Career Path at Top Consulting Firms: 2 Tracks to Choose

When applying for any career options, you may wonder what lies in the future to get yourself well-prepared for the upcoming path. As elite as management consulting may sound, its complicated structure may confuse you at first.

With my former experience at McKinsey, I’ll guide you through a typical career path of a consultant, give you some insights about the firm, and hopefully, help clear your confusion!

There are two major tracks in consulting: (1) the traditional consultant and (2) the supporting tracks. See the below picture for an illustration.

Traditional consulting track

At management consulting firms, the career ladder usually has 4 to 5 levels.

  • Level 0: Intern –  Most consulting interns support other consultants by collecting data or running analyses. Not every consulting firm offers internships.
  • Level 1: Junior Consultant / Analyst – Undergrads enter the firm at this level. They handle small workstreams or support senior consultants in larger, more important workstreams.
  • Level 2: Senior Consultant / Associate – MBA grads enter the firm at this level. They tend to lead large and important workstreams in a project.
  • Level 3: Project Manager / Project Leader – They manage the day-to-day in a project, similar to CEOs in other firms.
  • Level 4: Partner / Director – They are in charge of selling consulting projects to clients, and act like owners of individual projects.

Roles in a consulting project

Projects and offices are completely separate entities – think of them as separate companies in a conglomerate. If you pay close attention to the titles, you’ll know the positions listed in the above section belong to the office.

What about projects?

In consulting projects, there are just three levels – they roughly correspond with job titles, with slight variations here and there. Wordings can vary through different firms but naturally, it stays the same. For a simple approach, I will use McKinsey’s title to explain.

Engagement Director

This role corresponds with Level 4 (Director/Partner) in the office.

Engagement Directors (ED) are the ones who own a project. All Associate Partners and above can start a project, as long as they can get one. That is why high-ranking leaders spend most of their time on networking, connecting with CEOs, and selling consulting services – projects.

Engagement Manager

This role corresponds with Level 3 (Project Manager/Project Leader) in the office.

Once a project is established, the ED will hire an Engagement Manager (EM), the most important decision of any project. While ED is the project owner, the EM is somehow like the project’s CEO. The EM will manage projects’ activities and make important decisions.

Managers spend most of their time problem-structuring, managing individual analyst’s working progress, and synthesizing the whole team’s work into a cohesive analysis.

They will also be in charge of managing the output of the workstreams, updating senior leaders, and communicating with their clients to see whether they are on track.

Staff-level Consultants

Everyone from interns to senior consultants will play this role. They handle the executive work in a project – conducting research and interviews, building financial models in Excel, collecting data and running analyses, and building PowerPoint slides on key insights. Higher-ranking consultants will be given larger and more difficult tasks.

A consultant team that best fits the context of the project will then be assembled. They are chosen based on various criteria: cost, experience, background relevancy, and familiarity with the EM himself or herself.

Besides, a project may need help from supporting centers, which opens up another career path in consulting: supporting tracks. Find my explanation later in this article.

Ever heard people saying consulting is about “solving business problems”? That vague description does not do justice to a highly complex job of a management consultant.

For a non-cliche description from a former McKinsey consultant, check out this article: What does a consultant do?


Policies and mechanisms

You have to climb up the ladder

You will always start at entry-level positions in the traditional consulting track and gradually climb up your career ladder. At MBB, they rarely hire an experienced person straight to manager or partner levels.

Management consulting is unlikely a good route to switch your career with 10+ years of experience as you will have to start over again. It is most ideal to start your consulting career as fresh as new graduates!

Up or out!

You may wonder when consultants will get promotion, in fact, it is a race for everybody. You have strictly two years to advance your position to the next level. If you are not qualified enough to be promoted after every two years, you are suggested to leave.

This results in a strict pyramidal structure for most top consulting firms – the higher up, the fewer people there are.

Read more: Up-or-Out Policy in Management Consulting

Three types of consulting 

Consultants in consulting firms are typically divided into three main types: strategy consulting, implement consulting and digital consulting. Each type operates in distinct fields and has unique job requirements. To give you a sense of the differences, I will go over the key features of each of these groups.

Strategy consulting

In a strategy project, consultants collaborate closely with their clients to thoroughly understand their business challenges and formulate a comprehensive long-term strategy to tackle those issues. Their main role is to answer the crucial question "what should we do?".

