Building a Career in Consulting — Guide


A consulting career can be very rewarding, but they also come with their challenges. Its perks include lots of traveling, generous compensation packages, interactions with top-level management, exposure to learning opportunities, and the pleasure of working on complex business problems. It is no wonder that many professionals are drawn to the idea of becoming a consultant.

One of the biggest challenges is the long hours. Mika Kim, a former consultant at one of the Big 4 consulting firms, reports working an average of 12 hours per day. Other anecdotal evidence suggests that burnout induced by long working hours is a core reason why many consultants quit their jobs.

Despite its challenges, consulting offers an enticing career path for those driven by the desire to assist businesses in their journey to success. Consultants find themselves engaged in demanding and impactful projects, honing valuable skills that are consistently in high demand.

However, the allure of consulting comes hand in hand with its difficulty and requires unwavering dedication and hard work. Prospective consultants must possess specific skill sets, gain a deep understanding of the industry, and master the art of effective self-promotion.

In this article, we’ll give you a comprehensive overview of the consulting career path. You’ll learn what a consulting job entails and be able to decide if a career in consulting is right for you.

What is consulting?

What is consulting? Consulting entails the practice of enhancing organizational performance through the provision of professional, research-driven management counsel. This counsel spans various domains, including operations, strategy, finance, marketing, and governance.

For those embarking on a career in consulting, it’s worth noting that entry-level consultants at prestigious consulting firms typically receive an annual base salary of $83,500, as reported by CaseInterview, a reputable management consulting resource. This substantial compensation is particularly appealing to recent graduates entering the field, sparking curiosity about the distinctive insights and skills that justify such remuneration.

However, it’s crucial to clarify that consultants do not bear the sole responsibility for resolving client issues. Instead, they serve as the crucial link between clients and subject matter experts possessing the technical prowess required to address their specific challenges.

While this may seem straightforward, the role of a consultant is far from easy. Here’s a glimpse into the typical journey of a consulting project:

  • Client Interview: A consultant, let’s call her Claire, initiates by conducting in-depth interviews with the client, often a senior manager. The objective is to identify impediments to the organization’s growth and uncover opportunities to enhance its financial performance.
  • Problem Analysis: Claire proceeds to conduct a meticulous analysis of the identified problems, delving into their intricacies.
  • Subject Matter Expert Engagement: Next, Claire leverages her consultancy’s network of subject matter experts, known as support networks, to ascertain the best practices for resolving the identified issues.
  • Client Presentation: In the final stage, Claire presents the optimal solution to the client, typically through a slide deck presentation.

Claire’s approach underscores that a consultant’s core skill set encompasses analytical and problem-solving capabilities, adeptness in research and data collection, effective communication and presentation skills, and strong interpersonal abilities for client interaction.

To provide a deeper understanding of the consultant’s role, let’s explore some real-life consulting project examples.

What do consultants really do? (Real-Life Examples)

What’s the real scoop on the world of consultants? Let’s dive into some real-life examples to uncover the magic behind this fascinating field.

Imagine three common types of projects in management consulting as thrilling adventures: tech implementations, operations improvement, and strategy consulting.

1. Strategy Consulting: The Art of Expansion

Picture this: a sprawling city with two giants in healthcare—a massive healthcare system and a sprawling medical center. They see potential in combining their forces to revolutionize healthcare delivery for the city’s residents. The catch? They needed a visionary guide.

Enter Hisham Zhkan, a healthcare consulting guru. He specializes in helping clients chart strategic paths to growth. “Give us a broad question or a challenge,” Hisham says, “and we’ll weave a brilliant strategy.”

For our city-dwelling healthcare titans, Hisham’s consulting firm took the reins. They scrutinized the city’s patients, their needs, and the services each hospital offered. Armed with insights, they crafted recommendations to merge services and introduce new ones, tailored to the city’s population.

2. Operations Improvement: Unearthing Efficiency

Now, let’s venture into the realm of operations improvement—an expedition to uncover hidden treasures of efficiency and profitability.

