Many MBA students consider management consulting as their next big step after graduation. They are deeply impressed and extremely excited by the high-profile, high-paying careers that most consultants build. They quickly make up their mind when recruiting firms arrive at their top b-schools and make an attractive sales pitch.
Certainly, consulting offers almost countless pluses as a career. But the negatives — at the moment let’s not even mention the poor image the profession has earned in recent years — make a strong a case for why one should carefully examine options. Wise people have been heard saying that it pays to go into consultancy with both eyes open.
If you don’t pay heed to their counsel, you may end up making sacrifices that you don’t want to make. Burnout is a clear possibility. An anecdote has it that when a consultant at a prestigious consulting company, XYZ, introduced herself to someone, she got this response: “Ah, yes, XYZ! Full of people who used to be interesting.”
Recruiting firms’ sales-pitch videos highlight how their consultants, even while they are in the hot seat delivering topnotch intel to top clients the world over, are able to maintain their work-life balance and enjoy life’s simple pleasures with their families.
You can imagine the scene: An executive completes a client call and then turns around and joins his wife and kids in goofy ball game on their home lawns, or a high-flier, back after a long business trip, knocks on her door late at night and surprises her boyfriend with an expensive birthday gift. Nice, eh?
But, when you think about it, this focus on the “high-quality” personal life that consultants are supposedly leading should itself be a warning signal to recruitment targets: if it is true, why make such a fuss about it? As someone said, right behind those client-friendly smiles are any number of depression, blackout, insomnia, counseling, and therapy cases.
The truth is that no consultant buzzes through a short 40-hour week and goes straight to a beach resort with family, only to reappear on Monday. Rather, they might end up doing 100 hours or more sometimes at some firms. The length of the work week depends on the office culture, project type, industry, and the firm’s management.
Their long hours mean they leave home when their family is still asleep and get back when the kids have already gone to bed. Their routine is stressful, and even when they have reached home, their mind is still occupied by work. Consultants spend so much time at office that often their coworkers are their only friends.
On the move, always
But consultants don’t do all their long hours only at their desks in their home city. Most spend a lot of their time away from home. Work takes consultants around the world to beautiful cities and treats them to an amazing variety of cultures.
Thanks to their well-paying clients, they almost always fly first class and stay at great hotels. Flight attendants and hotel receptionists address may them by their names on arrival. Team outings can take them to the most luxurious resorts. This is supposed to be adequate compensation for dinner with family or poker Wednesday with friends.
Of course, the perks depend on how big the client or the project is. Small projects may see consultants working out of motels in the middle of nowhere. Of course, travel also means delayed flights, long airport commutes, lost luggage (though consultants rarely carry any check-in luggage), and hyperactive children, their mom and dad, and other loud co-travelers on the plane.
Consultants may also find themselves in client destinations in the most severe summer in the Middle East, in the harshest winter in Northern Europe, and during the monsoon in Asia. Loneliness, a feeling of isolation, and tiredness overcome them as they wind up their “goodnight” call to their family back home. Come morning, images of a warm, simple breakfast at home come to mind with the first bite into a cold sandwich at an airport deli.
Although “the opportunity to experience various cultures” is a fine thing, jet lag, stress-induced sleeplessness, and “tummy trouble” are constant travel companions. Some consultants develop an addiction to the guilty pleasures enjoyed away from home. Still others are unable to get rid of it even after reaching home, paving their way for the destruction of their marriage and other personal relationships.
Not right up your street
Management consultancies are only rarely able to ensure that your projects match your expertise. You may have a marketing degree but may be called upon to plan the implementation of an engineering project for a client, for example. This is probably not what you signed up for when they told you that your projects will involve “a stimulating variety of professional challenges.”
The plus side may be the exposure to many areas. However, you need to be as flexible as a gymnast. You need to not only bend your work style as appropriate but give your aptitude quick twists as well.
You will find the going tough if you are an introvert. Making presentations is an important daily task. If you are not a great communicator, or you don’t learn to get out of your comfort zone, you will quickly feel out of place.
Often, you won’t know the result of your much-researched recommendations to the client until long. Equally often, you may not even know whether the client is implementing your suggestions. At the end of the project, you may only have clients who say they are satisfied with your suggestions and hopes to work with you again. But what real impact have you actually made on the business? That may remain a mystery.
As a junior consultant, particularly at big-league firms, you may be part of a team advising businesses that are already doing well. Or you may be in a group helping a slow-moving public sector behemoth with pretty basic problems. You yearn to be assisting a high-potential industry facing challenging issues, which would look good on your CV, but that doesn’t happen every day.
At all levels, consultants live in a culture of constant feedback. Feedback from peers and bosses have an impact on your bonuses, promotions, and reputation. In such an ecosystem, you are under constant stress.
However, everything depends on whether your clients are happy with you, as they pay the bills and your salary, ultimately. Some clients are good to get along with, and some not. But you will feel like you are in the spotlight all the time.
Not just to the client, you are always on call for your boss, too. You feel obligated to him or her as promotions and bonuses are decided by Big B. The ‘need to obey’ influences every moment of your professional life.
Learning to live with a crowd of Type-A personalities around you and also learning time management are crucial to survival. You better be a self-starter if you don’t want to find yourself still a babe in the woods after a few months.
Many juicy projects that may have been right up your street may be apportioned to others. When this happens, you begin to justifiably suspect whether it was politics that put the bright smile on your rival colleague’s face as he saw you that morning. But you just cannot afford let any heartburn affect your work on your allotted engineering project, as the client is paying millions to your firm, and you better fit the bill.
Despite the road bumps, consulting is a great career. But those who have trodden the path warn that it may not be a career path for the long term. They point to the fact that very few consultants stay long enough to become partner.
If the workload doesn’t get you, all the travelling and the suitcase lifestyle will. If not, there are questions of morality, ethics, and conflict of interest to overcome. If you manage to survive all of the above, then the smiling assassin may be waiting at the next desk with a godfather looking on from his cabin.
‘House of Lies’
After two or three years as a consultant, many ask themselves these questions: how personally rewarding is it to help billion-dollar companies and tycoons make even more money? How satisfying is it to see a virtually monopolistic pharma or cornflakes giant protect its already-secure market share? How smart is it to give up all your youthful days for a pile of money you may never get to fully enjoy?
But the most important question for many is, is this even an authentic and genuine business? In his “honest and “hilarious” book on management consulting, “House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Tell You the Time” (2005), Martin Kihn, a former consultant at an elite firm and Columbia Business School alumnus, throws open the secrets of the industry and profession (the TV series based on the book, “House of Lies,” 2012-16, is available on Amazon Prime).
Kihn argues that consultants know little or nothing about their clients’ companies, and merely dish out information their clients already have. He says consultants try to pass off abstruse blather as corporate wisdom. According to him, they also have a destructive effect on the employees and culture of their client companies.
However, a reviewer of the book and series, a former management consultant, says in a HuffPost blog that “the consulting skill set can be used for good or for evil.” You can work for a responsible consultancy and build a legitimate career, while enjoying the nuances of corporate life.
But there’s probably no harm in giving the book/TV-series a quick look, and taking both the good press and the bad press about the consulting career with a grain of salt.
If you are in the mood for some management consulting fiction, check out Business Doctors: Management Consulting Gone Wild.
– Management Consulting Salaries after MBA
– How to get an interview at McKinsey, Bain, BCG
– Investment banking vs management consulting
– Life as a McKinsey Consultant
– Management consulting interview questions
References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8