How to Climb the Management Consultant Career Ladder
8 min read

How to Climb the Management Consultant Career Ladder

We asked an experienced consultant at a top-tier strategy firm for transparent responses to our interview questions. Read on for their view and inside tips on the best way to succeed as a management consultant.
How to Climb the Management Consultant Career Ladder

How do you define success in this role?

Success for me is learning new skills, contributing to meaningful projects as a team member and having fun building new relationships with like minded people. However, a lot of people in the role take a more transactional approach and define success by promotions and pay rises.

How would you measure success in this role?

I would measure success by your rate of learning. So basically try to measure how much you’re learning in each month or quarter using a simple rating system (a rating from 1-5 works well) or track your projects, wins and skills over time. Look for trends in these numbers.

Similarly you can track your projects and relationships the same way. Are you learning, getting new opportunities and making new connections over time?

Consulting is a great place to find consecutive learning curves to ride. When it’s going right you get to stack these learning curves on top of each other and really progress. You can stay for a long time and keep learning at a fast rate. As soon as this rate starts to decline, or worse plateau, then it’s usually time to commit to becoming a partner or move on.

Promotions and pay rises are much more straightforward to measure, but I don’t necessarily think these are the right things to focus on at an early stage of your consulting career.

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What is the best approach to be successful as a management consultant?

In my mind the best way to get ahead is to focus on acquiring and developing skills, experience and relationships. There are other levers you can pull to get ahead without necessarily working hard and putting in the effort (I’ll get to those soon). But I’d be wary of these approaches if I were starting in management consulting.

I firmly believe that the only way to actually get ahead is to focus on activities that build your value in the long-run. The skills, experience and relationships that travel with you throughout your career and from job to job. This is the only way to guarantee that you win.

Think about it. No-one outside your firm cares about your title or your promotions, and salaries can be taken away as quickly as they are handed out. This path is fleeting and largely imaginary. It’s a status game. Skills, experience and relationships are tangible, valuable and lasting. When you focus on building these, you can’t lose.

Still want the hack though?

Okay, fine. I’m not trying to say these aren’t important (they are!) it’s just that they don’t travel with you as you move through your career. I am also of the view that people who focus on these activities end up using the same playbook in every job at every company, and don’t ever get the satisfaction of truly contributing their unique skills and experience to important problems. However, if you are so inclined, I’ll tell you.

How to quickly climb the ladder in management consulting:

  • Focus on practice development: Do you know why some people spend time on the social committee? Because consulting firms value people who contribute to the culture. Retention is a huge issue for every consulting practice and people who help make the practice a place where people want to be, they will get ahead. Organizing one social event can do more for your career than 10 expertly delivered projects.
  • Build your presence and personal brand: This is all about maximizing mindshare. Leaders in consulting practices are generally busy, and don’t care about junior folks. They are too busy focusing on themselves, their peers and superiors (just like you!). For this reason, spending time making sure they know who you are is not wasted because even if you are kicking goals with clients, no-one will even know.
  • Intangibles your particular leaders value: Here’s the secret sauce. The recipe to bring it all together. Align your actions to the pet projects or causes of the most senior and influential decision makers in your practice. If they are focused on technology companies, you focus on technology companies. If they are interested in sustainability goals, you talk about and get involved in sustainability causes. Contribute to the practice, make yourself known to them, and then make yourself one of them. People promote people who remind them of themselves.

So those are the two paths. Focusing on mastering your craft and building relationships with peers, or focusing on being visible to decision makers and contributing to the culture of the practice. You should probably balance a bit of both to hedge your bets.

What are your best tips to get a promotion or pay rise in this role?

There are three ways to get a promotion or a pay rise:

  1. Earn it: Do good work, actively develop your skills and experience in line with your practices performance assessment framework, make a strong promotion case and campaign to the key decision makers so they support your promotion or pay rise.
  2. Get another offer: Apply and interview for a role at a different company so you receive a competing job offer. Take this contract to your superiors and they will likely offer you a pay rise, and maybe a promotion too. Sometimes merely signaling this intention can work too. This approach takes more work and can burn some goodwill, but it will make them pay you what you are worth.
  3. Wait it out: Continue doing what you’re doing, show up and get by at work. You’ll typically get a pay rise of 0-5% every year and maybe even a promotion after a while.

My best advice when you’re following approach #1, the “Earn it” approach is to start acting and performing at the level above at least 6-12 months before your promotion milestone. It needs to be a no-brainer when the conversation comes up. Act mature, follow the mantra of “just be senior” and grow your brand as a trusted pair of hands. Execute well basically.

