Consulting Survival Guide

Congratulations! You’ve passed your interviews and you’re now a consultant. However, while you may have momentarily rejoiced and thought “I’ve made it!”, you probably quickly came to the realization that this is just the beginning.

Being a consultant is a constant challenge and struggle. It will never be “easy,” but if it were, you would not grow and develop. That being said, we want to help you better navigate the consulting world by teaching you now what you can only otherwise learn through repetitive trial and error.

The below 25 tips are what every consultant learns – some faster than others – while on the job. Learning these now will help you get into the consulting rhythm much faster than you otherwise would have, and save you a lot of pain.

See this as your consulting handbook – your consulting survival guide.

The essentials

1. You need comrades – your people for the really good and the really garbage days. Find them and stick to them.

2. There’s almost no such thing as a rule. Whatever it is, you can find an exception.

3. This job is inherently stressful, and you are not going to be the first person to struggle with stress. Consulting firms have mechanisms in place to try to keep consultants from burning out. If you are struggling, reach out early.

4. There will always be pressure, but not every task will make or break the bank. If the success or failure of the project relies solely on the one slide you’re making, there are bigger issues going on.

5. Having a life you are happy with is more important than being the perfect consultant. Figure out not just what is critical at work, but also at home. Knowing what is most important and when will help you strike the right balance.

The practical stuff

6. Keep a one-page version of the case story up-to-date every couple of days.

7. Group emails get poor responses.

8. Be careful about adding Partners and Principals to Facebook.

9. Always bring solutions, not problems.

10. It can help to share your recent review form in your regular feedback sessions.

11. You learn so much more when you are fully transparent about what you don’t understand.

12. If work expands to fill the time available in which to do it, then limit the time available.

13. Remember number 4 and number 5? If you find you’re working until 1am every night, take a look at your balance. Unless you’re working on a “make or break” task, try to leave early enough that you can pause, get a decent night’s sleep, and come in fresh the next morning.

The unspoken truths

14. You will do your best work once you are okay with being fired.

15. Your Project Lead/Principal is not inside your head. Learn how to communicate and guide their attention to what they need to know. Work to their style and your life will be easier.

16. Reputation is extremely important – over-indexing to achieve good first impressions at the start of a project (and your tenure as a consultant) can create a lot of goodwill you can cash in later.

17. You have to stand up for yourself. And people will respect you for it (98% of the time).

18. People’s perception of your performance is just as important as your performance.

19. Over time you will develop a reputation amongst the upper cohort – they talk to each other about consultants (just like we talk about Principals and Partners amongst ourselves).

20. Communication is as important as content. Communication isn’t what you say, it’s what they hear.

21. Being good at the qualitative aspects of consulting (presentation, communication etc.) is significantly more important than being good at the analysis/excel/quantitative side of consulting.

22. Your career development advisor is not a purely objective mentor; what you tell them will impact their perception of you.

23. Success is 80% work, 20% timing. Opportunities can be random, but you also need to know how to place yourself.

24. Consulting is a confidence game. Always have a strong opinion, lightly held.

25. Once you hit 12-18 months tenure, you have more power to say “no” than you think you do.

Ian Glennon is a strategy consultant at BCG, but not sure how he got there. Having lived in the US, France, Australia, and Colombia, but also having U.S., U.K., and New Zealand citizenships, he’s also not quite sure where he’s from.

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For Beginners: A Roadmap into the Consulting Industry

Whether I was talking to graduates, MBAs or experienced professionals, as a consulting club president at business school, I was frequently asked the same question, “What is the most efficient and quickest way to transform into a consultant?”

Honestly, this could be one of the toughest questions one can ever answer.

First let me be clear, the word ‘Consultant’ has such a broad spectrum that includes hundreds of roles from outsourcing technician, personal coach, freelancer, technical consultant and business consultant. The type of consulting that most people asked me about is actually business consulting, or being more specific, management consulting.

Simply put, management consulting is a profession that requires practitioners to possess solid and wide business common sense, deep professional knowledge in 1-2 domains (such as Marketing, Retail, Operation), and most importantly, intellectual capability to solve complicated business problems for clients.

As the frequency of answering this question increased, I felt that there was an urgent need to be fulfilled, so I decided to start blogging here with a series of articles trying to answer this question in a most efficient and insightful way.

As is a consultant’s usual practice, let’s first clarify what the question is about. The question is asking for a way to become a ‘management consultant’ in the shortest time and with the least amount of irrelevant effort. However, it is very obvious to all that there won’t be ‘a correct answer’ that fits whomever asks that question. Several factors need to be considered before we can shed light on this issue. Starting with the part of the management consulting value chain you want to put yourself into, a second factor is the firm you are interested in. Next is the country where you would like to live. Last one is the position you will apply for. These factors shape the answer to your question by clarifying the four critical dimensions.

Now let me explain a little bit more in detail. The management consulting industry is far from being a big mono chunk. A whole value chain exists in this industry. To make it easier to understand, I drew the graph below (Graph-1).