Strategy consultants provide detailed market research, including market shares, pricing, volumes, business models, and other relevant conditions that support the recommended strategy. They also play a crucial role in decision-making processes

However, it's important to note that strategy consultants often face limitations when transitioning to implement consulting if they lack specific industry experience.

Implement consulting

In implementation projects, consultants play a crucial role in executing the objectives outlined in the final implementation plan, which has been devised by the strategy teams in collaboration with the client. They focus on answering the critical question, "How should we do this?"

Implementation consultants are extensively involved in helping companies implement new systems or manage special projects that require hands-on engagement in the day-to-day business operations. 

Working alongside the clients almost around the clock, they remain present to swiftly address any challenges that may arise during the implementation process. 

It is not uncommon for implementation consultants to eventually transition to strategy consulting roles after gaining significant experience in certain fields.

Digital consulting

Digital consulting is a specialized field that centers on effectively implementing strategies across digital platforms. Digital consultants in this domain are focused on answering the question, "What technology can be applied for this case?".

They possess extensive expertise in digital technologies and often have experience with substantial digital transformation projects, commonly operating as part of a large consulting group. The key areas where digital consulting comes into play include data analytics, digital marketing, IT, data cloud, blockchain, and more. 

Due to the specific nature of their skills and knowledge, digital consultants may find it challenging to switch to another consulting area, as other fields require a deep understanding of various industries and business practices. 


Supporting track 

Besides office and project, there is another career path for you to work in consulting firms which is through supporting tracks (supporting centers).

In projects, consultants' main goal is solving problems, thus, making decisions and giving recommendations based on data. Collecting the right data is a job and those people work in ‘research and knowledge centers’ are there for that.

Research and knowledge centers

There are generally three types of research and knowledge centers: 

Industry specialists

This center holds a massive database of a specific industry such as: center of public sectors, center of retail or center of cement.

Their everyday job is to update and expand those databases, getting them ready for requests from different projects

Function specialists

The purpose of this center is to support consultants in certain aspects of a project. Some examples are center of implementation, center of finance, center of sales and marketing, etc. 

These function centers work everyday to enhance their knowledge and data on their area waiting to support project teams 

Local specialists 

These centers on the other hand know extensively about their location, thus, provide data of an area for consultants in various locations. They have a vast network of important local contacts, local experts agencies or even the government

Their main tasks were gathering in-depth information and sometimes networking regarding certain areas.

Alongside ‘research and knowledge centers’ with the duty of providing data for projects, there are also ‘miscellaneous centers’ which will help consultants do time-consuming tasks.

Miscellaneous centers

There are also three types of miscellaneous centers:

Design centers

Employees of the design center will receive consultants' raw ideas and turn them into compelling PowerPoint slides or visually engaging infographics for various projects. 

The more time-sensitive and intricate the project, the higher the compensation for the design teams involved. 

These centers attract and employ professional designers and editors who bring their expertise to enhance the visual quality and impact of projects.

Writing centers

Similar to the design center, employees of this center will receive a draft from consultants and write it based on the consultant's ideas or consultants can write the thing themselves and let people here fine-tune it.

Many consultants do not have the ability to write well so they need professional writers in the writing center, who are highly skilled and know the consulting writing style to support their work.

Spreadsheet centers

Spreadsheet centers provide specialized support for consultants dealing with highly intricate models, involving complex functions and vast amounts of data. 

Employees in this center are skilled in handling numbers and data, possessing advanced spreadsheet expertise. 

However, their services are less frequently used by the consultant's team compared to other support centers due to the complexity involved. 

Two entrances to the support center

It is an overview of the responsibilities performed by those who work at a consulting firm's support center. There are two common ways for you to join supporting centers:

(1) Experienced consultants in a specific field may join some industry-related or function-related supporting centers to help their junior consultants to master their expertise in their projects.

(2) Some supporting centers may go out and recruit top-notch experts to join their team. You may not have had any consulting background previously. This is when a successful 10-year career path gives you an advantage in joining the consulting field.


Consulting exit opportunities

Everybody quits Management Consulting at some point. After gaining a sufficient set of skills or achieving their personal goal, they look for other challenges.

You have many choices to jump over after leaving management consulting firms.

You can join your favorite client and take high positions there.

You can join Venture Capital, which deals with unicorn start-ups and has more exposure to businesses outside the Fortune 500 list.

You can start your own business as I did, and succeed in your own way.

Your future is unsure yet so flexible that you can try out as many positions as you want!

Before applying for any consulting position, you should learn well about its structure and your future path. With this explanation, I hope it helps with your consulting preparation!

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