The Consulting Myth

The first piece of advice I was given when I started my Master’s in Management at London Business School was to beware of the mirage of consulting. On the first day of orientation, we were told that we should start applying yesterday, especially if we wanted to get into consulting – but not to put all our eggs in one basket because it was so competitive – and so we all polished our resumes and contrived our cover letters and sent them out left and right to anyone with an inbox.

As the rejections began to come through and most of us partook in a collective sigh of “oh well!”, applying to consulting began to seem like more of a rite of passage than a genuine attempt at forging a professional path. It was at this time, about two months into the program, that I began to wonder: Is consulting really the holy grail of careers?

Consultants will tell you that yes, it’s the best type of role you could hope to land; the learning curve is incredibly steep, it’s a free pass into any industry you want after a few years, and if that’s not enough for you, the benefits will make you come around. But what few of them admit is how demanding the job really is. The hours are ridiculous, the work is tedious, and you will probably be living out of your suitcase for weeks at a time. A classmate who accepted an offer from McKinsey & Company described his concerns about starting by saying “I will have all this money, and no time to spend it”.

Consulting is almost the business equivalent of being a doctor: your job is to diagnose and fix problems within companies and sometimes even industries, and you will always be on call. Does that mean you shouldn’t apply? Absolutely not, but what it does mean is that you should make sure you want the job. Not the benefits, not the travel, not the prestige. The research, endless calls, early meetings, and long hours painstakingly putting together beautiful slides instead of meeting your friends for drinks or going on a weekend getaway.

It’s not a matter of having what it takes for the job. It’s a matter of whether or not you will be happy doing it. In other words, would you do it for free? A good method to test how well you would fit into consulting is to prepare for interviews. Apply to whatever roles you want, do your online assessments, and while you wait to hear back about whether you have an interview, start doing cases as often as you can, with as many people as you can, for as long as you can. If you continue to find some fun in the challenge of solving cases and crunching data, then congratulations, you have found your calling! If you are like me, and you get bored a few days into it, maybe it’s not the right choice right now.

Consulting prep isn’t actually “boring”, but it does require a certain ability to memorize detailed frameworks and apply them to case after case, which can become tiring because of the effort of trying to impose a logical structure onto your thinking process. There is nothing wrong with these frameworks; in fact they are a highly sophisticated method of tackling problems, but I personally found them frustrating because they didn’t always fit with a certain case, they limited how creative you could get in trying to find a solution, and they seemed too perfect to be applicable to the real world as more than an initial structure, which made it difficult to see the point of being interviewed on the basis of how well I could transpose frameworks onto a case. Nonetheless, this is not a general truth, and consulting applications are not only about frameworks, they are also about your personal fit with a certain firm, how well you pitch your solution, etc., and so there is plenty to like in both the interview process and the roles themselves, as long as you really want them.

After I realized that it was not the right time for consulting, I started looking at what else was out there, and believe me, there’s a lot. I was lucky enough to find something perfect for me in Tech, and can’t wait to start, but it’s only because I questioned whether or not I really wanted to be a consultant that I figured out what my next step would be. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t want the same thing as everyone else. In fact, it’s a good way to start looking elsewhere and find a field where you can make a real impact and be happy doing it.

Sarah Yakzan is a Master’s in Management candidate at London Business School. Before moving to London, she got a BA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut, and worked for a year as Marketing and PR manager, External Relations Coordinator, and Blogger. She will start her next role at Facebook in August.

Image: Flickr

Conversation with North Highland

North HighlandI was grateful for the recent opportunity to communicate with Jennifer Marsh, Global Head of Public Relations Strategy, and Cheryl Coulthurst, Global Head of Talent Acquisition, at North Highland.

Founded in 1992, North Highland is an employee-owned global management consulting firm that has been named as a Best Firm to Work For every year since 2007 by Consulting Magazine.

Please read the edited transcript of my communication with Jennifer and Cheryl below. This will be of particular interest for students and recent graduates who are looking to pursue a career in the management consulting industry.

Tom: North Highland offers a range of solutions including Data and Analytics, Managed Services, Operating Efficiency Ratio, People and Change, Professionalising IT, Social Insights Lab and Strategy and Advisory.

Where does North Highland do the bulk of its work?

