Management Consultancy Career Planning: Boutique or Big Brand?

With the job market currently buoyant management consultants are increasingly aware that it might be a good time to take the next steps in their consulting career. There are many considerations but one of the most important is a decision on the likely scale of the future employer.

The value of Brand

In general, trying to aim for some consulting experience in a large brand name management consulting firm is a high career priority for all management consultants. It is seen by most employers as a badge of candidate quality, training, and competence. They may be mistaken but that’s not the point!

Paradoxically even smaller consulting firms will often seek this: partly for the reasons stated but also because their own clients look for it in the consultants they will place on their projects.

It’s difficult to say “how much” but perhaps as a guideline at least 2-3 years and ideally at least one promotion (to show they valued you).

Common misconceptions

It used to be thought that small firms were financially risky and employees are ‘safer’ in larger firms but recent recessions have shown that the big consultancies and technology players are ruthless about getting rid of staff when utilisation levels drop so there is no greater job security. Indeed in many situations the reverse may apply.

In fact “risk” can cover lots of areas of a role and career: risk of uninteresting work, risk of becoming too niche or too broad, risk of lack of career progression, risk of a poor culture, risk of poor work/life balance etc.

Historically smaller management consulting firms often meant smaller projects or Tier 2 clients but that is emphatically no longer the case. For many reasons these consultancies can represent a very compelling proposition for even the most Blue-Chip corporate with the most complex projects, albeit of course for some the default option may be the Big Brand.

In reality of course the definition of scale is very arbitrary and one could equally look at Small, Medium and Large or any other terms! If you are working for IBM or Accenture almost all other consulting firms are Small or at least “Smaller”. Less well-known firms can be 5 consultants, 50 consultants or 500 consultants and not all the points below will always apply.

Large consultancy firms – the pros and cons

As well as the huge value of the CV enhancing brand name, large firms offer the following plusses:

  • Often upper quartile pay and potentially significant overall earnings at Director and Partner level. Linked to this there is often a comprehensive benefits package that can add 10-20% overall.
  • Structured career path and associated training
  • Major name clients and both large and varied projects with associated learning and experience
  • Innovation and leading-edge thinking
  • Contact, learning and mentoring from high calibre colleagues
  • Operational support & infrastructure

The negatives:

  • Sometimes bureaucratic, inflexible with more hierarchy
  • Structure may limit the variety and range of work and experience while audit conflicts might limit the range of clients
  • Highly competitive especially at senior levels which may limit promotions
  • Sometimes thought to be political in culture
  • You will be a small fish in a very large pond, even at senior levels, so there may be limited opportunity for influence or impact, or to get noticed!
  • Limited scope for ‘white space’ activity e.g. developing new markets, new clients, new thinking, because almost certainly someone else has done so or there’s a reason why you can’t
  • Potentially poorer work/life balance
  • You may be in a team occupying a small niche, defined by a sector and a service line.

Smaller management consulting firms – the plusses and minuses

A smaller firm doesn’t have the brand name to open doors (whether at potential clients or with future employers) but does have advantages:

  • The consultant will be more visible both with clients and with their employer
  • As a big fish in small pond there is more scope for you to have a say/influence
  • Potentially a greater variety of projects and fewer restrictions
  • Often higher growth which can equate to accelerated career progression and fewer barriers
  • Greater responsibility: especially on smaller projects with more opportunity to own the assignment and see it end to end
  • Broader role especially for less senior consultants: more scope to take on additional responsibilities, get involved in sales or other business development or internal projects.
  • The potential for bigger bonuses (for sales contribution especially) and equity/shares
  • Warmer and more friendly culture and values. Sometimes perhaps more of an altruistic core.
  • More specialist in your area of interest and focus (depending on the firm!)

On the downside:

  • Sometimes less potential to influence what work you are put on, as a small firm may have less choice
  • Less support/infrastructure
  • Founder owner/managers can be micromanagers and unwilling to cede control/decision making
  • May be reliant on small numbers of breadwinners so vulnerable if they leave
  • Can be difficult to move back to a large firm
  • A bit claustrophobic: difficult to avoid people you don’t get on with!
  • While salaries can be competitive benefits are rarely as good as found in large employers
  • Variable “quality” of colleagues…. although this diversity (small “d”) can be a strength too
  • Sometimes smaller projects and smaller clients.

In summary

The above lists certainly act as a starting point for probing questions and due diligence in the interview process.

As with many aspects of management consultancy career planning, there is rarely a “right” answer. Invariably it is dependent upon where someone is on their career path and what the individual’s motivations and drivers are.

However, I tend to raise a (metaphorical) eyebrow when people say “I’m pretty flexible really: no firm view”. The two options are SO different this flags up to me that they may risk making the wrong choice. While it’s good to be open minded, for this reason it’s important to consider career planning before an active job search.

For more advice on your management consultancy career choices there is a wealth of information here. We are a specialist management consultancy recruitment firm with in depth experience of the management consulting job market.

Feel free to contact us here and if we can assist we will!


It used to be thought that consultants are ‘safer’ in larger firms but recent recessions have shown that the big consultancies and technology players are ruthless about getting rid of staff when utilisation levels drop. In many situations a smaller consultancy firm may be a more secure option.
There is rarely a “right” answer. Invariably it is dependent upon where someone is on their career path and what the individual’s motivations and drivers are. A period in a larger firm, especially in early career, is seen as an excellent “pedigree” with good training and experience.

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