5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Consulting

Alistair-Clark's picture
Rank: King Kong | 1,090

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.

Here's why:

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?

Comments (27)

Nov 24, 2015

One less rat in the race. Now go take your jumping jack business somewhere else. WSO does not tolerate losers.

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Nov 24, 2015

This might be one of the most pathetic things I've read on this forum.

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Nov 24, 2015

Interesting take - and it does sound like you are better suited for something other than consulting. Congrats on starting your own business, too.

I'm curious: What would you recommend saying when people ask how your projects are going instead of 'crazy busy'? Keep in mind point number one about avoiding shit work, while trying to give off a busy, professional vibe.

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Best Response
Nov 24, 2015

I'd always try to give an honest, thoughtful answer.

There's no specific template I can recommend other than be a real human being rather than a corporate robot. I think most people are insecure about their performance and it shows with how they try to make themselves sound important and busy. I think truly successful people are confident in their abilities and don't have to compete with their peers in every interaction.

Also, most of the time I'd try and focus on the positives of my project rather than the downside of how busy I was or how much work was getting dumped on me or how shitty my client was.

Keep in mind that this is just my opinion, and other people might tell you to try and play up your importance in every interaction.

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Feb 16, 2016


Nov 24, 2015

Were you at an MBB or similar? Also what country were you based in?

Nov 24, 2015

"If you don't look out for yourself, don't expect anyone else to." As selfish and cut throat as it might sound, you're 100% right, +1

Nov 25, 2015

Looking at how you are more passionate about individuals than corporations, would you consider a career in PWM?

Nov 27, 2015

You mean there is more to life than sitting in a corporate office waiting for your next paycheck to hit and then for you bonus? I feel you man it's tempting to look at non-traditional routes, good for you for making the jump!

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Dec 1, 2015

You won't know what you like by thinking but by doing
100% right!

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Feb 17, 2017

Couldn't find this in the article, but did you work in MBB? Congrats on your business venture, I hope it turns out well for you!

"You adapt, evolve, compete, or die." -Paul Tudor Jones

Feb 17, 2017

Start honing your powerpoint skills. I'm sure most of your time in FP&A has been spent in Excel.

I made a similar shift from audit to consulting - thought my PP skills were adequate but was pretty wrong in that assumption.

Feb 17, 2017

This has some helpful info. I also think they're adding an advice section on your 1st consulting project in the near future.

I'd recommend checking out the sample deliverables they have listed.

Feb 17, 2017

For everyone getting in consulting I have 1 advice:
work on your communication skills, meaning say more with less words.

I know it seems obvious, but when you are unfamiliar with the topic we tend to write more, have more slides etc. That's not valuable.

Feb 17, 2017

^ More with fewer* words.

To that note, business writing is very important. Getting your points across clearly can really put you in your bosses' good graces. Your writing does not have to be fluffy and convoluted. I try to almost always follow the KISS method: keep it short and simple.

Another thing that I've been really realizing recently is this: it doesn't matter what you think, it matters what you can prove. In other words, I strongly recommend against voicing your client recommendations without the numbers to back them up.

Good luck, and skill, in your new position. EY is a great company.

Feb 17, 2017

Not sure about your exact advisory program but I'd recommend The McKinsey Way is a great book. Consulting life 101

Feb 17, 2017

Get to know your client and the people on your team and what their strengths and weaknesses are. The best consultants might not always be the smartest person in the room but they know how to leverage the resources around them to come up with solutions and answers.

Feb 17, 2017

I might be able to give you some good info; I worked in Advisory at EY right after college and now work in FP&A at a large metals company.

Is the consulting group the specific name of the group you will be joining, or is it Risk Advisory, IT Risk Advisory, etc.? Just trying to understand what your project base will be.

Feb 17, 2017

Hi Wookier,

Just curious if you had any tips for someone who is currently working FP&A but interested in making the move to consulting. I guess from my experience there doesn't seem to be a ton of skillset overlap between FP&A day-to-day and what I imagine consulting entails, so I'm interested in how you sold yourself. Thanks!

Feb 17, 2017

I was actually in a meeting last week with a well know consultancy firm who were doing some work for us, and two first years (it was a chill meeting and their boss introduced them as such).
Anyways, we went for some beers afterwards and not only did one of them name drop their firm at every opportunity, they started name dropping their clients. Then they name dropped the firm that I am at now, which is a big no-no atm.
I pulled him aside and exploded, cue his boss coming over, "whats up" etc., then he explodes!
Poor kid got a roasting that night that makes the devil look friendly. Despite this I could not score the girl he was chatting up, would have been the icing on the cake. Poor bastard went home alone early though.

Tldr: Do NOT name drop EVER, EVER, and place dropping is not great either TBH.

Feb 17, 2017
Feb 17, 2017