The consulting industry: An introduction

The title consultant brings with it expectations of experience and expertise, qualities not often associated with newly-minted graduates. It's quite mind-boggling to imagine how it would be possible to enter the consulting arena without work experience or an MBA but it is a lot more common than you might expect.

By Career Central

To start off on the right foot, the term consulting needs to be defined. Unlike accountants or lawyers, there is no clear certification process or internationally accepted definition for a consultant. In recent years the term consulting has been used, and abused, across a wide range of industries. Almost any individual who plays the role of a professional advisor can profess to be a consultant. Not intending any disrespect to the community of consultants, this article will focus on management consulting. Also referred to as strategy consultants, the key players in this arena are specialized firms like McKinsey, Bain & Company and The Boston Consulting Group.

Management consultants are engaged by clients to analyze and advise on business issues. If the previous statement left you with more questions than answers, then you’d be relieved to know you are not alone. Perhaps the best way to understand the type of work consultants do is to take a look at some of the projects they work on.

- A well established telecommunications company has seen its industry leadership position in the country erode over the past 3 years. It engages consultants to analyze the situation and recommend a strategy to regain lost ground.

- A government engages consultants to conduct a study on the multiple impacts of privatizing the nationalized energy industry. Government officials are especially keen to see a comparative analysis of other countries faced with a similar situation.

- Two financial institutions that have recently agreed to a merger are faced with the challenge of integrating two large and different organizations across multiple regions. They engage consultants to advise how best to approach the integration exercise in order to maximize returns from the merger.

With a brief flavour of consulting projects, the immediate question that pops into mind is: which client would hire a fresh graduate for a consulting engagement? The answer is simple: None. Though clients may hire a firm specifically for a leading expert in an area (which won’t be you – yet), more often than not, clients hire a firm for its knowledge capital and its collective skills. And that’s where you come in.

Consulting engagements usually involve a team of consultants with a range of expertise. At the bottom of the food chain are analysts/associates (depending on the firm’s terminology) who do everything from research to number crunching to preparation of reports and presentations. Let’s face it, you’re hardly likely to be a Subject Matter Expert (SME) at your age so you’ll have to be prepared to do some of the less glamorous work in the trenches. The trade-off for being in the trenches is the almost unparalleled exposure to clients at senior management levels and the opportunity to work with colleagues who are either recognized as the authority in their respective fields or pure Einsteins with the mental horsepower of a Ferrari.

Of course, you’d have to be a pretty mean engine yourself to keep up with the Ferrari! And therein lies the catch, those who enter the consulting arena straight from school tend to be the cream of the crop from prestigious academic institutions. Often highly numerate, they combine academic achievement with an inquisitive yet disciplined mind. Unfazed by the unknown, they are bored by repetitive work and crave new challenges. Consulting firms look for candidates they can put in front of their clients from Day 1 so prospective consultants are required to be articulate, confident and mature.

With this long list of requirements, wouldn’t it make more sense to gain some work experience, or obtain an MBA, before entering the world of consulting? Yes and No. Depending on where you stand in the nature versus nurture debate, some people are ‘naturals’. And if you consider the qualities discussed so far, you’d probably be able to point out the consulting candidates in your peer group. To this rare breed, consulting comes naturally and they fit the profession like a glove.

Though consulting companies pay well at all levels of the corporate ladder, the pot of gold at the end of the consulting rainbow is becoming a partner. The inner circle that in effect owns the firm, partnership brings with it prestige and lucrative financial returns. But climbing up the consulting ladder comes at a price. The profession is renowned for grueling hours, often accompanied by relentless travel and immense sacrifices in personal life. Keep in mind though, you don’t have to travel all the way to the other side of the rainbow to find gold. Ex-consultants are highly sought after by Fortune 500 companies, many of whom are guilty of poaching the consultants they’ve engaged. It is corporate lore that the alumni of McKinsey probably run half of corporate America and a McKinsey resume is recognized around the globe. Of course, investment bankers will argue that they earn more but you’d be hard put to find a consultant who would trade in his laptop for a Bloomberg terminal.

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