As I mentioned in my last blog, I promised to write a few pieces specifically pertaining to the management consulting industry.  A reader asked me what my thoughts were on management consulting in general.  And whilst I have my own experiences, I thought to also survey some of my candidates and clients who work in the industry. I challenged them to give me frank feedback – the good, the bad and the ugly of the management consulting industry and their experiences thereof.

Management Consulting is a very loosely defined term; it could mean many different things.  For the purpose of this article I am going to focus on ‘strategic consulting firms’. Within SA there are three Tier 1 internationals and these are the most well known in this space.  There is also a growing number of ‘boutique’ strategic consulting firms in SA as well as the strategic consulting practices within the Big 4 Audit firms.

Individuals, no matter their ultimate career destination, definitely benefit from the training and industry exposure gained within management consulting (MC). However, anyone who has worked within the industry will confirm that this benefit does, at times, come at a cost though.

The Good

MC firms only hire individuals from the top undergraduate programmes and hire experienced candidates from the top business/law/graduate programmes and the expectation is that these individuals will operate with extreme professionalism, delivering over and above client expectations.

Almost without exception people within the industry are smart, energetic, interesting, friendly and supportive. Joining this community enables you to develop a valuable network. What’s more, you’ll have access to intellectual discussions with colleagues on a range of topical issues. Problem solving opportunities abound with the chance to develop innovative solutions across a range of industries and environments.

MC gives you a tremendous learning curve and individuals are often given exceptional training – both formal and informal.

If you enjoy travelling then this industry is for you! MC requires you to travel to businesses across the country, the continent and even the world. This ‘good’ carries a caveat of course, in that for many, the excitement of travel wears off after a while, especially for those with families.

The opportunity to transform businesses and industries is high on the agenda with diverse projects including those that are literally changing the world – for example, developing tangible strategies to rid Africa of Polio or Malaria, or helping governments to implement strategies to improve the lives of ordinary people.

The Bad

Have you ever wondered why management consulting firms exist? Well, in many instances MC are called in by organisations to help to make (justify) controversial and/or difficult decisions such as cost-cutting retrenchments or strategic changes. This can be difficult, particularly for individuals who take an interest in the individuals they encounter during a project.

The excitement of working on different projects has a downside – for many consultants there is a frustration because they are most often gone before the tangible results of their solutions or suggested programmes can be seen/felt.

The hours are long! The combination of complex, time-sensitive projects and frequent travel means that many MC individuals find themselves slipping into the rat-race, undermining the long-term sustainability of the job due to a very real risk of burnout or realization that one is “always working” at the expense of “life”.

The Ugly

MC firms have a reverse pyramid organisational structure.  Analysts and associates are at the bottom of the pyramid and they work long hours. This equates to an “up or out” career progression reality, where only a few become managers, principals or partners. There is an ongoing and constant pressure to perform; the up or out policies can be viewed as Good because individuals are pushed to develop and better themselves.

Some young consultants develop an ‘elitist mentality’ after working within Tier 1 firms and actually end up getting stuck in them for several years. Consulting firms have a tendency to breed ‘insecure overachievers’ … individuals who constantly measure and push themselves and check whether they are living up to expectations. These traits are not necessarily seen positively within environments outside MC.

Emotions can run wild in pressurised environments and MC is highly pressured! Sadly I have seen many individuals struggle with the demands of the job and maintaining a life outside of work. Too many relationships come undone due to the hours worked in the industry and spouses not understanding the reasons for the unpredictable and long working hours. Often this is due to consultants not communicating openly with their spouses about the requirements of the job and the contradiction of vastly different rates of personal and professional growth.

The perception, and some might argue reality, is that in order to get to the top you have to let something suffer…. health, family, friends etc. The line between work and family can become skewed if one is unable to prioritise what is important to one, short and long-term. Ironically, if you can’t push back it is seen as a weakness however if you don’t meet your deadline it could be interpreted as a lack of commitment or inability to prioritise.

And the verdict is….

You decide.

Management Consulting is as tough as investment banking.  It is no more, or less, prestigious than other corporate jobs. And like any industry, there is the good, the bad and the ugly – all dependent on your personal circumstances and preferences.

I’m interested to hear from you – what are your thoughts on the points that I collected from my network, those currently working within the MC industry and who should, by rights, have first-hand experience of what it really means to work in the industry?