Here is one question I get quite a lot all the time:
“I know what management consultants do is to solve business problems of their clients. But at the end of the day, I still don’t get the details of a consultant’s life. In other words, what does a day in the life of a consultant look like?”
I honestly put off answering these types of the question so many times. Not that I don’t like the question, but it is hard to tell you about a “typical” day in the life of a consultant. One of the most interesting yet intimidating features of working in management consulting is the unpredictability of your workday. There is no single day like another. There is nothing as a “typical” day. You’ll never know what today is going to bring. That’s why the job is challenging; it requires you to manage yourself, your workload, and actively dig up for the answers before anyone has to tell you to do anything.
Hence, a long time ago, I put together a video called “What the heck does a consultant DO, exactly?” to give you a bigger picture of how a project is conducted. But since I receive a ton of similar questions every day, I will try my absolute best to break it down for you what consultants do on a daily basis.
4:30 – 6:30 – If it is Monday, chances are I have to get up really early to catch the plane to wherever my client is. It can be half around the globe, but it’s fine, I have get used to it. If it’s not Monday or the client is in town, lucky me, I get to sleep a little bit more before waking up and doing my super basic morning routine. I tend to multi-task by checking emails during my morning routine. By the time I touch my laptop on the taxi ride, I would already know exactly what I would write for those replies.
7:00 – 7:30 – Grab any taxi I can find and head to pick up my colleagues or EM if they stay on my route to work.In most of my projects, I always volunteer to pick up the EM. That’s a nice way to get to know the EM personally and get a little bit more time with him for problem-solving and coaching. If he sleeps on the ride, I may turn on the laptop, typing out those email replies. When still having time, I read documents or just go through my calendar to see how I can best plan my day. Breakfast is a hit or miss. If I have extra time, I will grab some along the way. If not, a cup of coffee will do me good! What is life as a consultant without a good, large-sized cup of coffee?
8:00 – 8:30 – Arrive at the client’s site. The first thing to do is to come and say hello to the Project Manager of the client, then head to the project room. He’s the most important contact point throughout the project that I really need to have a good relationship with. When the whole team has checked in, we typically have a quick discussion of where we are in the project, what the client’s current feedbacks are, what must be completed today, and main deliverables progress, etc. The meeting is relatively short, usually no more than 15 minutes. Once everyone is clear, our working day officially starts! That meeting is just a way for the whole team to be aware of each other’s status, but most consultants are always very clear about their own deliverables for the day even before the meeting.
8:30 – Now, looking at the detailed “to-do” list for the day, I highlight those that I can’t 100% control, meaning those that depend on the clients, on the support team, etc. The more “outside resources” a task need, the more priority I have to give it. So, right after this, I often make a series of calls/emails to all my external contact points that I need for the day/week. For this particular day, I really need to finish up the questionnaire list for the Early Warning System tool I am in charge of. The SME CEO is out for the rest of the week. I must get an interview with him today. So first thing of the day, I give the SME CEO’s assistant a call. The schedule is set! 4 p.m.
9:00 – There are couple items I need to be ready before the interview. The local research team has already sent me some rough collections of questionnaire the night before. I think their job is done and this is where I start. I need to sort through all of those and come up with a more structured and clean sheet, with clear groups and purposes. After that, the translation team will work on my version. Based on my experience of working with them, they can finish this volume in less than 2 hours. So I “book their capacity” in advance from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., leaving myself another hour, just in case. That means I have the whole morning in my own process. It shouldn’t be that hard. Perhaps I will have time for other running tasks.
9:15 – 11:00 – It’s time to shut down all other communications and put my headphone on. Even though I don’t listen to any music, that’s one effective way for people not to disrupt my workflow. I focus 100% of my energy on the questionnaire list. Like any other consulting tasks, there are always things that are not going your way. The research team has missed out an entire session while duplicated on others. Fortunately, I already asked the industry research team about those missing pieces of information 2 days ago. (In McKinsey, you have 3 types of research teams: local, industry, and function). Their deadline has not come yet, but hopefully, they have something. I gave them a call and luckily got some materials on the missing session.
11:00 – Finally! I finish the questionnaire list and send to the translation team ahead of time. They have other things on their hand and decline working on my task before the booked schedule from 1 p.m. I agree and turn back to my desk working on the ORG structure of my assigned department, feeling decently comfortable.
