An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become a management consultant.
The interviewee wishes to remain anonymous. The name 'Peter' is used as an alias.
I sit down with Peter in a quiet cafe just off one of Montreal’s busiest streets. It’s a strange feeling to see him here; the last time we’d met we’d been in a completely different city, in a coffee shop on the other side of the continent. But my companion doesn’t seem to think anything of it. As a Junior Management Consultant, travel is just another part of his regular routine. There have been weeks, he admits, that he has spent every night in a hotel room. He shrugs as he explains this, as if there’s nothing special to it.
But in a way, that transience—that constant change—is what makes consulting interesting, at least for Peter. “There are always new clients, new situations, and new contexts,” he explains. “So it’s never really boring.”
Tell me a little bit about yourself. How old are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
I’m 25. I’m from London. I’m a consultant. I work for a management consultancy that does strategy, operations, organizational stuff. So it’s quite a wide range of business functions in quite a wide range of industries. Across a bunch of different geographies as well.
How long have you been a consultant?
One year and eight months.
What drew you to this career?
It’s a very flexible career path, and usually people use it to figure out which industry they want to work in or which function in an organization they want to be part of. There are three main reasons why people choose this direction. Some people don’t know what to do, some people want to do this because it’s noncommittal and it gives them a lot of flexibility, and some people are in it for the lifestyle. I think I fall into the first category. I didn’t know what I was going to do after I graduated. It was an option, so I took it.
How did you end up breaking into the industry?
I applied for my current position, and I was called in for a series of interviews and a written test. It was a complicated process, but it started with a phone call.
What’s special about consulting is that there are a lot of resources put into recruiting people, because some of these organizations experience as much as 20% turnover in terms of their employees. A lot of people quit every year, a lot of people just want to do other stuff. So the recruitment pool is quite large, and there are a lot of resources, a lot of people whose full-time job is to recruit for potential hires.
And what are they looking for in a potential hire? What are they testing for?
It’s tough to say, and they never really give you the criteria. But I think, from my experience, that it’s the ability to have a clear thought process; some ability to structure your thinking and to communicate it in a clear way; speed; a decent level of numerical ability; patience; and just willingness to learn—actually, that’s probably the most important thing. Some people would say that not having a lot of experience in any one area is also a prerequisite.
Wait—being inexperienced is a good thing?
For the entry level roles. Usually, if you’re a consultancy, there are two things your supervisors are looking for: experience in the content, and grunt work—in other words, the people who do the thinking, the analysis, the communication, and the client interaction. Experience is a separate concern entirely. We always have one or two people in the field who really know their subject, so that they can be a resource to the people on the ground. That way, instead of having teams on the ground that are very experienced in one particular thing, knowledge is seen as a central resource. You have companywide knowledge that you can access—sometimes it’s codified online, or it’s resources in terms of people or external advisors—but they don’t really need everybody to be experienced and knowledgeable. What they really want are people who are willing to quickly absorb bits of knowledge and apply it in the right context. I know this sounds really vague, but they want people who aren’t too set in their ways.
What they really need are people who are willing to quickly absorb bits of knowledge and apply it in the right context—people who aren’t too set in their ways.
What kind of education or training do you need to become a consultant?
A bachelor’s degree is helpful.
A bachelor’s in what?
In anything. I mean, I studied history and economics. I know people who studied psychology. A lot of engineers end up in this line of work. Some business students, but they’re not as widespread as you might think. On the next level, the MBA hiring level, you get a lot of MBAs—actually, predominantly MBAs. But the undergraduate hiring pool is mostly very ... eclectic.
What’s the strangest background story you’ve heard of in this industry?
You get a lot of people who already have something that distinguishes them. One of the people I worked with worked as a personal trainer for a while. I’ve also met a couple musicians, people who went to school for music and did their bachelor’s in piano or something like that.
Some people leave this industry to do even weirder stuff. I’ve heard of a person who left to do modelling. A lot of startups too, obviously, and lot of people go into financial services. That’s a big exit door, because it’s so lucrative.
