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Careers and Jobs in Consulting

Management consultants help clients find real and lasting solutions to problems by providing new information and advice. Through in-depth thought, brainstorming, and analysis, they help organizations become better by challenging them and persuading them to adopt new ideas.

Great consultants are idea-driven and motivated to do everything possible to make the client organization better. They often enter complex, ambiguous, and sometimes hostile situations, but they competently and thoroughly assess what needs to be done.

This web site will make you a great consultant. It provides information that is vital to entering the field and becoming successful. It gives background information about the industry, comparisons to careers in other industries, tips on interviewing, information about common practice areas, a description of some consulting firms, and some of the trends in and tips on the industry.

In consulting there are two basic career paths: generalist or specialist. Specialists focus on one particular area or industry, gaining lots of in-depth information and functional knowledge. They then apply that knowledge to helping a real company. The area of fastest growth by far in specialized consulting today is that of informational technology. As a consultant in this area you would help make companies more productive and efficient. You would provide support to a limitless number of companies in areas like client/server, automating sales forces, CICS/VBASIC/UNAMEit. One major IT consulting firm is Accenture, which employs more people than the top five generalist firms combined.

As a generalist you would work for a firm which provides more general advice to a wide variety of companies that are designed to make the client company run more efficiently and productively. Some of the biggest and best-known generalist firms include BCG, Booz Allen & Hamilton, McKinsey, Monitor, and there are countless other small and mid-sized firms. Also, some major accounting firms have begun branching out to more general strategy consulting, recently even recruiting some of the most sought-after graduates from such prestigious institutions as NYU and Wharton.

The management consultant industry employs over 300,000 people and is a $30 billion industry. Just over 50% of these employees come from the United States, and about 25% come from Europe. However, the areas of fastest growth are in developing countries, especially those of Latin America. And though the industry has ups and downs like any other, this is an industry that continue to expand and prosper.

Even if you decide that this is the industry for you, with such a large and diverse industry it’s important to find a niche where you might fit. Firstly, let’s look at the skills in demand for consultants.

Skills Required to Be A Great Consultant

Interviews at consulting firms are intense and often intimidating experiences. They ask a wide variety of questions, including personal background, case studies to be instantly analyzed, and the often daunting questions about past behavior. Of course not every firm will ask the same thing, but every firm looks for abilities that match their needs.

  • Skill #1:An Idea-Driven Personality. Consulting firms are in the business of generating, not a tangible product, but ideas, advice, new ways of looking at problems, and insights. Their capital is not money but intellect. Thus the most important asset to a consulting firm is the ability to use research and experience to generate new solutions and find innovative ways of doing things. Consulting firms are extremely competitive in recruiting the best and the brightest graduates from business schools. In deciding whether or not consulting is for you, it’s important to assess your own powers of quick-thinking, diagnosing problems, making a plan of action, and problem-solving. You need to excel at and enjoy school, be creative, and have a passion for ideas.

    Evaluate yourself: Do you like the academics of business school (case-studies, writing assignments, etc)? Or do you like the other aspects better (client interaction, entrepreneurship, etc)? If you dislike the former and do better in the latter, consulting probably isn’t the right field for you, even if you get a job offer. The job might be offered on the basis of deciding that you will generate more revenue than you consume. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be happy there or find opportunities for leadership or advancement.

    If you do decide to pursue consulting, you should keep in mind that firms aren’t necessarily as concerned with pedigree as it is commonly assumed. Many of the greatest consultants in the best firms have degrees from schools that aren’t top-ranked. Not having a degree from a top school doesn’t mean that you are destined to fail, and having one doesn’t mean that you are sure to succeed. Also, there is some flexibility in the degree needed. An MBA degree may not be the only road to success. Many firms, especially McKinsey, one of the best-respected consulting firms, are hiring people with more diverse backgrounds. JDs, PhDs, degrees in public administration, and myriad others, can all lead to a career in consulting. Many undergraduates, even, are entering consulting firms, often in programs that involve a return to business school.