12:00 – Lunch break! Not having been eating properly for the last couple days, I decide to have a nice lunch that day. I join the EM and 2 other team members going to the most decent coffee shop on the building. I update the EM about the current status of the questionnaire. Everything is on track. Not much to talk about.
12:13 – My phone rings. The SME CEO’s assistant is calling. My heart drops a beat. Something must be wrong! If you joined consulting, you would know that phone calls usually associate with bad things. People rarely call you to tell good news. It’s always something that needs attention or your work.
I pick up the phone and the assistant says the CEO would not be available on the original timeslot. She asks me to reschedule it to 1:30 p.m. I immediately run through a few scenarios and possible solutions on my head. “Would after 5 p.m. work?”, I ask. “How about 2 p.m.?”, I try again. Nothing seems to work.
12:15 – Change of plan! Leaving the lunch table just 60% finished, I walk straight to the project room, giving a call to the translation team on the way. I always treat the support team with respect so fortunately, I do win their heart. In situations like these, it’s important that they are willing to drop their own lunch to help. They did!
But even with that, they only have just a bit more than 1 hour. So I erase my consultant status and jump in to translate with them. With me joining the team and sit right next to them, the pace and quality are vastly increasing. Tricky words and concepts are sorted by right away.
1:30 – I come to the SME CEO office with the questionnaire nice and ready. He apologizes for the change of schedule, not knowing how much trouble he caused me. The interview goes well. I’ve got ton of insights and further contacts from him.
2:30 – I make a series of calls to all contacts provided by the SME CEO. Some are happy to give me their thoughts through emails; some agree to meet up for brief interviews.
2:45 – My mood is sky high. A little bump actually does me good. I have accomplished quite a lot and it isn’t even 3 p.m. yet. On the good momentum, I jump back to the Org work and keep rolling.
The process though follows the same principle: planning far ahead and prioritizing on tasks that I can’t control. So, afternoon task involves cleaning out the enormous inbox piled up, sending out requests, checking sub-output of various support teams, or giving feedback.
After that, I probably sit down and finish up all the work on my to-do list that day, which can be some data gathering, number crunching, calling industry experts for insights, or syndicating with clients.
At times, the Engagement Director (ED) may pay the team a visit for some Problem Solving sessions. We discuss what the client demands, what is done well, what is not, and what is missing. Sometimes, especially when the clients give unpleasant feedbacks, you may expect to completely adjust your work. There’s no time to complain about it because after all, consultants are hired for their competency and flexibility when solving ANY problem that may arise. Normally, the EM conducts and leads those Problem Solving sessions with EDs. But when the discussion is detailed, we are there to shed granular insights.
7:00 – At the end of consulting working hours, the team is often regrouped for reporting. We update our progress, summarize overall findings, hand in whatever is required to be finished, and get assigned the next pieces of work.
Normal people’s work stops at around 17:00 or 18:00, and there’s absolutely no work in the evening. But hey, remember, you are living a life as a consultant. Forget your personal life, at least on weekdays.
7:30 – Team dinner! This is the precious time to network and know your team players better. On most dinners, we have about half of the team.
9:00 – We head back to our hotel room for a quick shower. Some consultants who manage their time super well can squeeze in an hour for exercise. But I am just not one of them. I usually reward myself 30 minutes of relaxing and clearing personal tasks.
9:30 – The rest of the evening is often spent completing a bunch of work before the next morning. I know that many of the support teams are in different time zones, so I usually take advantage of this by sending requests or feedback before sleeping, hopefully getting something next morning.
12:00 – I often call it a night at around 12:00 – 12:30, but honestly, bedtime is not fixed at all. It really depends on how much work you have and how productive you are. We just have to try our best for some extra sleep because tomorrow will be another busy day.
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So that’s it! That’s basically how a day in the life of a consultant looks like. There is “untypical” day of course, when life as a consultant can involve site visit or field trip to distribution channels. Nothing is glamorous or amazing about it. It’s just jam-packed and hard. What is rewarding after all is the feeling of “cracking the huge problem” or just a simple thank-you note from the clients. And most importantly, it’s about what we learn and who we meet along the way that makes the work valuable.
This article talks about a snapshot in a life of us, to get a more top-down view, please check out this video on “What the heck consultants do”.