Consulting: Is There a Mid-Long Term Career?

I typically see a lot of scrutiny and whatnot from younger analysts and people who are 1-3 years into consulting, but I'm genuinely curious; are there people out there who enjoy their jobs enough to stick with it for 5-7 or even 7-10+ years?

For those of you who do genuinely enjoy or have at least enjoyed the mid-long term success in your work, I have some questions:

  1. Is there a personality type or archetypical makeup out there that seems to take to the longer hours, voluminous requests, and intensive work environment?

  2. Have you noticed specific characteristics in yourself or others who figured out ways to avoid (or manage) the proverbial burnout in those earlier years?

  3. What's more important in your perspective (when it comes to surviving the long haul to Senior/VP/Associate Principal/Principal roles)?
    a. The desire for progressive financial gain and status at a prestigious firm?
    b. A true enjoyment of solving problems while leaning into an acceptance that things will be monotonous and unfavorable at times?

I'd love to hear from you if you've been in consulting for a while and don't fully hate your job/life. My summer internship with ZS starts in May, and I think the work (especially in PE) is very interesting.

I'm also entering this internship/career track with previous experience as a wildland firefighter, where 16-18 hour days weren't unfamiliar. I'm expecting to "embrace the suck" here as well for the sake of doing what everyone else above me doesn't want to do (and then some), working alongside smart, ambitious people, learning a lot in an exemplary learning environment, and contributing to intriguing projects.

Again, it's not that I expect a career in consulting to be sunshine all around because I'm too old to think that way. I just would love to hear about the positives of working at a consulting firm as a mid-long-term career choice (if there are any). I'm also curious as to whether there is a more contextual reason why people leave it (better corp dev opps, big tech/startup opps, finance opps [IB, VC, PE], etc.?).

Comments (14)

Jan 2, 2022 - 5:52pm

A couple of important "requirements" to making this sustainable such that you have a 5-10+ year tenure in consulting (based on observations):

1) It's important to like the fundamentals of the job. For the majority of people, compensation alone is not enough to keep in the game for a decade+, especially with all of the different options available to them in industry. 

2) Pace yourself to make it sustainable. Constantly gunning for early promotions and taking on extra firm initiatives is a great way to rise up the ladder quickly in the short term. However, it can lead to burnout. "Slow and steady" (relatively speaking) is very much a viable path to partnership.

3) Learn to manage the stress. Don't take the job too seriously. None of this is life or death or "important" in a fundamental way. Trust that things will work out and avoid letting work stress seep into your personal life (where it can impact your relationships, etc.).

Jan 2, 2022 - 6:06pm

Thanks so much for your insight into this. It's sort of funny, but as I read your recommendations, I also realized that consulting seems primarily to get the bad rep that it does because the suitors for entry-level roles are somewhere between 21-23; the age range where a person would reasonably lack the work experience and/or perspective on life to really understand the ideas you just presented. However, as a 26-year-old with years of legitimate, challenging work experiences (started in '12, left college in '13 for a "fuller" life experience; worked 7 years in different areas of fed/state/local government + pub interest; just returned to Penn in '20; will be graduating in '23), a wife, and a wealth of public sector experiences across the U.S. (11 states, 20+ communities), I'm a little more familiar with those concepts within the context of my old jobs.

I guess I always assumed that moving into the "white collar" sector would be so much harder than working on public lands, as a wildland firefighter, or as a community organizer that I also assumed the formula for success in the sector would be very different and somewhat esoteric compared to what I was used to. The methodology at its core, however, appears to be relatively similar: Be coachable, be willing (and patient enough) to put in the reps, be process and people-oriented, and be mature enough to know that this is a long game, where impact > income when it comes to maintaining a sustainable work ethic over the course of a decade. Again, thanks a million for your input.

This helped a lot, as I do appreciate the rewards of hard work, but prefer to seek the work itself for true enrichment. I was honestly just concerned that I wasn't income and promotion-obsessed enough to make the cut. My first internship with ZS starts in May, so I wanted to ensure I was approaching with the right mental framework.