There’s a lot of flexibility in the lower levels. And that is really why it’s the thinking that’s the signature factor in determining who gets hired and who doesn’t: that somebody is able to think about something they’re not familiar with and come up with some sort of solution or recommendation. It’s actually a very simple thing to do; it’s not rocket science. It’s about how you approach a problem and whether you can change your way of thinking to approach it in a more structured way. That’s actually the simplest way to put it.
It’s actually a very simple thing to do; it’s not rocket science. It’s about how you approach a problem and whether you can change your way of thinking to approach it in a more structured way.
How long do people typically stay in this career?
Two or three years.
Wow, that’s not a long time. Why do you think people tend to leave so quickly?
The lifestyle’s rough.
How not so? There’s a lot of travel. In a typical week, you would work all your waking hours from Monday to Friday, so you basically need to give away your social life and a lot of your alone time. That’s why the lifestyle is rough.
In a typical week, you would work all your waking hours from Monday to Friday, so you basically need to give away your social life and a lot of your alone time. That’s why the lifestyle is rough.
Why do you enjoy doing this work? What’s the best thing about this career?
There’s a lot of interaction with different people. Usually you switch your team every two or three months, so you’ll be working with a completely different set of people. There are always new clients, new situations, and new contexts, so it’s never really boring. And you’re always adding value and always working towards a goal, which is a nice feeling. There’s a sense that you’re solving a problem, so that’s satisfying. I guess for me that’s the highlight. I also like the incredible degree of mobility that this career gives me.
Mobility in terms of...?
I was thinking geographically, but there’s also career mobility. Potentially, if I knew what I wanted to do with all my experience in consulting, I could just talk to people in the company who do that work, try it for half a year or for a couple of months, find out if I really enjoy it, and then join the client or the competitor. That’s something that I forgot to mention that’s great about the job: you end up working with a lot of senior clients. A lot of them are executives or management staff, so you develop really good connections. If you want to exit the consulting world, you already have very good connections to the industry that you want to work in.
You end up working with a lot of senior clients ... so you develop really good connections. If you want to exit the consulting world, you already have very good connections to the industry that you want to work in.
And if you don’t want to leave consulting—if you want to stay—are there a lot of opportunities to move up in the career?
Definitely. There’s a huge investment in learning and personal development in this field. So with each engagement you have with the company, you get a lot of feedback, a lot of coaching from people who are your mentors or are assigned to development roles. They set up a plan with you regarding things you want to achieve or things you want to develop, and that’s reviewed every couple of weeks. It’s a very supportive environment. Despite the harsh lifestyle, there are always opportunities to voice your concerns: to check that you’re feeling okay, that you’re developing well, to see whether you’d like more independence in your role, or if you’d like to do something different. There’s a lot of that, and that’s really good.
They say no one really gets fired from the company—until you’re at the point where you want to enter the partnership, at least. Of course, if you’re terrible at your job, then you’re counselled to leave. But no one really forces you out unless you’re part of the partnership or there’s ethical concerns. So although people choose to leave often, there are also lots of opportunities for advancement up into the more senior roles.
They say no one really gets fired from the company—until you’re at the point where you want to enter the partnership, at least.
Do you know what the job market is like? Is it difficult to get hired as a consultant?
It depends which consultancy you’re applying to. There’s the MBB, the three companies that dominate the strategy market. The MBB is sort of a niche, so those companies tend to be a little more strict about the hiring criteria than others. But for technology consulting, for example, it’s significantly easier. There’s what’s called the “Big Four”—four companies that offer professional services in that area. Typically, it’s easier to get into the Big Four than MBB. But, in general, consulting is a field that’s not difficult to get into. And you might actually get a better lifestyle if you join the Big Four.
Who are the Big Four?
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Ernst & Young (EY), Deloitte, and KPMG.
Can you walk me through a typical day?
