[IMGCAP(1)]During my years working in management consulting, I was often asked by friends and family, “So, what exactly do you do…?”
In the early days, I would start by giving them an explanation of my current project, talking about the technical details of a strategy question or IT implementation.
Over time, I made my responses shorter and shorter, from “We provide smart resources for special projects” to “We solve problems, whatever they are” and then finally to just “PowerPoint. I do lots and lots of PowerPoint.”
A recent transition into an industry role has left me reflecting on consulting and what I learned. After condensing all of the highs and lows I experienced, here are the big things that I’d want anyone to know about consulting as a career:
1. Bring Your Learning Hat
The single selling point that almost any consulting firm—whether it’s McKinsey/Bain/BCG, a Big Four, or a boutique firm—will always bring to the table in recruiting is learning and development. The pitch is that by being rotated around industries and clients (much like a junior auditor) and pushed in front of CEOs (probably unlike a junior auditor), you’ll learn exponentially more every day than you would at most other jobs.
The simple truth is that the promise of training and development is delivered 10x over. Whether it’s technical issues in an industry (“Hey, go and project the profitability of our new product. To do that, you’ll need to learn every detail about our business”) or interpersonal training (“Let’s talk about how to engage between an INTJ and an ESTJ”), you can be confident that each year you spend in consulting equips you with tools and experiences that are rare commodities in the market. It’s a steep, sharp learning curve, but one that will give you unique perspectives for the rest of your career.
2. The Hours Are No Joke
The horror stories include all-night work sessions, weekly coast-to-coast red eyes, and days spent in obscure hotels. The long hours are part of the package, and although they aren’t as tough as investment banking, there are few careers that tax more from your personal and home life than consulting. Most people adapt and manage the challenge, and some people thrive on it in the long term, but almost no one gets through it without a few war stories. There, you have been warned.
3. To Be (Specialized) or Not to Be (Specialized)
Consulting is often appealing to new graduates because it offers an opportunity to test lots of industries and types of work to find something you truly love. As a young generalist, you can move around and try a bit of everything. It gives you a broad base of experience. However, without any formal announcement, consulting often pivots from demanding broad abilities to deep expertise as you start to lead projects and take over more client management. After just a few years (and as your billing rate increases), clients expect you to not only be an Excel wizard, but bring unique insights specific to their industries.
For those who grew up in consulting, loving the variety, the need to choose a specialty can be a shock. You’ve been dating all these industries for years, and now you have to pick one to marry. While you thrived on the variety of the more generalist junior years, the need to focus might stunt your passion for the career.
It’s something you’ll need to consider if you choose a consulting career: how and when to specialize. If your dream is to become a deep expert in health care M&A (or some other combination of industry and service), then you’ll love the challenge of owning a single space for years (until you make partner, when things broaden out again). If the idea of being pigeon-holed terrifies you, then you may need to recognize that your consulting career will have a half-life. It’s neither a positive nor negative, but something you should know now before starting down the path.
4. When to Play
As a general rule, the transition into consulting is best done at major career milestones, and ideally when you’re earlier in your career. Most common is to start as a recruit from an undergraduate degree.
Second place goes to recruitment out of graduate school programs (typically MBAs). A distant, distant third is the experienced hire from an industry position into a consulting role. For whatever reason, this third category of new hires seems to have a much lower success rate in the consulting world. They often struggle to adapt to the hours, working style, and culture in consulting. While some of the most singularly talented consultants I know have come from this third category, the chances of success are frankly just much lower for those trying to get started outside the normal campus recruitment programs.
5. Being Zen
It’s a busy job with lots of details and “bonus work.” To catch the important stuff, you are going to need not only a great filter for sorting the wheat from the chaff, but also an attitude to stay calm and take each day on its merits. The worst consultant is one who gets so caught up in the details that he or she can’t look ahead and see what’s really important to the client. This is the characteristic that separates “good” from “great” in the consulting field.
Directions: From Accounting to Consulting
For those still interested in pursuing a consulting career, and jumping from a more traditional accounting role, here is my advice:
• Make your skills sellable. Consulting, unlike auditing, needs to constantly replenish its supply of work (there’s no such thing as an annual strategy project). If you can position the skills you’ve developed in accounting as something that is immediately sellable in a consulting context (think Finance Transformation project) then you’ll stand a much better chance of making the move.
• Build personal relationships, whether it’s within your existing CPA firm (if they have a consulting arm) or with other consulting shops. The story of an accountant wanting to swap into consulting is not uncommon, and you’ll need to show that you have the people skills to manage both different kinds of clients and work.
• Consider graduate school (an MBA) as a way to break from a pure accounting background and position yourself in the regular recruiting cycle for top-tier firms. Consulting firms are great at training college graduates, but less good at handling people coming in from other sources (see point #4 above!). Put yourself in their sights by attending one of their major feeder schools and programs.
Ultimately, success as a consultant comes down to attitude more than aptitude. Be willing and open to feedback, genuine with your colleagues, and earnest in your advice, and you can (and will) go far. To learn more about becoming a consultant (including the interview process), you can also read this article on key tips to becoming a consultant.
Sebastian Joll spent the majority of his career in management consulting for a Big Four before recently taking on a new challenge in the high tech industry. He is a contributing editor at The Accounting Path, a website devoted to getting potential students excited about the accounting industry.