Successful consulting careers don’t happen by chance: they are actively managed and planned.
Before you even THINK of putting together a CV let alone applying for a management consulting job you need a clear idea of where you want your career to go. The parameters can be broad. They can evolve or change. Inevitably they can be blown off course. But they need to be there!
Our guide to career planning for management consultants takes you through the key stages of the process. This starts from an overview of your goals, followed by consideration of the size of the firm you prefer to work for, a decision about specialisation and whether you prefer to remain in consulting or transfer to industry. In addition, we look at permanent versus interim.
The overview: Life the Universe and Everything
This is an occasional ‘deep dive’. A review of what is important to you in your life definitely needs to be more frequent than once a lifetime or ‘never’! Perhaps as a minimum it should be every 3-5 years.
The starting point for career planning is to look closely at yourself, perhaps with other people’s help. Try and decide what your personal strengths and weaknesses are and what you enjoy doing in life as well as in your work.
You will always be more successful doing something you enjoy, that fits with your personality.
Secondly you need to try and imagine your future self in, for example, 10 years on. In theory it might be longer but more than the medium term is impractical. Very few of us can predict how major life events will change how we will feel about our work and career in 20 or 30 years’ time.
In particular, consider what Is REALLY important to you. Money? Leadership? Interesting work? Having fun? Work/life balance? Avoid the cliches. Be honest with yourself.
Yes, everyone wants to have loads of money and rule the world, except actually they don’t.
Therefore, try and look at what really matters to you and consequently how hard you might work for it! Hard work does not mean just longer hours. It can also mean other personal and emotional sacrifices and continually being willing to push yourself well outside your comfort zone. This is something that many individuals frequently say they are happy with, but in reality it isn’t what most people actually enjoy.
How do your overall goals shape your career?
Move from this overall ‘life review’ to what this might mean for your career. Management consultants have a complex and bewildering series of choices, not always easy to get right, which is why the preamble above is so important.
Many of the following considerations and options overlap, but by having a broad idea of your overall goals it will make it easier to assess the pros and cons of these choices.
Size of firm: large or small?
In general, trying to aim for some experience in a large brand name management consulting firm is a high career priority for all management consultants. It is seen by all employers (large and small, consulting side or in industry) as a badge of approval, training, and competence. They may be mistaken but that’s not the point!
If possible, this should be for a minimum of 3 years because any less looks like it didn’t work out. Ideally it would include one promotion to prove you were valued.
As a general rule smaller firms are always excited to hire candidates with a large firm pedigree, but the reverse may not apply.
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.
As a more general point, apart from the CV enhancing brand name large firms tend to offer the following plusses:
- Upper quartile pay and potentially significant earnings (as a Senior Director or Partner)
- 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
- Bureaucratic and inflexible
- Structure may limit variety and range of work and experience. Audit conflicts might limit the range of clients
- Highly competitive especially at senior levels
- Sometimes thought to be political in culture
- Small fish in a very large pond even at senior levels
- 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
A smaller firm doesn’t have the brand name to open doors (whether potential clients or future employers) but does has advantages:
- The consultant may be more visible both with clients and with the employer
- As a big fish in small pond there is more scope to have a say/influence
- 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 etc.
- The potential for equity/shares
On the downside:
- Less potential to influence what work you are put on as a small firm may not have much 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
- Difficult to move back to a large firm
What sort of role: delivery or sales?
Many are attracted to consulting because of the nature of consulting work: solving clients’ problems, influencing decisions, implementing change, transforming businesses etc etc.
However, in consulting firms the more senior roles i.e. Director level and upwards and sometimes Senior Manager grade, are given to people who can generate revenue whether that be from bringing the firm new clients and business or from growing existing accounts.
Business development requires overlapping but materially different skillsets and is a different role. Understandably many consultants are not interested in making this transition or may not feel they have the skills to succeed in this more sales-based role.
Unfortunately the other options for an ambitious management consultant are rather limited. This may mean a career and salary plateau albeit retaining the potential for interesting work. Alternatively, a move into industry or a move to a freelance or contract career (see below) is a possibility.
Larger firms occasionally have roles for Director level ‘Subject Matter Experts’ who don’t have revenue targets, but these are few and far between.