You always work with a client during the week, except for Fridays. Most likely you’ll wake up in a hotel somewhere and grab breakfast real quick, typically, around 7 or 8am, depending on the preference of your team. By 8 or 9am, you make it to the client site. Usually there’s a check in with your team where everybody is assigned a work stream, some part of the solution to the issue that you are required to resolve. It usually involves each of us writing down on a board what we intend to do for the day, what our priorities are, the meetings we’re going to have and what we want to get out of them, and how that will contribute towards our work stream. Then we would discuss this with our engagement manager, who would either say, “Makes sense” or something like, “I’d like to join that meeting you’re having at five o’clock,” or “Let’s not prioritize that piece of work right now. I think you should be doing this instead.” That’s how a check in works.
Then, throughout the day, we would each just go through with our set agenda. Around the end of day at the client site, there’s a check out. We discuss what we’ve done that day at the client site and what still needs to be done before tomorrow. After that, you usually go back to the hotel or your office, maybe have dinner with your team, and then work on communicating the progress to either the partner or the content director, asking them questions about it, and putting it all into a PowerPoint format—which is a more effective way to communicate between people than unstructured conversation. There’s a lot of preparation in terms of making sure that any numerical analyses we did are free of errors, makes sense, and are well designed. During the evenings, you spend a lot of time reviewing these with your manager, correcting mistakes, making sure that your thinking and preparation is in line with your actual experience.
So that’s a typical day. Usually I go to sleep around 10 or 11pm, then get up the next morning and do it all over again.
And what’s special about Fridays?
On Fridays it’s usually a lot more of a relaxed atmosphere. The typical travel schedule is that you would fly in somewhere on Monday and you fly back on Thursday night. Then on Friday you’d be in your local office and you wouldn’t have any client interactions. We usually just sum up the work for the week, make sure everything’s tied up, that we have clear progress, and that there’s no “misalignment”—that is, that the experts agree that our results make sense. You’re usually done everything by 3 or 4pm and then go have drinks or dinner with your teammates. Some people even work from home on Fridays. There’s a lot of flexibility there.
What’s the social culture like in this career? Is it friendly?
Absolutely, yes. It’s very—and this is a terrible word to use, but—collegial. Everybody is quite friendly, outgoing, sociable. There’s a few exceptions, but, you know, that’s life. Usually it’s a great working environment, great camaraderie.
Tell me more about all the travelling. How many nights do you spend in your own bed?
It really varies, but four nights a week is the standard for North America. I’ve been in some regions where I slept in a hotel for five nights a week, which is pretty unusual. It does happen sometimes that you have to work the weekend, so then you’d stay there for the whole week. But the industry standard, what people aspire for, is to have three nights away and four nights a week at your home base.
And there are incentives to meet that standard. There’s this upwards feedback mechanism at my company, so a person’s promotion can actually be delayed if there are lifestyle concerns from any team members. Basically, if you’re a partner, and your teams are not happy with their lifestyle, you will be reviewed on it and your career will be negatively affected.
How many hours do you work in a typical week?
Again, there’s a range. A working day that’s not too bad is about 10 or 11 hours long, so that would be something around 50 to 60 hours every week. But that number really can be stretched, depending on the situation. I’ve been in situations where I worked 80 hours a week, not even factoring in some weekend work.
What would you say is the worst thing about your job?
Lifestyle. That’s a very easy question.
How do you maintain some kind of work life balance?
The key is being proactive about keeping in touch with your friends. The issue is that a lot of people want to sleep. So you can either choose to rest and restore your energy on weekends by sleeping in and watching TV shows, or you can try and be productive. You’ll get less sleep, but you’ll feel better about your life. There’s always a trade-off somewhere.
You can either choose to rest and restore your energy on weekends by sleeping in and watching TV shows, or you can try and be productive. You’ll get less sleep, but you’ll feel better about your life. There’s always a trade-off somewhere.
There are some people I know who I think are absolutely crazy; they actually do extra stuff on the weekend. They work on nonprofits, or recruitment, or other things that they care about. Which just goes to show that people use the weekends to do whatever gives them energy—and that really varies from person to person. For me, I go hang out with friends. I try to sleep, but it doesn’t happen often. I like doing cultural things, like going to see some music, theatre, movies—doing something that’s stimulating, something that’s different. Switching the things that I see and interact with is really key to feeling okay about the week.
