I underestimated how many friendships I would make. Being in a project room with the same 10 people for 3-months, I made friends for life and still catch up with them regularly even after 7-years. You really do bond over the client challenges, long hours and many meals shared. If you are wired like a consultant then you’ll meet many like minds, who think like you and see the world like you. But also with important and interesting differences. A consulting firm is fertile ground to make really strong lifelong connections.
What’s the most frustrating part of the role?
All jobs have frustrating parts. Management Consulting has it’s share:
- Some projects can feel a bit useless, and like a waste of time.
- Consulting firms have confusing politics and incentives to navigate.
- Some people carry more weight than others, and you can feel like you’re carrying the load.
- Last minute changes for the client.
- Last minute changes from the Partner.
- Scope creep.
- Managing the client and the Partner, as well as a team of consultants.
That’s just a sample. But you get the gist.
What would only other people who do your role know about it?
The truth that financial modeling, at the end of the day, is really basic and nothing to be scared away from. It’s only some structure laying out the spreadsheet, basic arithmetic (plus, minus, multiply and divide by) and two functions - INDEX MATCH and PIVOT tables. That’s all I used to do multi-million dollar workstreams for the world’s largest companies.
What would the haters say about this role?
“Management Consultants don’t add any real value” and “you just spend a lot of time doing work to justify a decision that’s already been made”. The first is not really true in an absolute sense, as Management Consultants are like a shadow workforce for the entire economy that can be spun up and deployed very quickly to where it’s needed. The second one, totally fair. That tends to happen a lot and if it’s required to get things done at a client, then so be it!
What advice do you have for people considering this role?
While it’s not perfect, nothing is. I would strongly recommend starting a career in Management Consulting. But know what your personal plan is. I think there are only two paths you should take. Either: 1) only do it for 3- to 5-years until you have the skill set and experience and then leverage the experience into another role, or 2) commit to being a Partner at a professional services firm. That middle zone can be unfulfilling and unrewarding.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you in this role?
I was putting the finishing touches on a market model for a client, after discussing the drivers and assumptions at length over a few months. At the last minute the Partner on the project decided they wanted to change one of the core assumptions in the model to an arbitrary input. We had spent a lot of time coming up with a methodology with the client. I refused to change the numbers in the Excel spreadsheet and had to walk away from my computer while the Partner randomly changed the inputs to back solve for their arbitrary input. Lol. It’s probably best not to be too principled in Management Consulting.
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