I’ve said enough about the other two approaches, but you need to know they are there and viable paths you can follow if it fits your situation and ambitions.

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What are your best tips to master this role and be an effective management consultant?

The tools and frameworks that made work easier and less stressful for me:

  • Work plans: Scope is everything. Scope creep, or worse, having a clear idea of what I’m doing or why, is the mortal enemy. I always use a work plan on every project, no matter how small. It makes sure I map out the situation, stakeholders and activities so that everything is clear, and it quickly gets everyone on the same page to set expectations. I can then execute and there won’t be any confusion or miscommunication.
  • Proactive stakeholder engagement: Before you leave each day, ask your manager whether they need anything. Over-communicate when you send work output by email. Send your main stakeholders a weekly update or roundup on what you’ve done and why you’re doing next, let them know of any blockers. Being proactive in managing stakeholders is THE great hack.

More in terms of getting your mindset right to reap the rewards of a career in management consulting, here are some things that have helped me:

  • Being a continuous learner.
  • Being open minded.
  • Practicing critical thinking.
  • Taking a long-term perspective.
  • Staying and signaling a calm demeanor.

What activities should you avoid or deprioritize to save time and effort?

Being an effective management consultant who still has time for leisure and relaxation is all an activity in avoiding unnecessary distractions. There are many I could talk about but you likely know what they all are already. I want to suggest a more surprising one. Worrying about your next promotion (or worse, other people's promotions) is a big waste of time that takes your focus away from what matters. Let these just happen. For me personally, the second I stopped worrying about promotions so much and just relaxed and executed, my career took off! People can tell and you carry a weird energy. Just be someone that people want to be around and contribute to those around you. Plus, the high after a promotion lasts like a week and in 10-years you won’t even care about it anyway. Trust me.

What are the best learning and development tips to become a more valuable management consultant?

Learn and master the basics. Here they are:

  • Storytelling: Start with frameworks like SCQA and MINTO then go from there.
  • Communication: Everything breaks down without good communication. The source of most work problems comes down to communication issues. This is something you can work on and improve constantly. And you should.
  • Problem solving: Consulting is problem solving. One way or another, clients only come to consultants to solve a problem. You need to be a master problem solver.
  • Frameworks: The hard worker of consulting. Frameworks do a lot of the heavy lifting in solving problems for clients and making the work easy to understand and use. Become a student of the important frameworks in your domain.
  • Presentations: Good design matters, people trust beautiful and thoughtful slides more than ones that look like they were thrown together. I also like to follow the Pig’s Tail approach of simplifying each presentation three times.
  • Excel modeling: It’s all about structuring the model, cleaning and presenting the data in a logical format and using simple functions to make the analysis as simple and clean as possible. Always show your working and assumptions.

Just these six basics will cover 80% of your consulting work.

What can people do to set themselves up for the best exit opportunities?

I like this question because I feel like it is a good way to re-emphasize the core point I’ve tried to stress throughout this whole interview. Sure, some progressing through the levels will align you to a better exit title. Likewise with salary. But these are fleeting again. What will set you up for the best exit opportunities are valuable and diverse skills, experience and relationships.

It is such a big trap that I see people wander into again and again. Being transactional and chasing short-term titles and money. I felt compelled to do this whole interview to strongly make this case, it’s the best way to guarantee you get the most out of your time as a management consultant.

If readers could only take 3 things away from your interview, what do you hope they are:

Starting your career, or coming in later, as a management consultant is a really good step. It is such a valuable skill set with an associated toolkit that can set you up for the rest of your career. To get off to the best possible start I highly recommend:

  • Focusing on acquiring and developing new skills, experience and relationships rather than spending too much time worrying about promotions and pay rises.
  • Adding in a little splash of time and effort spent on practice development to balance out your resume and hedge your development.
  • Working smart, not hard on projects and with stakeholders. Consultants will talk all day long about not boiling the ocean, but few actually live it. With a little extra effort to design your approach, think about how you spend your time and work with people, and develop your work tools, you can make the experience so much more pleasant and enjoyable.

I hope your time as a management consultant is as rewarding as mine was.

Before you go: I have interviewed 500+ professionals, surveyed thousands more, and I am always probing for their best tips, tricks and hacks to get ahead. There are five that stand out above the rest and you can get them right now by joining my free email list. You won’t find these ideas anywhere else.