North Highland: Our engagements focus on multiple functions and industries and we continue to see a fairly broad variety in all of these areas from our clients. While we do the majority of our work in core consulting, we’ve also added divisions, offerings and solutions where we see a client need and opportunity. Examples of this include our strategy and advisory group, launched in 2014, and we’ve seen tremendous interest in that offering. Our Managed Services offering was launched in the U.S. last year as well and we’ve seen substantial growth in that area.

Tom: Do graduates gain exposure to more than one service area?

North Highland: It often depends on client need, but typically, unless there is a strong interest in specialisation early on, we aim to provide a well-rounded experience and provide a broad view of management consulting to recent graduates.

Tom: Is there a rotation program within or between practice areas?

North Highland: Again, it depends, but if there is interest to rotate between or within practice areas, we certainly work to develop a career path for an individual that aligns with their professional goals.

Tom: North Highland has a broad range of industry expertise including in Energy and Utilities, Financial Services, Healthcare, Life Sciences, Media, Entertainment and Telecommunications, Public Sector, Retail and CPG, and Transportation, Travel and Leisure.

Are graduates expected to pick an industry specialisation?

How quickly are graduates expected to specialise?

North Highland: In terms of industry specialisation, it often depends on the interest of the individual. We do have Global Expertise Networks set-up for many of our industry and functional areas and encourage recent graduate hires to be involved in several to get a feel for what each one does. It doesn’t mean that an individual has to work only on business in that industry, but, for example, if you have an interest in retail, you can gain some exposure to what we do for clients in that space. Some of our people know what they want to specialise in early on, such as Data and Analytics; for others, they may prefer to be more of a generalist. Our successful business model is dependent on having both types of consultants to serve our clients.

Tom: North Highland has around 60 offices worldwide including an office in London and headquarters in Atlanta.

Is it possible for consultants to transfer between offices?

North Highland: Absolutely! We have several team members who started in our London office and are now working in one of our US offices (Seattle and LA come to mind) and vice versa. We have both short and long-term assignments available between the US and the UK, depending on client needs, firm leadership roles, career goals, etc.

Tom: What kind of training and mentoring can graduates expect to receive at North Highland?

North Highland: North Highland has a strong learning and development capability and everyone is required to meet certain levels of training each year, both inside the firm and outside. During year one, our consultants participate in orientation and various other courses, facilitated by firm leaders, all of which provide detail on what we do and how we do it. Additionally, we offer courses in consulting essentials, business analysis, negotiation, and more. Each employee-owner is also partnered with a career coach to help navigate their journey at North Highland. We also encourage informal mentorships.

Tom: How much partner and client contact can junior consultants expect to have?

North Highland: Unlike some larger firms, our consultants are often on-site at client locations and interact daily with the client. Of course, it depends on the engagement, but our consultants typically have client-facing roles early on in their career at North Highland working along side consultants at all grades.

Tom: What are the typical working hours for a consultant at North Highland?

North Highland: Work/life balance is different for every individual and our aim is for our consultants to have access to the tools and resources they need so they can achieve the right balance for them. This could include office and team outings or get-togethers, ability to work-from-home, laptops, technology, etc. We are flexible to ensure our people get the right balance.

Tom: What is the firm’s travel model?

North Highland: The vast majority of consultants work on site with the client in their own cities (and this is very much the case for our London office), and we have a specific team who travel more frequently and want to travel.

Through this approach, we’re able to form lasting and meaningful relationships with our clients because the same people are on site each day, but we can also tap into our global network of experts.

Tom: What would you say distinguishes North Highland from other management consulting firms?

North Highland: North Highland is known for helping our clients solve the complex – we don’t come in already knowing the answer, but work with our clients to define the right approach. We pull from our past experiences in terms of best practices, but we don’t apply a cookie-cutter solution. We are highly collaborative with our clients and continually noted for delivering more value than our competitors. Plus, we have fun whilst doing it!

Tom: Does North Highland employ an “up or out” policy?

How are consultants reviewed?

North Highland: We have several different career paths available to fit the needs, desires and skills of our consultants. We recently reviewed our career progression guidelines and expectations and updated to reflect our current environment and our growth plan in the market. One of the main goals of this review, and the subsequent changes, was to ensure that each consultant has clear expectations of their role, achievable and meaningful goals, and a path to navigate.

Tom: Jennifer and Cheryl, thanks for answering my questions and providing valuable insights about North Highland. I am sure this will prove useful for aspiring consultants who are trying to understand the management consulting industry and make decisions about their future career path.