I worked as a management consultant for 4 years.
I learned a bunch of stuff about business and strategy and operations.
I also learned how to sound smart about something I knew nothing about, and how to use jargon to make simple things sound extremely complex.
I quit my job after 4 years and while none of these things help me with my new business, I did pick up a few valuable life lessons.
Hopefully these will help the next generation of consultants:
Here are 5 things that I wish I knew when I started consulting:
1. When someone offers you "a great opportunity", run the other way.
In consulting, there's a general divide between important "project / client work" and the huge pile of other less important work that is loosely related.
This other stuff includes practice-building work, recruiting, research papers, social committees, or anything else not directly related to pure consulting work for clients. No one wants to do this other stuff, so they'll try and convince you to do it by telling you it's "a great opportunity". Run the other way.
In my experience, client work is 95% responsible for your career success, and no one gives a shit about all of the other stuff that you do.
I don't deny that this is a selfish point-of-view, because these things definitely need to get done. But let someone else do it. At the end of the day, you are the only person who really cares about your career, so while you might feel like you're pulling for the team by screening resumes for 4 hours on a Friday, your time would be much better spent on your client work which will actually get you promoted.
Just remember, anytime someone senior to you takes the time to sell you on a "great opportunity", be suspicious.
2. Don't do "extracurriculars". If you have to do "extracurriculars", do things that are high-visibility, low-effort.
This point is closely related to the one above. If you are forced to take on an extracurricular disguised as a "great opportunity", make sure it is high-visibility and low-effort.
Think about the incentives of the people who will have the biggest impact on your career: Partner's / MDs. These people make money by selling projects to clients. The best way to stand out is to do excellent project work and help your Partner / MD sell more work. They sometimes care about extracurriculars, but only insofar as it helps them with their ultimate goal of selling more to clients.
If you kill it on your projects, no one will care that you didn't help organize the monthly community social.
The only scenario where "extracurriculars" are worthwhile is 'tiebreakers' for performance ratings and promotions. Here's what I mean: think of project work as "table stakes" that are required to get into the conversation of being a top performer at your firm. No matter how great your extracurriculars, if you don't have great project work then you won't be let into the elite group.
If you're in a situation where you need or want extracurriculars to differentiate yourself from the other top-performers, look for ones that are high-visibility and low-effort. Pick something that sounds good and has good visibility to senior executives. Be the lead, not a supporting member. It often requires less work because you can delegate to other people, and there can only be one 'lead' while there can be many 'supporters'.
3. The timing of your start-date can dictate your entire career, unless you fight it.
I started as a management consultant on September 20th, and this factor more than any other influenced the course of my entire career.
That is not hyperbole.
On my start date there was a limited set of projects available, and I was randomly staffed to one of those projects. This dictated who I met within the firm, what skills I developed, and--most importantly--when I became available for my next project.
Project demand changes weekly or even daily, and when you start your career or finish your current project there is a 1 to 2 week window for you to find your next project. Consulting companies want to keep you chargeable, so you won't be allowed to sit around waiting for the perfect role. There will be a set of projects with available roles within those two weeks, and you'll be going to one of those.
Too bad if your dream role started a month before. You'll never know about it because the timing didn't work out.
I was lucky in my career and happened to be one of the few analysts available when an awesome project started, so I was staffed to it. This happened twice more in my career, and made the difference between me loving some of my projects and my colleagues hating it.
The size of your firm makes a difference in how much this will affect you. At a large firm there will be more projects available and more consultants available so you might be able to negotiate your way onto something you enjoy, but a smaller firm will have fewer roles and fewer people, and therefore your options will be limited.
The best thing to do with this knowledge is to take the time to figure out exactly what you want to do. If you don't, you're leaving your career direction up to random chance and timing. At least if you know you have some fighting chance of steering your career in the direction you want.
4. When someone asks you how your project is going, come up with something more creative to say than "I'm crazy busy". It's annoying and doesn't make you sound important.
Most people who pretend to be busy or talk about all the important work they are doing are actually compensating for something. There was a woman I worked with who, from the outside, looked like a top-performing analyst. She was always rushing around the office looking serious and having coffee with the top partners. And when you asked her how things were going, you got a frantic answer about how many important projects she was working on.
After 1.5 years of being "crazy busy", she was fired for poor performance.
5. I don't actually like consulting.
It took me 4 years to realize, but I don't want to be a consultant. I don't like helping large corporations. They are big, faceless entities with no human element. I didn't feel fulfilled by figuring out ways to make them more money. When I did enjoy my job, it was when I was helping someone at my client succeed or make their life a little easier.
I eventually quit and have made it my business to help people full time.
If I could go back in time, I would have still gone into consulting. Figuring out what you want to do in life isn't a problem you can solve by thinking; you have to do things. You have to get out there and try a bunch of stuff. Keep what you like, and throw out the rest.
I love what I do now, and I'm a lot happier now that I can say no to every b.s. "great opportunity" that comes my way.
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Anyone else had similar experiences? What have you learned?