What makes you good at what you do?
Just being flexible, patient, and willing to learn. And I guess knowing that I’m at a stage in my life where this is a net positive thing to do—that it’s a good source of income and a good experience to have. It’s a lot of travel, but I like travel.
Do you get to explore the cities you visit at all?
Yeah. A lot of the time if the team is done early for the day, we’ll go for dinner together somewhere nice. There are definitely opportunities to do that when you’re working in a different region. You stay the weekends, you explore. It’s not all bad. There are definitely some positives.
What kind of person really tends to struggle in this line of work?
People who have very close relationships that can’t really withstand distance—who have a family or a spouse, for example. Or if you’re the kind of person who needs a lot of space in your day to do nothing, or you struggle with people being honest with you about how you did and where you can improve.
But I tend to think that this career is something that everybody can do. I don’t think it’s special or exclusive in any way; it’s just about having the patience to go through a lot of work or what may sometimes feel like inescapable hours.
I tend to think that this career is something that everybody can do. I don’t think it’s special or exclusive in any way; it’s just about having the patience to go through a lot of work or what may sometimes feel like inescapable hours.
Would you say you have to be able to take a lot of criticism in this career?
It’s not criticism, it’s just suggestions for improvement. It’s constructive. But there is a lot of advice that’s given unsolicited, and you have to be okay with that. You can’t be arrogant. You can’t be full of yourself, because otherwise, you’ll hate it very quickly.
What kind of person would you recommend a job in consulting too?
Like I said in the beginning, people do it for three reasons. I would recommend it to people who don’t know what to do, but want to do something; to people who want to explore a certain range of industries and functions; or people who want to have a comfortable income. Although, actually, I wouldn’t recommend that last one, because it’s a terrible reason to do anything. Of course, people still do it, but those people usually end up hating it. Because it’s not about that; ultimately, it’s about exploring working with people and working with different industries. If you just do it for the money, you’ll hate yourself. But I guess that applies to anything.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to break into the career?
I would say that about 80% of the people who are considering going into consulting already know what consulting is and have their heart set on doing it. My advice to them, if they don’t get hired, would be: “Don’t worry. It’s just a job. It doesn’t say anything about you as a person.”
To the 20% that don’t really know what consulting is, I would say, “Go for it.” It’s a really unique opportunity.
What do you wish that you would have known before getting into this career?
I wish I’d known that there are a lot of resources available through the company, not only for support but also for random things. For example, if you like volunteering, there are people in the company who do it. Or if you care about environmental protection, there are people who are passionate about it and are trying to create change in the industries that they touch through that. There are all of these fringe groups; there are a lot of people out there who are really incorporating their interests into the career, which is fascinating. That’s something I wish I’d known about my company, coming in.
In terms of consulting in general, though, I wish I’d known that a lot of our value doesn’t come from our analysis but from communicating ideas between different layers in the client’s organization. Most of the time, the best ideas or solutions come from the people on the ground, the people at the lower levels who no one listens to. Consulting adds a lot of value by taking those ideas, refining them and adding evidence to support them, then presenting them to the executives. That’s a huge source of value. It also kind of teaches you to listen to people and engage them—even about things that you may not think are important.
Most of the time, the best ideas or solutions come from the people on the ground, the people at the lower levels who no one listens to. Consulting adds a lot of value by taking those ideas, refining them and adding evidence to support them, then presenting them to the executives.
What’s the biggest misconception that people have about your job?
That it’s glamorous. Also, that this career is for a certain type of person. There’s this stereotype that consultants are always in a suit and tie, always on their smartphones, and that they’re efficient, uncompromising, and sociopathic. That’s just not true at all. Recently some of my friends’ friends asked me what I do. I told them I was a consultant, and they started talking to me about this show: House of Lies. Obviously, I had to go have a look. And of course it’s just horrible. Horrible! The characters are vampires, basically, who go to companies and essentially bullshit their way into a lot of money. It’s a little appalling that that’s the popular conception of what a consultant is and does. So now I try not to always answer, “Oh, I’m a consultant.”