Expert Interview: What is Management Consulting Really Like?
8 min read

Expert Interview: What is Management Consulting Really Like?

An experienced consultant on what management consultants actually do, insider secrets to get ahead and how to get a role as a consultant.
Expert Interview: What is Management Consulting Really Like?

What do you tell people you do?

Most of the time I streamline the explanation to “I help my clients with growth strategy, exploring new business models, entering new markets or finding new customers”. The truth is that the job is far more varied than that, but it's easier to pick out the most exciting part and go with that!

What do you really do?

I do help my clients with growth strategy… but that’s usually the first project lasting only 4-6 weeks. It’s then followed by another 12 months or more working on implementing whatever we recommended in the strategy and helping set up good program management to ensure all of it gets done (or at least enough of it!).

On one client that involved: developing a 5 year strategy (took 6 weeks), doing a big operational efficiency study, finding headcount savings and reorganising the Sales and Marketing functions, scoping out a new finance system they needed, helping them organise a tendering process for that system and then program managing a big corporate reorganisation exercise in preparation for Brexit. Read: not all that much growth strategy!

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What is the biggest misconception about the role?

The biggest misconception is one that consulting firms put a lot of effort into creating: that their project teams are full of experts. Flip to the back of any proposal from a consulting firm and you’ll see a CV page laid out with the proposed team for the project, all with expert CVs and loads of relevant previous experience.

On most projects, what clients actually get is one or two senior people who have done similar projects at lots of clients and know the industry in depth. They steer the project and make sure the right questions are asked and the project goes well. The rest of the team might have worked in that industry before (or not!), but are not experts. They are smart people who have a good, generalist consulting skill set and can take direction.

It’s the reason why clients get a shock when consultants ask seemingly basic questions about their business or industry… it’s because they might be learning it on the go. That’s how the model works though. Senior people who are deeper experts who can sell the work, and then a big team of smart people who learn quickly and then apply business thinking across different problems and different industries.

Why do most people get into this role?

Many people enter consulting already thinking about their exit. Not in a bad way, just that management consulting can be a good stepping stone to other jobs in industry (but at a higher level than if you worked your way up in industry). Churn rates are usually about 20-25% per year given it’s a desirable job (to many), it’s more down to the ‘pull’ from outside consulting.

Management consulting gives you a business and problem solving toolkit that makes you more valuable to future employers. If you spend a few years at one of the well-recognised firms, you are an “ex-management consultant” and with that tag usually comes an acknowledgement that you have been trained to solve complex problems, manage clients, sell services work, and effectively communicate with executive stakeholders. All of my colleagues who left my firm whilst I was there were offered at least 40% more than their consulting salary to join industry (more recently, tech firms have been paying double current salary in salary/bonus/equity to get management consultants across).

I see very few people who enter management consulting thinking that they will end up a Partner (with the exception of those very close to Partner or lateral Partner hires). The leveraged model (i.e. very high staff to Partner ratio) means that very few get promoted to that top rank. It takes a lot of time and commitment to building your client relationships in the market, your expertise and your internal network.

How do people typically enter this role?

For more junior levels, the most common entry is via graduate programs either out of Undergraduate degrees or Postgraduate MBA courses. These graduates enter at different levels (in recognition that postgrads also typically have other work experience) but both go through a series of onboarding training to a consulting firm.

At more senior levels, the hiring is much more targeted. Here they are looking for specific hires that fill gaps in their team - a specific industry, type of work, or technology area. At the moment, I’m seeing a lot of firms trying to hire ex-consultants back out of tech companies. Clients want consultants who have been on the bleeding edge of new tech and the way these successful companies operate, so consulting firms need to go out and lure back that expertise.

What three main skills do people need to bring to this role?

Structured thinking and logic is an absolute must. Consulting projects are almost always time pressured, with complex or ambiguous questions to be answered. Consultants need to use structured thinking to analyse the problem they have been given and decide which hypotheses to explore (since they can’t explore everything - called “boiling the ocean”) and then use logic to scrutinise findings and deduce the answers (consulting nerds will talk to you about deductive and inductive logic all day long!).

Strong, confident communication. It takes confidence to know a business for 6 weeks and stand by your recommendations about what they should do for the next 2 years to turn around their performance. On top of that, it takes excellent communication skills to deliver this to the C-suite or the Board of that company and convince them to trust you and your team’s work and recommendations. Consultants have to be able to do the work (of course!), but if at the end you are unable to convince anyone to act on your work, you’re not a very effective consultant.