Jan 2, 2022 - 6:47pm

For sure, you've hit the nail on the head. The fact that you have this experience and maturity coming in will help a lot. At the end of the day, none of this is rocket science.

Best of luck with your journey - I'm confident you'll have a great time at ZS!

Jan 3, 2022 - 9:18am

I am not currently in consulting but I have worked for some large firms earlier in my career at the associate level. I also now work alongside associates/VPs from large consulting firms that are hired by my BB. Here's two quick takes for you:

1 - At the lower levels, it's all about your utilization rate. It's a simple, quantitative number that ranks you against your peers, shows how much revenue you generate, indicates whether clients like you (at least at a high level), etc. It will be the most important measure used against your work, whether you realize it or not. 

2 - At the higher levels it all comes down to one thing: sales. There will always be a ceiling to your progress at a consulting firm if you are unable to bring in new business. Partners at large firms are given signing power within the business because that is, in effect, what they are expected to do. You have to be able to drum up new engagements and then commit your resources to those contracts and generate a net positive for your profit center. Without this ability you will simply not advance at most consulting firms. I think this is where most associates decide to leave their firm because they know they are maxed out unless they are willing/able to make this jump - it's not an easy one!

Good luck!

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  • Analyst 1 in CorpDev
Jan 3, 2022 - 1:58pm

Ex-Consulting guy who spent a few years in the space. While there are a number of solid and accurate replies, I dont think folks directly answered your questions very well. 

1. You need to be detail oriented, hard working, personable, and extroverted. Each characteristic is extremely important. If you opt to stay at ZS (or another firm) long-term, you will have folks working above and below you. In order to competently and efficiently review work, you will need to be detail oriented. Coming in as an MBA intern you are grouped in more with the junior staff than the senior staff. Therefore a lot of your work will be execution focused, even if you are in a strategy group. Therefore, you need to be willing to grind out all the challenging tasks that are thrown your way, and thus, you must be hardworking. Additionally, you will constantly be working with different folks on each respective project. You will work from the nicest, most open minded type B folks you have ever met to the cockiest most arrogant type A folks if you stay in consulting long enough. In order to move up the ranks, you need to be liked (or at least, tolerated), by both groups. You need a few "table pounders" to push for your promotions, and just as importantly, you need to have not created a negative relationship with anyone that would speak up against those table pounders who are advocating for you. Thus, you must be personable (in my opinion, the most critical characteristic in consulting). Lastly, you must also be extroverted. Unless you dont wish to climb the ladder (and operate in some niche strictly mid level role), you will need to build relationships and talk, a lot. Good senior leaders are constantly out networking, following up with key previous clients in their rolodex, and at the same time, solutioning. The more senior you become, the more work you own, and thus have to walk the client through. One of the reasons I left consulting was I hated the sheer number of meetings I had, and thus the fact that extroversion was linked with inherent success at a more senior level. Regardless of my experience, an extroverted personality type is pretty critical. 

2. I was decent at avoiding burnout (relative to my project teams). Couple tips here: 

A. Push back when you must. If you have a workload that you know will carry you to 10 PM - midnight, let your team know when they try to add more to your plate. When in sweatier niches, your senior team members may lose complete track of what is on your plate. 

B. Grind your ass off at the beginning of any project. Establish yourself as a top contributor and volunteer for work whenever you know you can competently complete it. This will help you slack off when you need to later on in the project. This strategy works best on longer projects (e.g. 15+ weeks). If the project is a consistent sprint for 3-9 weeks or so, this advice may not be as beneficial.

C. Find the people you like to work with. This is my main tip for you - if there is one thing you should take away from my response, it is this. When you have an established relationship with a senior team member, they will help you manage your workload, find you support when you are drowning, and understand when you push back. The most important thing to surviving consulting long-term is to find a couple teams that you work very well with, and try to align your staffing around them. 

