From day-to-day life to busting common myths and recounting my own experiences, here’s what to expect from a career in management consultancy.
Graduating MBA students consider a career in management consultancy as one of the most desired. However, management consultancy (focused towards business strategy) is actually a very small industry. There are only a handful companies who really do this work.
In my view, management consultancy can be defined as strategy development for top management for new or existing businesses with the help of industry specific subject matter experts and on-ground research.
Strategy development is generally done by very experienced (20+ yrs) set of CXO level professionals who have gained rich experience over the years. Companies like McKinsey, Bain & Co, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) specialize in this space. Now there are other companies like E&Y, KPMG, Accenture, etc. who also claim to be management consulting companies. However, these big companies have a very small division that does this kind of strategy consulting work. These big companies are primarily into other services like audits, project management & execution, legal advisory etc. It’s a long list – you need visit their websites to understand this.
A Career in Management Consultancy is Glamorous (Supposedly)
An MBA student and even many engineering students often glamorize a career in management consultancy, as people portray it as the most sort after job position, mainly due to the high pay scale. You visualize management consultants to be sharing tables with CEOs and discussing business strategy and planning the future of a company. Business strategy that’s being discussed in case studies during your MBA often excites students as this is what a CEO does.
It’s believed management consultants are high flyers, stay in 5-star hotel, have expensive dinners, go from one board room to another and make big business connections. Yes, that’s the fantasy for most MBA graduates dream about, and I did too when I was doing my MBA!
Academic Records Matter
Now let’s get to the reality. Top management consultancy firms like McKinsey, BCG, KPMG advisory division, etc. are mostly interested in hiring students from elite management schools like Harvard, IIM’s, INSEAD who have an impeccable academic record and aptitude comes later. This is where most non-elite B-school graduates lose out. The question is why?
Management consulting firms (strategy focused) mainly pitch to CEO and Chairman’s for new assignments. Since the top management is about to entrust the future of the company in a consulting firm’s hand and they want to be sure about the credentials of the team working on the assignment, and that’s where having and elite-MBA degree and impeccable academic record matters.
Daily Work Life to Expect in Management Consultancy
Work life in consultancy can be defined as hectic. The top management in a consultancy firms, often called partners of the firms, are responsible to pitch proposal and get assignments for the firm – they travel the most as they need to make pitches and also keep meeting clients on a weekly basis to give assurance of their work. Next in line are the principal consultants who are responsible to deliver the assignment with a team of consultants and researchers.
Most fresh MBA graduates start off as researchers, often called associate consultants. I did too. 80% of the staff in firms are comprised of these consultants who work on anything given to them, depending on the need of the project at hand.
Your work could be anything from doing market research, tabulating data, reading reports, doing fake interviews to get industry data, cold calls for research, making complex spreadsheet models, overnight gaining knowledge of some subject like supply chain management or change management, etc. There may be a lot of ambiguity initially, but after sometime having worked on multiple projects and hanging around most experience people you will get the hang of this chaos.
Consulting companies often have pool of knowledge, which is a good reference point to start. As a Researcher/ Associate Consultant, you are often expected to work from the client’s office as you need to understand their business first hand and gather information. People often joke that consultants take information from the client and present it back in a nice PowerPoint & Excel file and get paid!
My Experience in Management Consultancy
My first job fresh out my MBA was as a research associate at boutique management consulting firm focusing in retail. Obviously, McKinsey or a BGG didn’t even look at me since I did my MBA from not-an-elite-institute.
I had done an internship during my MBA with the firm and just got an offer. Most consulting firms often build a specialization into particular sector(s). Lucky for me, the retail sector was booming at that point of time. I won’t consider myself to have been very well-paid in the job. However, you get to learn a lot on the job, if you have the hunger for it and I believe that most fresher MBAs would have so.
Top Things to Remember in Management Consultancy
Now as fresh associate consultant, you definitely can’t face the client, so you need to learn fast. Doing field research is very important as that’s where you get the real experience, if you haven’t spent time on the field doing research you will never gain the confidence to speak in front of the client. That’s the most important lesson I learnt, even the lead consultant goes to the field to do research. After a while making complex business plan and reports not very difficult, however delivering the presentation to the client with confidence is key.
As a fresher, I thought I was surrounded by geniuses who knew everything in the world. I wished to become like them and have a fancy designation like them. But as time progressed, I realized it isn’t very difficult to act like one.
I realized that as a fresher, you need to have industry experience before you step into consulting. Solid credentials are a must-have for anyone to take you seriously.
Having just management consultancy experience alone is not great in my opinion, you need to have some solid functional experience too which backs your consulting experience and industry expertise.
I used to feel this void in myself after spending some time as consultant in initial years of my career. The principal & senior consultants always had good industry experience and responsible for project delivery. However, the most valued people in a management consulting business were the partners/directors as they could get big projects from the clients and drive revenues. They are the ones who really defined the real business strategy for the client.
I believe that most management consulting firms would be like this. Yes, there is lot of ambiguity as every client is different and every project is unique. This leads to a high amount of learning but anxiety at times. For me, I experienced all this straight out of my MBA. There were frequent flights, cool hotel stays – the works.
As everything was paid for by the client, so nobody used to question much on expenses. Lot of people enjoy this kind of lifestyle, especially when you are young and have no responsibilities. As they say, it’s like living life out of a suitcase. But for me after point of time it got boring and I wanted some kind of stability.
Management Consultancy Career Has its Flaws…
Personally, I would suggest to students not to look upon management consultancy as a long term career path. This is because often, there is a drought in project/assignments if the industry is going through a rough patch. Or sometimes, the industry has matured and consultancy is not required or clients are not willing to pay.
In a nutshell, a management consultancy firm is a pool of highly intelligent management resources. A company might need these resources initially to start a new business or re-work its strategy. In a lot of cases, their job is to provide a justified recommendation to company. This recommendation is looked upon as an expert opinion from a company-point-of-view. This will help them take an informed and decisive decision. And later if something goes wrong, they can always blame it on the consulting company. In some ways, this insures the survival of top management staff.
I understand that it sounds like the bitter truth behind this glam career in management consultancy. However, don’t let that deter you from taking up a career if you truly care about strategy and consultancy.
Abhishek Sareen is a marketing professional with over 16 years of experience. He started his career as a management consultant and currently works in international business. He has set up businesses like Track & Trail, BrooksBicycles.com and created consumer brands like Montra, Machcity and Roadeo. He’s is a passionate cyclist and participated in several endurance competitive events like MTB Himalaya. His interests are in behavioral psychology, economics and chess. He is a graduate in Computer Science and an MBA in Marketing. He completed his executive education from IIM-A in 2016 focusing on business strategy.