Introduction: Careers in Management Consulting
Management consulting, also referred to as business or strategy consulting, is a high profile, high paying field that offers diverse opportunities for recent business school graduates.
In most businesses, key decision makers did not get to where they are by making bad decisions. But sometimes business leaders find themselves at a loss for time, information, and new ideas. When fresh perspectives and/or additional brain power is required, top business leaders call on management consultants.
Management consultants (as distinct from industry-specific consultants) specialize in advising companies on their core operations and business strategies.
Examples include: when and how to move into new markets abroad, how to reduce costs by streamlining logistics, whether to enter into a long-term strategic partnership, how to restructure and restart operations after a bankruptcy or scandal, or when to begin developing a new product line.
Many companies only reach out to management consultancies in times of exceptional need and uncertainty. So management consulting can be a challenging and invigorating job for those passionate about business strategy and operations.
Management consultants are regularly challenged by the most pressing and complex business problems. And they are often given an immense amount of power over their clients’ futures.And as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Management consultants often work long hours — usually more than 60 hours a week.
High level management consultants must work hand-in-hand with their clients, quickly gaining a thorough understanding of the client’s business strategy, operations, history, and company culture. They must effectively join the client’s company for the duration of the contract. This can mean extended travel with weeks at a time spent living out of a hotel room.
- Certified Management Consultant (CMC) http://www.imcusa.org/?page=CERTIFICATION
Sidenote: Specialized Consultancies
While this article focuses on high-level management consulting, many companies and independent professionals find success consulting on much more specific topics.
Computer networks, mobile communications, healthcare, foreign language integration, specific regional markets, games and gamification — if it is relevant to business operations, and if there is money to be made, you can find an organization that is providing specialized consulting services on the topic.
So, if you have decided that management consulting may not be for you, or you have been finding it hard to secure a position at a large management consulting firm, consider what unique experiences, skills, and interests you have that may be relevant to certain businesses.
Find the specialist consulting firms that are serving that niche and reach out. They may have a position waiting for you.
Breaking Into the Management Consulting: Career Paths & Qualifications
Management consulting is a competitive field and each year there are more candidates than there are jobs. This is especially the case for high profile firms in financial centers such as New York City.
The good news is that the career trajectory within well-established management consultancies is straightforward; and there are points of entry available to recent graduates with a variety of backgrounds.
Understanding where you fit in the seniority ladder of your target firm based on your background will make it easier for you get your foot in the door.
Entry Level: Analyst
If you do not have an MBA or a master’s degree in business, finance, management, or a related field, have no fear. Many students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees in a relevant field often start their careers as analysts at top consulting firms.
(Note: titles vary from firm to firm, and this entry level position may also be listed as ‘research associate’, ‘junior consultant’, or ‘staff consultant’, among other possibilities.)
Analyst-level positions can be quit demanding, with new hires working long hours on research, data analysis, and client meetings, while those with strong IT backgrounds do programming and financial modeling.
Many consultancies have two to three year business analyst programs that allow new hires to learn the ropes before going back to business school to pursue advanced business degrees, which will qualify them for more senior positions in the firm.
Firms will even pay for promising up-and-comers to go back to school if they agree to return to the firm after graduating. Upon return these graduates can find themselves on the same career trajectory as MBA hires.
Entry-Mid Level: Associate
Management consulting firms actively recruit graduates from top MBA programs. And an MBA is indeed a fantastic foundation on which to build a career in consulting.
Universities with robust business programs and well-connected career services centers will find their MBA students, and even students with master’s degrees in business, recruited directly into management consulting firms as associates (also known as ‘senior consultants’).
Associates still do much of their own research and analysis. But they deal more directly with clients and have more freedom to formulate their own recommendations.
Associates who have proven themselves in the role will be given the additional responsibility of working with the client to implement their recommendations.
And of course, advancement means more pay and a progressively more demanding workload (as outlines in the introduction).
Further Advancement: Managing Teams & Becoming a Principal
Associate consultants work on case teams for two to three years, at which point they may be given teams of their own to manage, supporting principals on specific projects. In another two to three years they can become principals themselves.
Principals work much more closely with clients and also interact with prospective clients in order to sell the consulting firm’s services.
Since a management consultancy’s ‘product’ is so closely tied with the expertise embodied in its high level consultants, and since the services the firm can offer will be completely unique, tailored to fit each client’s situation, a consultancy’s best salespeople are its most senior employees.
Principals and partners have the credibility and expertise to provide initial recommendations that are robust and intelligent, and that will gain the trust of potential clients.
Quick Tip: Do Your Homework Before Applying!
It is always a good idea to research the firm you are applying to. This is especially the case if you are going for a position at one of the big names such as McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Deloitte, etc. Do your research and understand what makes the firm you are applying to different from the others.
They each have a unique industry focus, strategic approach, and company culture. These giants receive thousands of applications from recent graduates each year.
Most applicants would be happy to work for any one of these prestigious firms; and this can show in applications that are too general.
Even if you would be equally happy to work at any of them, in your individual applications you should treat each one as if it is your first choice. There is more to this than adding a one or two unique lines in your cover letter.
Management Consulting: Industry Outlook
While the outlook for the management consulting industry itself is strong, global volatility has put pressure on sectors such as financial consulting and investment banking — sectors that appeal to graduates with MBAs and other advanced business degrees. Fewer opportunities in these sectors have led many of these highly qualified candidates to turn to management consulting as a back up.
As a result of the talent influx, competition for limited jobs in top tier business centers such as New York City has become especially fierce in recent years.
More generally, as the management consulting industry has matured, more and more consultancies have opted to specialize in certain industries or business functions, tying them more closely to these markets than more diversified firms. Not that this is a bad thing, because…
Management consulting can allow you to be a de facto part of virtually any industry you choose. If the turbulent business climate is making you worried about job security, consider specializing in a ‘recession-resistant niche’ such as information technology or healthcare.
There are specialist management consultancies that focus on just about every industry and sub-sector imaginable. And there is no better time than the beginning of your professional career to start specializing — as long as you choose your path with care.
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