3. Absolutely B, I cannot stress this enough. Consulting at elite firms will pay very well, but if you hate what you do, you will quickly learn how unbearable each day becomes. I left consulting because I ended up pigeon-holed in a top group that frankly was miserable. I looked at everyone around me, everyone more senior than me. At each level, everyone was miserable, overworked, and upset. Most of them cleared extremely high salaries and had MBAs from top schools. I got out to make less all in and didnt think twice about it. I also started to suck at my job toward the end because I hated it so much. Do not chase the highest salary, but find the space you enjoy most in consulting. This is will help tremendously with staying in consulting long-term. 

Lastly, consulting is not IB, but it is still a grind. Make sure you advocate for yourself, it is a lot easier to do so in MC than IB. Good luck!

Jan 3, 2022 - 4:08pm

I really appreciate the thoughtful, articulate response.

Believe it or not, this really actually helped me frame my thinking for assimilating to the culture of consulting and for being value-positive as early as possible. I can definitely function well on my own, but my seasons on fire and trail crews really prepped me for jumping from project to project, working with new people every other week (sometimes crew of 20, sometimes 7, sometimes 100+), and doing the initial sprint to ensure the work is done within a reasonable amount of time while to mitigating capacity/energy expenditure over extended periods of time.

The principal I had my first interview with was very candid and essentially said that interns are treated the same as associates (their version of analysts), and said that the learning curve was steep, but rewarding if you buy into the process and leverage feedback from senior resources. The case interviewers echoed this too, as did the four employees of varying seniority that I networked with.

One of your statements, ("When you have an established relationship with a senior team member, they will help you manage your workload, find you support when you are drowning, and understand when you push back."), inspired a follow-up question, if don't mind answering:

So this entire internship opportunity came about because I reconnected with an old friend from high school who has been at ZS for 3+ years. She's moving to a more senior role now, and has a large network of people at ZS (of varying seniority) that seem to love her (wouldn't have been able to establish coffee chats nearly as quickly if she didn't connect us). Thing is, I'm going to be an intern in Evanston/Chicago, and she just transferred to Boston from Chicago for the senior opportunity.

Given your statement, would it be wise to move to the Boston office since she'd be a senior within my role designation (Strategy, Insights, and Planning)? She suggested it once before, but I didn't originally think it would make much of a difference. The caveat here too is I'm interested in PE DD, and from my understanding, ZS's Evanston/Chicago offices are the places where PE clientele primarily exist. Thoughts?

  • Analyst 1 in CorpDev
Jan 3, 2022 - 5:02pm

Good question. Short answer is no, it would not be worthwhile. 

My approach would be to ask her to connect you with folks she knows who do the work you are interested in. Hold coffee chats with these folks and try to learn about them and the work they do. If you can leverage her network to do the work youre most interested in, this is a win win. Right now, being new to consulting, you need to find the work youre most interested in. This may be a life long search or you may fall in love with what you do on your first project. Since you have an idea (PE DD), start there. 

It is not necessary to relocate just to be a close colleague to your connection. However, if for any reason, shit hits the fan while you're at ZS and you want to stay at the firm, you may want to reconsider going to work out there. I know smart folks at ZS Chicago who are also stand up people. Therefore, based on my anecdotal experience, it would stand to reason that most folks there are solid. 

  • Prospect in Consulting
Jan 4, 2022 - 11:07am

Agree with most of the above, but with the caveat that "the best" i.e. those who most represent the archetype in your first bullet and/or optimize for financial gain + status (3a) will jump to PE/finance, or tech/startups (perhaps more so for top performers indexing toward your 3b). At my MBB, many of the partners have explicitly mentioned that they were rated middle-bucket their entire tenure - seems to be the top ~70-80th percentile performers who stick around to partner. Hopefully this provides some assurance if partner is your long-term career goal

Jan 18, 2022 - 10:55pm

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