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Illustration sourced from Ian Martin Group

With many of my business school classmates going through recruiting I thought it might be timely to write an article about the trade-offs of being a consultant.

Let’s start with the benefits of a consulting life

You get to work with awesome people

Easily the best part for working at BCG was the calibre of the people I got to interact with each and every day. The case team is the cornerstone of any consulting project. Teams vary in size from case to case but generally consist of a few early stage analysts/associates/consultants lead by a project manager and overseen by one or more partners. Due to their prestige, consulting firms recruit top talent. I was constantly impressed by the sheer intellectual horsepower from my case team members. But more than that I found my colleagues to be humble and genuine individuals. And if you are stuck with someone you just don’t click with at least you will be on a new project soon anyways.

You get to work on a diverse set of projects

The biggest career appeal for me to work in consulting was the opportunity to work on many different projects and undertake a broad range of experiences that would not have been possible as an engineer. BCG structures itself in a matrix of industry (e.g., media, healthcare, resources) and functional (e.g., strategy, marketing, IT) areas. Over the course of my 3 years a snapshot of my projects were,

  • Reducing the upfront cost of global miner’s expansion by 40%
  • Helping a media conglomerate understand how they would play in digital
  • Helping a poker machine operator reduce their impact on problem gamblers
  • Developing a strategy to help an insurer better utilise big data
  • Assisting a snack food manufacturer get out of a costly promotional war

You get excellent training

Human resources are a consulting firm’s main asset as so they invest heavily in their people. This consisted of a 2 week orientation but continued with regular training sessions on Fridays at least every month. More importantly though was the informal on-the-job training and mentorship that you experience when in the trenches with your team. This where you learn how to really sense check your models, the intricacies of slide design to best convey messages, and how to manage up.

You get to travel

o If you like to travel consulting can offer great opportunities to see the world on someone else’s dime (and by see the world I mean the places on the drive between the airport, office, hotel and client office). At BCG opportunities for global travel included Cross Office Staffing (temporary 1 case assignments), temporary transfer (1–2 year transfers to another BCG office) and permanent transfer (self explanatory).

But any proper discussion needs to appreciate the downsides,

You write slides and build models

This is the essence of what you do as an associate or consultant. At a high level your job is to obtain data, analyse it to get insights and communicate those insights generally using powerpoint. While the analysis and insight steps can be intellectually rewarding, moving boxes around on a slide and aligning chart axes at 2am is about as fun as you imagine.

The hours can be long

o While not as tough as investment banking, consultants do tend to work decent hours. In BCG in Aus we targeted 55 hours a week. In reality most people were around 60–65hrs. A mate was at one extreme working on a case that wasn’t 7 weeks long but 42 days long. He essentially worked every day for 7 weeks on a now infamous case; they even had a few rooms booked at a hotel across the street so that people could take a few naps during the day as needed. Despite that he still says that was the most rewarding case that he has worked on. I’d have to say that I had a pretty lucky run over my time only working over a weekend a handful of times. Although I am also, to my knowledge, the only person to have slept at the BCG office.

The work can lack meaning

This is unlikely to be true for most people but I was always much more driven to perform well for my team than perform well for the client. While a limited number of cases involve doing things like fixing health systems or improving access to education most boil down to improving client profits. I’m not saying this is bad in any way. I’m just saying that in a trade-off between working over the weekend and maybe making another 50k (on paper!) for the client, I chose my weekend.

In the end you are just an adviser

This was something that I struggled with coming from an engineering background. Before I would have an idea and be in a position to test it out. As a consulting team you can put forward the best proposal but for a myriad of reasons that client half-arses it or doesn’t do it at all. We are on the outside. It is up to them to take the ball and roll with it.

So I hope that provides a quick overview of the merits and drawbacks of life as a consultant. On a personal note while 3 years were long enough in consulting for me I am very grateful for those years.

Written by

EdTech entrepreneur, passionate about improving education impact through tech and research-driving practice. Former consultant and engineer. Harvard MBA.

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