What to expect from management consulting

What is management consulting all about?
Recruiting is like fashion. There are the hot trends and there are the basics. The Internet used to be a hot trend. Strategy consulting is more of a basic one. Over the last 20 years, it has consistently been the dream career start for the most talented young business graduates around the world. Yet, apart from the prestigious names, few people know precisely what the job is all about. So we figured out a little explanation would do no harm.

It seems that nowadays, everyone calls themselves a consultant, from the wine specialist at your local supermarket to the football commentator on TV. Strategy consultants specialise in... strategy, business strategy to be more precise.

But what the heck is strategy?
Imagine you are a CEO. You are beginning to lose market share on your key product. Marketing urges you to increase advertising and reduce prices. R&D has high hopes on a new product and wants more money. Finance is worried about your debt level. Human Resources does not find enough qualified people to support your development. And you have just been offered to buy (at a good price, of course) one of your competitors in the US.

What do you do? First, you'll have to make choices. Then, you'll have to ensure that these choices will give you the proverbial competitive advantage. Maybe you need to trim costs. Maybe you need to spend more to innovate. Maybe you need to expand to exploit economies of scale. But whatever you do, you will have to do it better than the competition.

That is business strategy. Some things should catch your eye:
Business strategy consulting is done at very high level in the organisation, typically the Board and the CEO. These are the ones making the choices. Below, the organisation focuses on implementing the decisions (sometimes assisted by other consultants).

Business strategy consulting is about facts and common sense much more than vision or dreams. Facts make decisions easier. Dreams without facts make them tougher.

Business strategy consulting is tailor-made thinking. What works for one company will not necessarily work for the other, even in the same industry. Strategists use tools, but tools don't make the strategist. Only the quality of the people matters in this business.

By now, you will no doubt understand what makes strategy consulting so attractive to talented students and professionals:

  • It confronts you with the key choices every organisation must make, at the highest levels (so you know how the big guys think)
  • It exposes you quickly to a large variety of such choices, across many industries (that's much better than reading the Financial Times)
  • It trains you to deal with multiple facts and uncertainty, and to structure your thoughts, usually under time pressure (you need to sound convincing)
  • It makes you work in a team with some of the brightest people around (that's good to boost your personal network)

In short, strategy consulting is often a fast track development course to get to high level positions yourself ... or to create your own business.

Having said that, what can you really expect from the job when you start?
Let's be honest, you will not immediately meet the CEO of your client, neither create multi-billion-dollar-recommendations on your own. First you will need to learn the job. Don't worry about formal training, as most firms have highly effective training programs in place. But it is the day-to-day, on-the-job coaching that will be most important in your development. So be very careful in selecting the right firm. Typically, a junior analyst will spend their day collecting facts on which to build solid recommendations. One day they will build a financial model. Then they will conduct literature searches on specialised databases to analyse industry trends. They might interview the client's staff members or customers or even conduct discussions with their client's competitors. The list is endless. As you develop your skills, your assignments will become more and more complex, but you will interact with more senior client representatives.

Now, are you made for this job?
First, one word of caution about lifestyle: strategy consultants are not die-hard workaholics, but it is not unusual for a consultant to work 55-60 hours a week, with highs and lows. Keep that in mind if your lifestyle requires a lot of personal time...

The opportunities offered by strategy consulting firms are quite exceptional, but in return those firms only hire a few, exceptional people. The #1 requirement for the job is outstanding analytics. Some firms will only invite students with outstanding academic records. All will thoroughly test your analytical capabilities during real life "case interviews." Then, interpersonal skills are also very important, as the job involves a lot of teamwork and external contacts. In any case, make sure your CV contains the "signs of excellence" that might grant you a first round interview.