The consulting industry as I said has a wide spectrum of businesses, while management consulting firms are focusing more on the higher levels of the value chain doing strategy related projects such as business transformation, operation enhancement, market entry strategy, or business growth strategy. While other so called consulting firms at the edge of management consulting are doing more implementation projects. And on the very right of the graph are those consulting companies who provide outsourcing technicians. So, the answer will be different if you choose to do strategy consulting rather than implementation consulting.

Now the second factor is, which firm? The graph above is just a drop in the ocean of the thousands of consulting firms in the market. That being said, the number of firms on the value chain has a pattern of increasing from the left side to the right side of the graph, meaning there are a very limited number of firms doing strategy consulting, some more doing business transformation, many more doing implementation and a huge number of firms providing outsource technician and professional services. Within management consulting, there are tier one firms like M.B.B (McKinsey, Bain, BCG), and tier two firms like Strategy&, AT Kearney, L.E.K, Oliver Wyman, Port Jackson Partners, and Arthur D. Little. More importantly, each firm has a very different culture, industry focus, as well as ways of recruiting talent.

The third factor is, which country? You may wonder, does that matters? Many firms are multinationals. Unfortunately, Yes, it matters. For instance, Bain is much bigger than McKinsey and BCG in Australia, it covers most critical industries such as mining, telco, retailing and financial services. While in China, McKinsey seems to have enjoyed the first mover advantage for years by tapping into SOEs (state owned enterprises) in insurance, manufacturing and government advisory. You should think about which country you are applying for and how the firms you are targeting differ in that market.

Finally, which position? Career ladders vary from firm to firm. But there are some similarities. In McKinsey, the entry level position is BA (business analyst) followed by Junior/Senior Associate, Engagement Manager, Associate Principal and Partners (some countries may have slightly different versions). So, think about your background and age. Which position you target is critical to your success since consulting firms usually have an ideal candidate for each position. For example, if you are around 27-30 years old with an MBA or master degree and 2-3 years working experience, your application will be placed under the Junior/Senior Associate position in McKinsey. That means, even if you are qualified to be a BA, firms will not usually consider you as a suitable candidate.

These four factors will be different for each individual. Make sure that you assess these four dimensions before you start applying to be a consultant. This will save you tons of time, and give you a SMART goal. Now, you may wonder how can you do that? Just stay chill, I will unfold all the details in later blogs. The intention of mine is to give you a road map to guide you through the mysterious continent of management consulting.

A trailer of the roadmap is listed below. Stay tuned!

  • Understanding firms’ selection criteria
  • Preparing for the application
  • All you need to know during the interview
  • After getting the offer (or not)
  • An interview with a McKinsey Associate about his journey into the industry

Mike believes that technology is the engine of the future, while business capability is the wheel!

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Creating More Value Than You Capture

As an aspiring consultant, it is easy to see what you stand to gain from this career choice: high salary, high status, strong networking opportunities, and attractive exit options.

But a more productive question might be, what do you plan to contribute?

With the arrival of the internet, we entered an age of hyper competition where firms (and individuals) are able to provide much more value than ever before. For you, this may mean writing articles, creating a Youtube channel, or speaking at a TEDx event. For multi-billion dollar companies like Amazon though, sending a few staff members to talk at a conference probably won’t cut it.

Amazon is “the everything store”, an online retailer which also spent more than $4.5 billion on original content in 2017.

Why would an online retailer spend so much on original content?

Amazon runs a paid-subscription service called Amazon Prime where customers pay for access to a range of benefits like same-day delivery. As other companies see the profitability of the Amazon Prime platform, and attempt to emulate it, the firm will only be able to retain subscribers by continuing to offer value for money. It could do this by lowering the subscription price (which would mean lower revenues), or by increasing the value offering, which it is doing by investing in original content.

Platforms have always been wildly profitable business models, where members pay for access to the platform rather than for a specific product or service.  Two thousand years ago, platforms were relatively easy to build. All you needed was one story book, and to read a few selected passages from it each Sunday. In 1440, with the invention of the printing press, the ease of producing content led to a proliferation of schools of thought, university building, and the advent of the scientific revolution.

What religions and universities have in common though is that they can usually only be set up with support and backing from the state or wealthy benefactors.

The internet changes this long established status quo, by allowing small groups with limited funding to build sustainable platforms: blogs, forums, social networks, and paid-subscription services. The big players like Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Facebook are building global multi-billion dollar platforms. However, you and your team can also be empowered by the internet, in a more focused way, by providing something better, different, more convenient, prominent, or affordable to people who care.

Are you creating more value than you capture?

As a Christmas present to all the aspiring consultants out there, we would like to share our free consulting application resources. We hope you find them useful:

  1. Template Résumé
  2. How to Create a Winning Résumé
  3. Template Cover Letter
  4. How to Create a Killer Cover Letter
  5. Guide to Management Consulting
  6. Consulting Firms in America
  7. Consulting Firms in Australia
  8. Consulting Firms in New Zealand
  9. Consulting Firms in the UK

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