In this article you will learn:
- What you can expect from a role in management consulting
- How you can prepare for your role
- How to take full advantage of an opportunity in consulting
When it comes to getting a gold star on your resume, there are few better ways to do so than to land a job in management consulting. Lauded for its ability to attract the best and brightest and produce some of the most impressive leaders for business and society alike, the consulting industry is known to attract smart, ambitious folks from some of the most prestigious colleges and graduate programs from around the world.
Despite the enormous sizes of firms like McKinsey & Company and the Boston Consulting Group, the proportion of applicants who make it through to the offer stage is devastatingly small. Take business schools, for instance – of about 150 students who apply, only around 20 ultimately receive offers. This represents a 13% acceptance rate, and from a pool of candidates who are already primed for consulting interviews.
But for those who do end up landing one of these highly sought-after internships or full-time offers, what is there to expect? How do you prepare for your new role? Can you prepare? Here’s the good, the bad, and some advice from consulting veterans on how to cope.
What to Expect
1. A lot of variability
Regardless of what consulting firm you join, being comfortable with ambiguity is key. It’s not always immediately apparent what problem you’re solving, and it’s certainly not always obvious what the best answer to the problem may be. Even if you don’t have perfect inputs (which you probably won’t), you’ll have to be able to quickly adapt and draw meaningful insights from imperfect information.
But it’s not just ambiguity within the work itself. Within consulting, your team, client, and project can change extremely quickly. There’s no such thing as a daily routine or an “average day” in the industry, and being able to roll with the punches and continue operating at your best is important for long-term success.
Similarly, you’ll want to be aware that your hours and location are also quite variable. Even within a single project, you may find that some weeks are particularly tough on work-life balance, whereas others feel like a dream come true. You may find yourself traveling to Paris for a couple of days, then New York, then staying put in London, all within the span of a week. This isn’t to say that you should get used to living out of a suitcase, but being ready to go at a moment’s notice can certainly be helpful. To that end, being aware of your firm’s staffing model is key—if you’re at McKinsey, where staffing is global, international travel is much likelier than at Bain, where staffing is local.
2. Serious teamwork
Being an individual contributor is all good and well, but your team is crucial to your overall success. Not only will you spend an inordinate amount of time with these people – whether in a team room or an airport – but you’ll find that you all bring different skills and perspectives to solving the problem, which after all, is why you’re together.
Building a good relationship with your teammates is perhaps the most critical component of overall project satisfaction. Even if you’re working with your dream client on a dream project, having a dysfunctional team can quickly throw everything into disarray. Appreciate your teammates for their ability to make your life easier, and for their ability to challenge your thinking.
It’s crucial to never think that you’re too good for anything; all members, regardless of rank or level, need to be prepared to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. But on the flip side, this means that many firms truly encourage even their most junior members to go head-to-head with senior partners when it comes to brainstorming activities or problem-solving sessions.
3. A whole lot of learning
Perhaps the single most important element of consulting to look forward to is the sheer amount of learning that will happen in a very short amount of time. You’ll have to become an expert very quickly, and across a breadth of different topics. The more sponge-like and eager you are to learn, the better you’ll find the entire experience.
Prepare yourself to be mentally stretched, and to think in ways that you haven’t been asked to think in most academic or business environments. Consultants are required to put themselves in the shoes of their clients, which means that they’re constantly expanding their perspective. This may just be one of the most satisfying elements of the job.
How to Prepare
So now that you have a slightly better sense of what to expect, what can you do to ensure that you hit the ground running on your first (and your last) day?
1. Set your own boundaries
Consulting can quickly become an all-encompassing job if you allow it to be, but you don’t have to allow it. Consultants, regardless of rank and tenure, are humans too and are certainly sympathetic to your needs and wants. If you know that you need to be home by 7pm to tuck in your new baby, make that known. If you’re aware that you’re a better teammate if you get in your 7am workout, then make others aware as well. Bringing your best self to the team room benefits everyone, so be sure to create the space to give yourself that opportunity.
2. Think early and often about what you want
Related to the need to set boundaries is the necessity of constant introspection. Given the incredible learning opportunity that comes along with consulting, you’ll want to carefully consider exactly what you want to learn, and perhaps more importantly, ensure that you are still learning. If you work well with one team and are very successful, it’s not unlikely that they will fight to keep you; to that end, if you want variety, push for it! On the flip side, if you know you’re interested in a certain team or function, voice it from the start. There’s no guarantee that it’ll be granted, but at the very least, you’ve made your preferences known.
3. Figure out what you can learn on your own
Consulting gigs are often likened to drinking from a firehose—there’s a lot to learn in a very short amount of time. Determining what you can learn on your own and what you’ll need to learn from your team is crucial. For example, whereas you can teach yourself some Excel or PowerPoint tips, you can’t really teach yourself the client context. Prioritize what you need others to teach you, and identify early on what you can teach yourself.
4. Don’t become complacent
If ever you find yourself growing complacent or bored, it’s a telltale sign that something is going wrong. This isn’t to say that it’s time to leave the firm, but it could be time to reconsider the types of cases that you work on, the amount of travel you do, or your industry focus. As long as you’re honest with yourself about what you want to get out of the job, you can make consulting work for you.
Taking Full Advantage
1. Take advantage of team bonding opportunities
As previously referenced, you’ll spend a truly inordinate amount of time with your team. Get to know them! Most consulting firms have hefty budgets for team celebrations or team outings, and while it may seem like an easy choice to skip out in order to get an early night home, don’t always take that road. Getting to know your colleagues on a more personal level is key to creating the team dynamics that make for more effective work environments, and you may be surprised by how much you have in common (or you have to learn) from the people you sit next to every day. Celebrating even the smallest victories can be a wonderful opportunity to establish deeper and more meaningful relationships with your teammates, and will pay dividends down the road.
2. Network within the firm
You networked your way into the firm, but that doesn’t mean that you get to stop once you’re part of the family. On the contrary, finding your people within your consulting company is paramount to your long-term success and your short-term happiness. If there’s a partner who does the type of work you want to do, find time on their calendar. If your manager happens to serve on the board of a nonprofit you’re interested in, set up a meeting to talk about it. The alumni networks of large consulting firms are perhaps the greatest resource they have to offer their current employees; use them. You’ll find that members from your firm, both current and past, are often all too happy to chat with you about their passion projects. If you find some overlap in your interests (and it’s highly likely that you will), it could mean more meaningful project work, a great pathway to sponsorship and mentorship, or an incredible exit opportunity when you’re ready.
3. If you don’t know something, ASK!
You were hired by your consulting firm because they believed that you could do the job. Don’t waste your time trying to continue to prove yourself to them. If you’re not sure about something you’re doing, whether it’s an HR question or an Excel issue, it’s always better to ask sooner rather than later. There’s no point in going down the wrong road for weeks on end; not only is it a waste of your time, it’s likely also a waste of your team or the firm’s time. Consulting companies have myriad resources to help you answer just about any question you may have. You don’t have to know the answers. You just have to know how to get to them.
4. Remember that everyone wants you to succeed
Trite as it may sound, it’s important to remember that everyone at your firm wants you to succeed. They didn’t invest the time and resources required to recruit you only to watch to crash and burn. So take advantage of any and every offer for help, resources, or advice – they can make your life a whole lot easier.
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