Consider a hospital drowning in financial woes due to insurance companies denying claims. Hisham’s keen-eyed team unraveled the mystery: a chaotic billing system. Mistaken insurance details, erroneous claims—chaos reigned.

We laid it all out for the client,” Hisham explains. “We provided a roadmap to prevent such mishaps, complete with how-to guides and training manuals, empowering their staff to rise above the chaos.

3. Technology Consulting and Implementations: Crafting the Future

Our final expedition lands us in the realm of technology consulting and implementations—a quest to forge new technological frontiers.

Imagine a colossal hospital system struggling to bill services efficiently. Hisham and his team embarked on a quest to decipher the client’s needs. After months of relentless pursuit, they partnered with the IT team to customize software tailored to the client’s desires.

But the adventure didn’t end there. They crafted training plans to ensure a seamless transition to the new system. It was a journey from chaos to efficiency, guided by the hands of consulting expertise.

While these tales hail from the healthcare arena, consultants often navigate diverse industries. Whether you’re part of MBB, Big 4, or Tier 2 firms, you’ll acquire versatile business skills and build a career foundation that can unlock higher-paying opportunities.

In a nutshell, consulting is the launchpad to your professional dreams, especially if you’re fresh out of college or exploring your career path. It’s a thrilling journey filled with discovery and transformation.

Top Management Consulting Firms to Work For

Consulting firms are divided into four tiers based on the size of the projects they work on, not the size of the firms themselves.

top management consulting firms

Consulting Firms: Which Tier Are You?

If you’re a newbie consultant, your dream workplace might be one of the Big 3: McKinsey, Bain, or Boston Consulting Group (MBB). These elite firms handle the biggest projects and charge millions of dollars per project. They also pay the highest compensation to consultants.

But what if you’re not lucky enough to land a job at one of the Big 3? Don’t despair! There are many other great consulting firms out there, each with its own unique strengths and offerings.

Here is a breakdown of the four different tiers of consulting firms:

1. Tier 1: The Big 3

McKinsey, Bain, and BCG are the top dogs in the consulting world. They handle the most complex and high-stakes projects for the world’s leading companies. If you’re looking for the ultimate challenge and the highest rewards, then a job at one of the Big 3 is for you.

2. Tier 2: The Tier 2

Accenture, Kearney, Oliver Wyman, and L.E.K. Consulting are all Tier 2 firms. They are just as prestigious and selective as the Big 3, but they tend to handle smaller projects. Tier 2 firms are a great option for consultants who want the challenge and prestige of working at a top firm without the grueling hours and travel requirements.

3. Tier 3: The Big 4

Deloitte, KPMG, PwC, and E&Y are the Big 4 accounting firms, but they also have large consulting divisions. The Big 4 firms are known for their broad range of services and their deep industry expertise. They are a great option for consultants who want to work on a variety of projects and who want to be part of a large and well-established firm.

4. Tier 4: Boutique Firms

Boutique firms are smaller consulting firms that specialize in serving clients in a specific industry. There are boutique firms for every industry imaginable, from healthcare to tech, finance, education, and retail. Pentabell is a boutique firm that specializes in recruitment and human resources consulting. Boutique firms are a great option for consultants who want to develop deep expertise in a particular industry and who want to work on projects that make a real difference.

So, which tier of consulting firm is right for you? It depends on your individual goals and preferences. If you’re looking for the ultimate challenge and the highest rewards, then a job at one of the Big 3 is for you. If you want the prestige of working at a top firm without the grueling hours and travel requirements, then a Tier 2 firm is a great option. If you want to work on a variety of projects and be part of a large and well-established firm, then a Big 4 firm is a good choice. And if you want to develop deep expertise in a particular industry and work on projects that make a real difference, then a boutique firm like Pentabell is the way to go.

No matter which tier of consulting firm you choose, you’re sure to have a challenging and rewarding career. So go out there and make your dreams come true!