  • Skill #2: A Service-Oriented Personality. Even though the financial reimbursement of consultants can be a powerful incentive, it’s important to remember that the money is secondary to the fact that consulting is a service industry. As a consultant you will spend your time helping clients. Good consultants are motivated by their commitment to meeting their clients’ needs, and firms look for this when hiring. How well you meet those needs determines how well you succeed and how much of an asset you are to your employer. One graduate from the McKinsey firm says, “It is only through personal excellence that this profession becomes truly enjoyable. Those who demonstrate superior skills gain personal control early in their careers. These individuals are in such demand that, at any point in time, they have numerous options to choose from. They typically become engagement managers sooner, and tend to set the pace for their teams. Through their intellectual leadership they gain respect from the clients, the partners and their teammates. In a business world where institutional loyalty is rare, the individual needs to excel and generate his or her own marketability. The result is that the institution needs the individual, not the reverse. Over the years, I have observed that unfriendly clients become attentive when listening to people of excellence because their contribution is unique. Those who achieve excellence feel great about themselves and are more likely to find the consulting experience a path to fulfillment. The financial rewards become window dressing and the high of the experience becomes the drug of first choice.”
  • Skill #3: Being a “People Person”. Many consultants have said that the one of the most fulfilling aspects of their job was the relationship they built with clients. Through hard, long-term work and working together to reach ambitious objectives many consultants build valuable life-long relationships that make the long hours, stress, travel, and setbacks worthwhile. The best consultants enjoy being around people: chatting with them, understanding them, and working in groups. They make strong connections with both their colleagues and clients. Thus, firms looks for the kind of amiable and competent people that they would enjoy working with.

    Consulting is a very demanding job. It requires a certain kind of person: one who is intelligent, friendly, and enjoys serving others. And then, of course, each individual firm is looking for specific traits. Some other helpful characteristics include specific business information, a willingness to work extremely long hours, IT skills, presentation skills, logical thinking, clear and concise writing, language skills, a willingness to travel, and personal confidence.

Getting the Job

If after evaluating yourself you decide to pursue a career in consulting, the next step is to get the job. Though at some schools all the large firms will come to recruit, most consultants get the job by legwork, persistence, and pure hard work. The Head of MBA Career Services at the University of Virginia, Anne Harris, says that there are three keys to success in searching for a job: a carefully prepared resume, who you know in the profession, and “face time.”

  • Resume/CV: There are four elements that make up a good resume: format, skills, schooling, and experience. Don’t worry too much about font size in writing your resume, but make sure it is clear and organized. Also, make sure that you emphasize skills that are relevant to the job you are applying for. Though, as previously discussed, schooling can’t make or break you, it is important to show solid schooling. Your experience is very important in showing that you have appropriate and beneficial expertise (law, finance, etc.). Don’t worry if you have a lot of career changes, as that isn’t necessarily a drawback, but make sure that you can demonstrate a clear ambition and show how the changes have helped you reach your goals. If you show good functional knowledge, eagerness, and ability, you’ll be set.
  • Networking: It has often been said that “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Though knowing people can’t compensate for a lack of competence, networking is a central part of consulting, and, accordingly, getting a consulting job. “Name-dropping” a member of the firm during your interview can go a long way toward helping you get the job. Networking seems daunting, but there are many techniques that make it easy, especially since most people are eager to help if given the opportunity. Many firms and schools provide events whose primary purpose is networking, such as parties, benefits, or other “cultivation events.” However, it may be up to you to take the initiative. Take advantage of alumni at your school, research the firm at which you’re applying, and don’t be afraid to use the contacts you have. Telephones provide a great start.
  • The Telephone: The best tool you have to help you network is the phone call. This can be intimidating, but you can surmount that by practicing with a friend and getting advice from a career counselor. Firstly, it is important to look at your presentation and technique. Make sure that at all times you are extremely respectful, polite, friendly, and personable. And when you call a firm in which you are interested and speak to consultant there, be confident and concise in letting them know that you are a student who is interested in their firm. Don’t be afraid to ask specific questions. Offer to send them a resume, ask about what they look for in a prospective employee, or best of all, ask for a personal meeting. Offer to come to them and set a specific time, but don’t be too demanding: “I’ll be in Chicago in a few days. Is there a time when I could ask you a few more questions?” Also, make sure to show interest in the firm. Remember that the object is not simply a job offer; the object is to find a fulfilling job. Ask about the strengths and weaknesses of the firm, their philosophies, etc.

    There are also a few common pitfalls that you have to beware of. Firstly, often applicants give up when told that their contact isn’t available. Don’t give up so easily. Leave a voice mail with your reasons for calling and contact information, or try sending an email. Be persistent. A sneaky but useful method is to call during evening hours when diligent consultants are working hard and are more willing to talk. Secondly, many times you’ll hear that they aren’t currently hiring. Don’t be too aggressive but don’t surrender either. Ask if they have any suggestions of other people to talk to.

    Face Time: As helpful as telephones and electronic communication are, nothing can beat an actual face-to-face meeting. Become friendly with associates at the firms you’re looking at. Nothing will be more helpful. Even if it’s expensive, it’s often worth it to travel to firms that aren’t in your immediate vicinity. You’ll be more likely to be hired by a person who knows and likes you.

