When you first start consulting, it can seem like a sort of corporate utopia: interesting work, a new client every few months, access to leaders of industry, great colleagues, endless career development and training, generous dinner budgets, extensive travel, nice hotels, international travel.
But, the consulting world is the Partner’s oyster, not yours. It may take a few months after joining a firm for the new job halo to wear off, at which time you may realise there are a range of things everyone in the job discovers with time, but which aren’t openly spoken about.
Your consulting life is largely determined by business needs
Business needs always comes first. Your life will be shaped in ways large and small by the month-to-month success of your firm, and how they decide to allocate their resources. A time of high utilisation may mean your project is under-staffed, while a calm period may mean you are shipped off to other offices or countries that have more work. Consulting firms try to optimise for consultant’s preferences within business constraints, but in your first few years, you are at the bottom of the totem and your ‘control’ over the sort of work you do, and the amount of travel you have, are determined by what the business needs. Eventually, the greater business need may be to keep you happy in order for you not to quit — more on that below.
Your power grows with tenure
The best way to improve your lot is to demonstrate that you are a good consultant who can work independently. If you establish yourself as a high-performer – or if the firm is stretched for people – rules become guiderails, merely the starting point in a negotiation. There are always people for whom exceptions have been carved out. Tenured consultants are very valuable to the firm, and subtly implying you’re considering the resignation card can be highly effective.
An MBA is only somewhat respected beyond the hiring process
Graduating from a top-tier MBA school is a useful signal that you have a polished background and have successfully navigated a competitive admissions process. It isn’t a sign that you put in much classwork, or that you’ll be a good consultant. (Many interviewers report that many MBA students aren’t much more effective at cracking the case than average undergraduate applicant.) Consultants – many of whom hold MBAs themselves – know the lifestyle of the MBA is as much a drawcard as the learning, and that graduates are just as likely to emerge with a month-long hangover as any tangible consulting skills. When staffing a project, most managers prefer to take a 23-year-old with a year or two of experience over a new MBA grad. Touting your MBA credentials can be perceived as misplaced arrogance, naïvete, or both.
Mental health issues are common
Consulting is a fast-paced, high-pressure environment and often you may find yourself running on little sleep. This can manifest in anything from imposter syndrome, to stress and anxiety, exhaustion, and depression. It’s rare to find a culture of speaking openly about mental health pressures, and people are unlikely to admit if they are personally struggling or have taken stress leave. To their credit, consulting firms openly advertise workplace counselling and support services – and ensure use of such services doesn’t impact career prospects and promotion decisions. However: a well-kept secret is that many people use accrued sick leave for taking a day off here and there for ‘personal’ or ‘mental health’ reasons: a day at a library or around the house days to recuperate or recharge. (A single day doesn’t require a doctor’s certificate!)
Everything is a performance evaluation
Your career mentor / development advisor / professional development manager is not an objective mentor. You should confide in them with care, as whatever you tell them will inform your bonus and promotion likelihood. Instead, find another mentor not linked to your evaluation with whom you can openly discuss challenges.
Consulting is a confidence game.
A lack of content knowledge is no impediment to success as a consultant (or to writing a blog post!) provided you can speak intelligently about what you know, and are careful in not straying too far beyond the limits of your knowledge. Always be ready to offer a strong opinion on something, with justification. Don’t be afraid to back down if someone presents better evidence. Consultants often operate in an information vacuum: have the confidence that your answer is right, because it is – until proven otherwise.
Sam Smith worked in a top-tier management consulting firm for two years before taking time out for study. They write under a pseudonym to bring you honest reflections and insider information.