Interpersonal ability. Consultants are rarely thrown into easy situations - turn arounds, cost cutting, starting business lines and shutting them down, bringing in new technology that isn’t popular, etc. That means that you’re constantly navigating clients that you need to build rapport with if you want to get the data or information you need to solve the problem. Without that, 6 weeks can fly by with that finance manager stalling on getting you the internal data you needed. On top of that, project teams go through their own stressful times, so the ability to build strong relationships, relate to others and get the best out of your team is really important.

What opportunities do people typically get after this role?

In-house strategy or operations: One of the most common, companies are basically looking for their own “internal consultants”, so you are moving to perform a similar type of function but know the company more intimately.

Managerial positions in industry: If there is a specific industry or technology that you specialise in, you can be poached for a management position in a company that lacks leaders with that expertise.

Same job, different firm: You might move to a firm that does more of the type of work you want to do, or in many cases, just one that will pay you more money or give you a promotion that your current firm isn’t willing to give.

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What did you least expect in this role?

Internal competition. When you put a bunch of Type-A personalities together, and you have a set number of promotions and exciting career opportunities, it’s bound to happen. On top of it being a demanding job, you also have to compete to get on the best projects (with the best clients and learning opportunities). And it’s that type of competitiveness where everyone is smiling and nice to each other, but really everyone is jockeying for career advancement.

I didn’t expect it, though I probably should have. That’s not to say that you don’t make great friends - it’s just another dimension to navigate.

What’s the most frustrating part of the role?

Performance review time. Most people don’t like performance reviews at the best of times - now throw in: a high performance culture (many cite the “up or out” mentality), an obsession with data, politics, lots of smart people to compete with, and the fact that you’re already working hard on your client projects.

Performance reviews take a lot of time to prepare for. You have to gather evidence from throughout the year to show how you have ticked the boxes (or “competencies”) expected for your grade or the grade you want to be promoted to and you have to have a “narrative” (a beautifully crafted story about how you have learned and grown and are just the best person they could ever have wanted in their firm). Most people who are making promotion decisions won’t have directly worked with you, so they need this information to place everyone in the right spot on the bell curve. Regardless, it is tiring and when people don’t get the result they think they deserve at the end of it, it can be very frustrating (see above: why people leave to competitor firms).

What would only other people who do your role know about it?

People joke about how nice consultants’ slides are… but few know how long a “killer slide” actually takes. A “killer slide” is a slide that communicates some critical finding or insight or puts a complex, multivariate problem or solution onto one single page. It generates an “aha!” moment for the client or drastically simplifies something they have been struggling with. All (good) consultant’s slides are ‘pretty’ by normal standards, so those don’t take that long. A “killer slide” will take weeks of refining, sometimes hours at a time (“are you still on that one slide?!?”). You might start on paper or a whiteboard, 4 different people tear it apart, you sleep on it, you work on it for another week. It sounds crazy, but consultants will know what I am talking about. It’s perfectionism at a whole other level.

What would the haters say about this role?

That consultants don’t know anything in real depth, they just provide generic findings and recommendations that the client already knew. It’s the age-old “Consultants borrow your watch to tell you the time”.

I get where this comes from, but I have two thoughts on it:

  1. You get out what you put in. If you don’t put in the effort to help consultants understand the problem in greater depth, give them the data they need and give them access to the people they need to speak to to get to the bottom of the issue, what do you expect? I’ve started so many projects where the client thinks their part is done as soon as we walk in the door. Consultants have expertise in solving problems, but the client still knows their business better than anyone, so they have a role to play too.
  2. If the recommendation was so ‘obvious’, why haven’t you done it yet? Sometimes clients get annoyed because they want you to come up with some novel idea to grow the business/improve margins/improve customer retention/win share so that they don’t have to do the obvious (and usually hard) thing that everyone has been telling them for months or years. That’s not me, that’s you.

What advice do you have for people considering this role?

If you want to learn a lot, and fast, don’t be put off by the reputation of consulting being hard work. It’s not a lie, in many types of consulting you will work twice as hard… but you’ll grow twice as fast (or more).

I left consulting a little while ago and now work in (big) tech. I definitely worked a lot harder in my consulting days, but I also have a big CV of projects that is rare for someone my age. There were lots of long weeks and late nights, but I literally have more experience than if I had worked 9-5 (more hours worked, more problems solved, more mistakes learned from). That’s what landed me a great gig outside of consulting that I probably wouldn’t have been considered for otherwise. It’s not for everyone, but if learning and growth is something you want, I can’t think of a better place to get it.

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