Entry Points Into the Consulting Career Path

Consulting is a competitive field, but there are several ways to enter the profession, whether you are a recent graduate or an experienced professional looking for a change. Here are three common entry points into the world of consulting:

Entry Points Into the Consulting Career Path

1.Undergraduate Recruiting

The best way to get into consulting as a fresh graduate is to complete a summer internship at a top consulting firm. This will give you the opportunity to learn about the industry and build relationships with consultants at the firm. If you perform well during your internship, you may be offered a full-time position after graduation.

Even if you miss the internship window, you can still apply for a full-time role. However, it’s important to have a strong academic record and relevant extracurricular activities. The most relevant degree programs for consulting are business-related, but top consultancies also hire applicants with other backgrounds.

2.MBA or Advanced Degree Recruiting

An MBA from a top business school can make it much easier to get into consulting. Elite firms actively recruit MBA graduates, and earning an MBA from a target school like Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, or Yale will significantly increase your chances of landing a job.

In addition to MBAs, consulting firms also hire candidates with advanced degrees such as PhDs, MDs, and JDs.

3.Experienced Hire Recruiting

Consulting firms also hire experienced professionals with niche expertise or vast experience. However, this is the most difficult way to get into consulting.

If you are targeting smaller consulting firms, you may be able to find a job by applying through the firm’s online portal. However, if you are targeting a top consulting firm, your best bet is to get a referral from a current consultant at the firm.

Tips for Getting into Consulting

  • Develop your analytical and problem-solving skills.
  • Improve your communication and presentation skills.
  • Learn how to work independently and as part of a team.
  • Network with consultants at the firms you are interested in.
  • Getting into consulting is challenging, but it is definitely possible with hard work and dedication.

Traditional Consulting Career Path (Titles, Progression, & Salaries)

Consulting offers a faster career growth trajectory than most industries. Most consultancies have an “up or out” employee promotion policy, meaning that consultants are either promoted to the next level or let go. Promotions typically happen every 2-3 years.

The exact titles for each position differ from firm to firm, but the typical career progression is as follows:

1. Business Analyst:

Analysts handle the bulk of the work on projects. They are responsible for researching, interviewing experts, gathering and analyzing data, and building presentations. Analysts are the entry-level position for fresh graduates, and the average salary at top-tier firms is $83,500.

2. Associate/Consultant:

Associates and consultants have similar job functions to analysts, but they manage larger workstreams and have more autonomy. They are also often responsible for guiding and directing less experienced analysts. MBA hires typically join firms at the associate level, and the average salary for MBA hires and experienced consultants at top-tier firms is $149,000.

3. Manager/Project Leader:

Managers are responsible for overseeing projects. They define the client’s problems and lead a team of analysts and consultants who develop solutions. Managers do not spend time analyzing data themselves. Instead, they rely on their team to provide them with the information they need to make decisions. Managers/project leaders at top-tier firms earn an average of $175,000, excluding performance bonuses and profit-sharing opportunities.

4. Principal/Director:

Directors are responsible for strengthening and developing new client relationships. They may also review analysis and provide input on high-level projects. Directors and principals also provide nurturing and motivation to less experienced team members. Directors and principals earn upwards of $250,000.

5. Partner/Shareholder:

Partners are individuals who have invested in a firm for many years. They are responsible for the long-term health of the company. Their key roles include identifying new business opportunities, winning projects, managing client relationships, and providing leadership. Base salaries for partners or shareholders range from $570,000–$1,000,000, excluding bonuses.

In conclusion, building a successful career in consulting requires a unique blend of expertise, adaptability, and a commitment to lifelong learning. As we wrap up this comprehensive guide, we hope you’ve gained valuable insights into the world of consulting and are now better equipped to navigate its challenges and opportunities. In our next article, we will delve deeper into the essential tips for getting started in consulting, providing you with actionable advice to kickstart your consulting journey with confidence. Stay tuned for more expert guidance on your path to consulting excellence.

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