A lot is made in regards to the differences between external and internal consulting. While both roles require individuals to solve key organisational problems, an internal consultant is employed solely by the organisation themselves.
We wanted to do our own digging into the subject by speaking to someone who had been on both sides of the fence.
Sam Lombard was a consultant at Boston Consulting Group before he took up an internal strategy consulting role at Babcock International Group in 2015. Having left consultancy now, he told us about the move from external to internal consulting, and the differences he noticed in making that transition.
A more focussed approach
For Sam, his time at BCG proved to be an incredible learning experience, working in different industries and functions. However, he also longed for a more focussed approach to his work. Coming from an engineering background, his move to an internal role at a company dedicated solely to engineering services was perfect in allowing him to progress to a more specialist position.
“In the first couple of years at BCG, you remain a generalist. You cover multiple industries and multiple functions perhaps – a phenomenal thing – I would never say that’s a bad thing because you learn a huge amount. If you do have a specific industry or area [of interest], as you progress, you can focus more on that industry. I’d say that what Babcock did was give me the opportunity to make that move earlier, to focus on engineering at an earlier point.”
The ability to enjoy a more predictable and manageable lifestyle was also a key benefit for Sam, and one that could not be guaranteed in an external position.
“Clearly in a large consulting firm, partners may have quite a good view of the pipeline of projects coming. But as a consultant you might have a rather limited view of what you’ll be doing next. In a small internal consulting team, you’re more involved in deciding what projects have priority, how you might do them, what should come next, and have a very good view of what your next couple of months are going to look like, even across multiple projects.”
Having more control
A move to an internal role also allowed for a greater degree of flexibility in the completion of projects, one that reduced working hours.
“I wouldn’t say it was nine to five, but it certainly rarely exceeded nine to seven. If you were gonna have a rushed case, instead of pushing the hours you would extend the project.
“Even if it wasn’t my own decision at times to push deadlines, it was a much easier conversation to have, because with external consulting firms you’ve got the knowledge that if you extend projects by two weeks, that is a huge financial impact on the customer. Whereas internally, you could extend it by two weeks and while you might be delaying another project by a little bit, that in general is the end of the immediate consequences. The only exception would be if there was an external contact, which happened occasionally, and then that was taken in a different way.”
The chance to build strong working relationships is another facet of internal consulting that Sam stresses importance upon.
“As a more junior consultant you’ll have relationships that might span weeks, months, but are unlikely to get past a year. Joining a corporate, even if you do a project that lasts six weeks, you’ll be tied in to that project, the individuals and those contacts for as long as you’re at that company.
“The relationships last much longer, and you find yourself engaging with those people on the original project and on other topics in which I found to be a more meaningful way, over a long period of time.”
Benefits to both worlds
Despite the obvious benefits that lie in an internal role, Lombard argues that both sectors have their advantages and disadvantages. While external consultants are unable to form the same type of working relationships as those employed internally, they benefit elsewhere.
“[As an internal consultant] you don’t have the knowledge – or you very quickly lose the knowledge if you did have it, of how different industries and different companies do things. So, you lose that perspective that I think is a huge part of external consultancy’s value.”
For Sam, he retains the idea that both experiences were beneficial.
“I learnt more at my time at BCG than I have at any other point in my life. I absolutely loved it. That being said I also thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Corporate Strategy team. They were very, very different for some of the reasons we discussed and for a number of other reasons, so I loved both.”