The Industry

  • Consulting is a major industry in international business. In 2000, it was a $70 billion industry that employed over 140,000 people. The biggest amounts of income were generated by the following services:
    • 35% technology planning
    • 20% strategic services
    • 15% enterprise consulting
  • Consulting is not only large, but rapidly growing. It’s grown over 50% from the end of the 1970s to the beginning of the 1990s. It is growing even faster now as corporations have to adjust to new trends of globalization and leaps in technology, which make the work of consultants all the more valuable. Also, the industry is expanding as the demand for consultants grows outside of the USA.
  • This international growth is especially important in developing countries. As more countries industrialize, they look for new and better ways to improve their economies. Thus, consultants are in extremely high demand. A smart prospective consultant would take this into account by learning about economic development and international trade and finance.
  • Most top firms are taking advantage of these growth areas and are rapidly expanding in those areas.
  • Consulting is a group project. Very few consultants make it on their own without a firm, as it is difficult to establish credibility and build up a clientele. Be prepared to join an existing firm.
  • The biggest and most prestigious firms, like McKinsey, Bain, etc, are extremely hard to get into. They hire mostly at top MBA schools like Harvard Business School, Stanford, Sloan at MIT, Wharton, etc, however, they hire an extremely large number of people at those schools.
  • Interviewing at such firms often involves a case study which you have to instantly analyze. Be prepared to show your problem-solving skills and that you are mentally alert.
  • Specialized knowledge is in increasing demand. Specific expertise in subjects like electronic commerce, brand and value management, multimedia, logistics management, client-server development, ad infinitum, is very valuable to consulting firms.
  • One especially helpful skill is strategic business unit analysis. Firms will value you if you can evaluate which aspects of the business are profitable and which are not. For example, if a computer manufacturer is losing money making printers, can you find a way to make it profitable? Is it better to outsource it? Know how to find problem areas of the business and fix them. Conversely, know how to recognize profitable areas of business. Can you expand them?
  • Large firms aren’t the only places to find great consultants. Some of the best consultants prefer small firms where they can work more independently and better see the results of their labor. A consultant in a firm of any size can find challenging, interesting, important work, and any consultant has important responsibilities.
  • More and more firms are looking beyond the MBA. They are seeking out applicants with more diverse degrees, such as JDs, PhDs, and engineering degrees, and even provide their own business training.
  • If you are someone without a traditional business degree, especially an engineer, be sure to demonstrate the skills that consultants value in people with business degrees: incisive analytical thinking and flexibility. Show that you can apply your associated knowledge to solve business problems.
  • An important new trend is “relationship consulting,” which means that one consultant works with a company on a long-term basis, solving many problems, ensuring that new ideas are put into operation, and providing well-informed advice. These longer contracts, of course, lead to much higher fees.
  • Another way that consultants are getting closer to their clients is the new custom of involving members of the client management with the consulting team. This can help the client feel more involved and is often more productive.
  • Generalists are in high demand in many firms. They look for people with extremely diverse backgrounds, from linguistics to anthropology, with the common thread being those who are strategic thinkers. On the other hand, some see an increase in hiring business majors with definite skills in analyzing. You’ll have to find what your strengths are and where you fit.
  • Your success depends on how well you focus on the client. It’s a business based not on advertising but referrals. You have to show that you can do a good job and make a good impression so that you’ll be recommended on other projects.
  • One advantage of the industry is that it isn’t as affected by the whims of the economy. During a recession many companies are more likely to hire a consultant, making for good job security. Watch out for companies that have too much management, however, or that are overstaffed. Working for such a company is an easy road to failure as a consultant.
  • Research the amount of career training your firm likes or provides. Some firms like a self-made, thoroughly independent consultant, while others like to train and shape you into the kind of consultant the firm is known for.
  • Being comfortable with technology is a must in any aspect of today’s business world. Many firms are using new technologies to develop virtual organizations so that many people in many different organizations and corners of the world can work together.
  • Health care is one of the largest practice areas for consultants. As health care is reorganized and is constantly changing, there is high demand for consultants to help make alliances smooth, implement innovations, and improve quality.
  • Another growing practice area is sales force automation. Organizations are looking for ways to streamline their large sales forces as technology improves by exploiting email, PDAs, providing online support, and developing systems for contact management.
  • Value management is another area with increasing potential. As a company’s market value changes over time, the cash flow returned to shareholders can be maximized, creating powerful incentives. This is an important skill to many firms, who especially value people who have lots of experience and knowledge about every level of production.