The Accidental Tourist
When I was in college many moons ago I knew nothing of this industry called ‘Management Consulting’. Maybe it was because I went to a State school near Woodstock, NY with only two x286 PCs (I’m dating myself a bit). Or maybe it was the lack of counseling and guidance towards the general career possibilities that were available to me at the time. In any event, this mysterious profession that many (including myself) have fallen into was not even close to being on my radar.
I understand that the Accenture’s, Deloitte’s and PWC’s of the world are probably focused on recruiting from places that aren’t famous for being near the biggest, hippie music party the world has ever known. And I know that there are a lot of folks who went to better schools than I – or were maybe better connected or prepped for an eventual career in advising others. But while things may have changed a bit as far as access and knowledge of the industry itself – the path of consulting careers in the industry hasn’t really changed at all.
How Did I Get Here?
Personally, I fell into this work. I had no ‘grand plan’ or designs on being the next Marty Kaan. And I had no predetermined knowledge that I wanted to be a consultant. But I knew early on in my life that I liked planning and managing work (Project Management!), I enjoyed meeting people and selling ideas (Business Development!) and I was an adequate coach and mentor (Management!). Through a few lucky breaks and chance meetings, I developed my skills in all three of these areas to the point where I was able to take my career to the next level.
What I didn’t know at the time, and primarily because I didn’t work for a large firm with structure, was that there was a pretty well worn career path in the world of consulting. After 20 years or so of working in the industry, I’d figured out how consulting careers play out most of the time…
The Typical Consulting Career Lifecycle
OK – so I’ll start by stating that I know there will be folks out there that tell me I have this all wrong. And admittedly, there are edge cases in every scenario but I’m going with the 80/20 rule on this one. In my personal and professional experience, here’s how most Management Consulting careers play out.
Years 1-3 – You’re recruited out of school (or your parents get you a job through connections) and you simply do grunt work. Here’s where the ‘analysts’ live as road warriors and decide whether they actually want to do this for a living. Money is good (compared to college), quality of life is terrible and you rack up frequent flyer miles and put on 15 pounds by eating out all the time. 50% of people wash out by the 3 year mark.
Years 4-8 – Now that you have some skills, you get a better title, a little more money and sweeter projects to work on. Perhaps you’ve been promoted to ‘Manager’ and you are starting to master delivery in a particular functional or subject matter area. You are also getting older, tiring of travel and wondering if you should sell work or manage people to further your career. Many meet their significant other in this career stage (usually while on a client gig). 25% of the original group move on to more ‘stable’ careers at this stage.
Years 8-12 – You’ve been promoted to ‘Senior Manager’ and have started to hate travel. You might be married now to an ex-consultant who doesn’t like that you travel so much and maybe you’ve started a family. You might have figured out that you don’t like selling and you’re busy wondering if you should go to an industry job near how now that you’ve been silo’d in your defined vertical/industry for good. But the money is just too good to quit and despite the fact they you’re starting to dislike clients and client work – you’ve begun to figure out office politics and are solidly on your way to a big promotion and a BMW 7-series. Another 15% of the original class has now moved on to greener pastures.
Years 12-20 – You are now the Survivorman/woman of consulting and are in it for the long haul along with 10% of your original ‘pledge class’. You’ve probably figured out whether you are going to sell, manage or deliver work for the long term – or maybe you are on a partner path where you get to do all three!? You’ve now committed to ‘the life’, have kids but you rarely see them even though you don’t really travel anymore but you still like the money and you get some satisfaction out of the work you are doing. Another 6-8% of you leave at this stage.
Years 20+ – You’re now an elder statesperson at the firm and in your 40’s – ancient in the world of Management Consulting. Hopefully made your money by now, bought the beach house and moved on to the point where your work consists of dinners and golfing with clients, holding internal meetings, doing some pro bono work and sitting on multiple Boards. If you’re one of the ‘two-percenters’ left – you are set. You’re kids are probably getting ready to take their SAT’s and you are looking at investment opportunities and for a new hobby.
Learning the “Holy Trinity” of Consulting
My personal view of the industry is that there’s what I like to call a ‘Holy Trinity’ of Management Consulting. You can basically choose one of three typical career paths: Delivery, Management or Sales. They all have their plusses and minuses and not everyone is suited to excel in certain areas. But what happens as you progress in your consulting career (assuming you have decided to stick with it)? And should you try to master the Holy Trinity or focus my career in one single area?
Nearly everyone in Management Consulting starts in Delivery while they are focused on client engagements. You have to learn on the job, pay your dues and get a feel for how best to work with clients. Much of the time you are doing highly paid grunt work and supporting large teams. But later on, as you begin to develop some real life skills and focused expertise, you can lead more strategic efforts and teams.
For those that are highly focused on delivering great work for the client and like to be in the mix – this job is for you. But for others, there’s this nagging thing in your subconscious telling you that there’s more to it. There has to be more than just going to client sites and working on projects. And naturally, many of us want to feel like we’re progressing in our careers which only leaves you two real options in this field – Management or Sales.
Here’s where things get tricky. When we talk about ‘Management’ in the consulting world – it’s about people and/or practice areas. And, let’s face it, not everyone is good at managing the career paths of others, dealing with issues ranging from long commute times to complaints about co-workers, or salary negotiations. Some are truly good at it – especially talented folks that are empaths and can deal with the human side of the business in an expert way. But I’ve also found many that choose this path only to find out that they don’t like being responsible for others or the minutiae that comes with the gig. And, it generally doesn’t pay that much more than delivery. I saw a lot of people clamoring for a title other than ‘consultant’ asking to manage people – just for the ego boost of the title. Many found they didn’t like it at all.
On the flip side, managing a practice usually comes with managing the people in that practice as well as owning a P&L, delivery of work in that practice area, client relationship management and also a bit of selling. It’s a bit of everything and can be very rewarding if you both enjoy it and have adequate skills to sell, manage and deliver the work.
More often than not, I’ve found that most consultants hate the idea of having to sell. They associate the job with sleazy used car salespeople and having to be fake and put on an act. Personally, I found that the job is much different than that. If you can enjoy what you are doing, help clients and become a trusted advisor to them, and genuinely be interested in learning about them as people – then you’re onto something. If you have to force yourself to do any of those things then BD work is not for you. But if you’re good at it, and you enjoy it, it’s likely where you are going to make the most money in the industry – hands down.
Play to Your Strengths
The #1 thing to remember in developing your career is to play to your natural strengths. I’d worked my way up from doing Business Analyst work to learning about Project, Program and Portfolio Management. As a natural planner and with a degree in Finance, I loved the strategic aspects of Portfolio Management and being able to determine the right balance of investments to build roadmaps and (ideally) achieve a set of organizational objectives. It was fun! And along the way, I developed skills in working with and managing teams and ultimately built up my leadership skills through a series of successful projects – with a few failures thrown in for good measure.
But what I really learned was that I was good at building relationships and selling the dream. It wasn’t work to me. I liked meeting people and I was able to carry on a conversation with just about anybody from anywhere. I was also able to build trust quickly and show competence. And I was adept at asking the right questions to understand what business issues people were having and proposing solutions that would help to solve their problems. This is where I excelled the most – and what impacted my consulting career in the most significant way.
Whether you choose to sell, manage or deliver work (or a bit of all three) in your consulting career – make sure it’s a choice driven by what makes you personally happy and engaged. If you’re doing it for the money and at the expense of your mental well being or other things that are important to you in your life – you’re doing it wrong. Listen to your head and your heart and pick the path that gives you the most enjoyment.