Do you want to be a specialist or generalist?
Depending on the employer and their firm’s structure a consulting career may commence with a clear focus on a sector and a service line. However, it is often broader.
The latter situation offers lower salary (more junior) consultants the opportunity to gain experience across a variety of work and clients and reflects the fact that the clients in turn are paying less for generic skills sets. The consulting firm gains because it has the flexibility to keep numbers on the bench to a minimum.
However soon the consultant will be progressing their career, developing expertise and experience (which is after all why their clients pay for them!).
Sometimes this is in a ‘competency’ so a consultant might become a supply chain consultant, or a strategy consultant, or IT consultant, or HR Consultant etc while still working across sectors. Often it is in a sector i.e. developing an expertise in one or an overlapping range of industries. Or both.
There may be a lot of overlap so the point is that in practice consultants can often get to Manager or Senior Manager level while maintaining a significant variety of skills and working across a broad range of assignments.
It should be stated however that many larger firm practices are quite narrow e.g. Operations consulting in insurance, as are “boutique” consulting firms who may have as their ‘go to market’ or USP a specialism i.e. Technology consulting in banking.
As a rule the more senior a role the more likely it is to require focus, often on a sector, because that focus and expertise can both enable higher charge rates and support sales. In the case of sales, decision makers who buy consultancy services often remain in the same industry sector if they change roles or change employers. Which means in turn that senior consultants who have these contacts as part of their network of potential buyers also do so.
In practice therefore many in consulting at a leadership level of Director or Partner have a fairly clear sector focus and conversely it is sometimes difficult to retain breadth, if that is a motivation or career interest.
Consulting or industry?
This is an important aspect to consider in career planning.
Consulting careers can have many upsides:
- often well paid
- generally meritocratic
- offering very varied and influential work
- alongside high calibre colleagues.
Its negatives are:
- lifestyle & work life balance (nights away, long hours, uncertainty/short notice projects),
- the perspective is external and detached with a potential lack of ownership of recommendations
- it can be difficult to get real business leadership roles whether P&L or people management and leadership.
- Career progression requires the ability to sell work
A move ‘client side’, to industry, can address these problems albeit care is needed to avoid rose tinted spectacles. Long hours and travel can be a feature of ‘internal’ roles especially if they are utilising the consultant’s project and transformation-based skills. This can often involve visiting country wide or international parts of the business.
It can be a difficult move to make as there are relatively few roles calling for consulting skills sets and expertise at comparable salaries.
It may also be a dead-end move: for example, strategy consultants might find themselves in corporate strategy roles but without the prospect of moving into other areas. This may be either because there are other better qualified staff or simply because they have none of the skills or experience to enable them to take on and succeed in (probably) a different very well paid and senior role!
This can also often be a one way move, especially at senior levels, as industry doesn’t give any of the business development/sales skills necessary to enable a move back to a senior consulting role. Indeed they may only be able to return in a less senior role which most are unwilling to consider.
Permanent or interim?
For many management consultants the advantages of permanent employment are reflected in many of the points above: good and fairly secure earnings, career structure, continuity of work, training and personal development and working with colleagues in a team.
However, freelance work can be very tempting and is an attractive move for consultants at particular stages in their lives and career.
This work frequently offers much higher daily pay with the flexibility to choose work that enables the individual to decide what clients and projects they take on, to fit with their interests or work/life balance.
However, for some it can be a solitary existence and one without clear career or personal development so is an important consideration in career planning. More than most consultants, they are hired for a specific set of existing skills and experience. Ten years on many contractors are doing the work they have always done. This can be both boring and limiting especially if the skills are no longer in demand.
Like some of the other options above this can be a one-way door. After a few years it becomes more difficult to return to the permanent job market for a variety of different reasons. While sometimes their clients, or consulting firms for which they are working as ‘associates’ may offer a permanent role, often this is on financially unattractive terms.
No-one needs to have all the answers and few people have their lives and careers mapped out. In fact both resilience and the ability to change tack are desirable personal and job skills.
But having some clear guidelines helps make the best of our skill-sets and optimise roles to fit with our life and career goals.