A consultant helps solve business problems, using their expertise in problem-solving, combined with an extensive support network of industry, function, local experts, and other specialists. The daily work of consultants in a project includes gathering data and insights, running analyses, making presentations, and pitching solutions.
Table of Contents
Personal expertise and the broad contacts available to a consultant make them highly valuable, as an organization/individual cannot (or rather, should not) hire a large number of experts from everywhere only to give insight on a specific matter at once.
Besides, the clients don’t have enough time to communicate with the experts about their problems; sometimes they don’t even know they have a problem. Also, you need more than just knowledge and expertise to solve problems. The process may involve interpersonal skills and analytical ability.
That’s when the consultants come in handy. Hiring a consultant, therefore, is a cheaper and (usually) more effective solution, despite the seemingly high price to pay a consultant for one project.
Furthermore, a consultant can give the client specialized advice and insight as “an outsider”, which means the former is less affected by the internal problems of the latter, so a consultant's opinion can be considered “more objective”.
Therefore, consultants are in high demand from governmental organizations, private businesses, NGOs, VIPs, etc. Anyone or any organization that needs consulting on anything can be a consultant's customer.
Consultants provide analysis, insights, and recommendations for clients using their expertise in relevant fields and problem-solving. They are troubleshooters who work on specific, clearly defined problems, unlike advisors with long-term relationships with clients.
A consultant has two types of roles to fulfill: external roles and internal roles.
External roles are the work of a consulting project. Those are well known since consultants are often perceived as always on-site and solving client problems. However, this is not always the truth. Not everyone, at every time, gets a project at hand. Such time is called “beach time” or “bench time”, in which consultants are staffed in “internal roles”.
Internal roles are the work at the office, which can be divided into two types of tasks: office tasks and personal tasks.
On office tasks, consultants become very-expensive support staff by drafting proposals for the firm’s partners to sell new projects, researching publications, doing non-billable internal projects, or supporting the support centers.
Meanwhile, on the personal tasks, the two main focuses are “personal development” and “business development”. “Personal development” is refining skills and qualifications, and “business development” is internal networking to ensure a consultant can get the best projects.
Read more: A Day in Life of a Management Consultant
Consultants will act as “content ambassadors”.
The job of those “content ambassadors” can be summarized into two big tasks: gather and create content. While this sounds simple, in fact, the consultants will have to put in a large amount of work. They must be able to solve the problems first, then deliver the solution as a proposal to the clients, or their director. The process is usually like this:
Problem-solving: A consultant would come to the client, gather data (through research, interviews with clients, mystery shopping, etc.), then analyze the situation, break it down into smaller pieces, finally get a proper solution. That consultant can bring in experts who know best about a particular field (either function or industry experts) for support.
Deliver technical expertise: After the long " problem-solving " process, the consultant consolidates every small item into the big picture and articulates everything into a specific proposal to the client.
The problem-solving process can be generalized into five steps:
Step 1: Define the problem
Each consulting project centers around a "problem". However, the "problem" might not necessarily be the real issue. Therefore, consultants should not only rely on a client’s information and interpretation of the problem but also have to dig deeper by collecting facts, asking questions, and examining further, until the real issue is defined.
Step 2: Find the root cause
If the root cause is not adequately addressed, the problem is sure to come back. Hence, avoiding jumping straight to solutions is best, or only the symptoms might be treated.
Step 3: Use “hypothesis-driven” process
Also called fact-based process, a consultant will make educated guesses of possible root-cause, then verify them with data.
Step 4: Break down and structure the analysis with the “issue tree” framework
However, the “hypothesis-driven” process may take forever as millions of possible root causes exist. Hence, a consultant will have to test hypotheses from the top to the bottom of the issue tree. These issue trees need to be MECE.
Step 5: Find the solutions
Once the root causes are identified, consultants can work on solutions to deal with them.
Deliver technical expertise
After all the hard work solving the problem, a consultant can present a structured, concise, and easy-to-follow proposal to their client.
The proposals presented by the consultants include a lot of technical expertise. However, that expertise rarely comes from consultants but rather from the massive back-end network behind them.
Here, a consultant will act as "the bridge" that links the client's complex requirements, circumstances, and features to the abundant knowledge and experts in their vast back-end network, filled with industry specialists. Often, a selected expert from this network can be invited to the client's site to join the problem-solving process of the project.
Furthermore, a consultant will have to quickly acquire vital knowledge when entering a new project, even with no prior knowledge about the industry (this happens most of the time). A rigorous industry study will be conducted through the resources provided by McKinsey and internet research.
As explained above, internal roles are the work at the office, which can be divided into two types of tasks: office tasks and personal tasks.
On office tasks, consultants act as very-expensive support staff. The logic here is when some consultants are on “beach time”, they are under the absolute command of the office director, which means they can be thrown into whatever job the director feels necessary.
They may be required to support their managing directors or partners in drafting proposals to sell new projects – those are called “Letters of Proposal” (LoP) at consulting firms. Even at this early stage, the proposals already cover high-level diagnoses and initial findings – so there is research, analysis, and presentation work just like in a project.
Nonetheless, the best consultants always get prioritized for real projects, so if a consultant has been doing too many LoPs, that consultant needs to brush up on skills and qualifications.
Besides proposals, partners and directors also research publications, and “beach time” consultants also get staffed into these tasks. In a project life cycle, these publications are the first marketing step leading partners and directors to their prospects.
A consultant can also be staffed in internal projects – which do not directly generate revenue (non-billable). As such, internal projects are often unfavorable in performance reviews, so consultants should focus their efforts on getting external projects.
Sometimes, a consultant can even get stuck doing odd jobs such as supporting the support centers (ironic, yes – this may occur if the office director happens to also run a support center).
On the personal tasks, the two main focuses are “personal development” and “business development”.
The personal development part is about refining skills and qualifications to stay ahead of the game. Consultants only earn top-notch pay because of their top-notch skills, so they attend training, classes, and courses to equip themselves with the best knowledge of their preferred industry. Even if they slack off for one moment, they start losing value.
The business development part is about selling talents to directors and engagement managers specifically. The best consultants always do extensive internal networking to make sure they can get the best projects.
Boost your consulting career with MConsultingPrep's Rookie Consultant Course! The course addresses the struggles of newbie consultants and is specifically designed to help them comprehend, adapt, and overcome their new, demanding workplace environment.
After all the talk about consultants, let’s talk about their managers. In the end, there must be some senior consultants to lead the junior consultants through the project.
This section will mainly explain the roles of managers in front-line projects, not their titles in the offices.
In general, there are two levels of managers.
The Project Owners (PO) are the ones leading the project. This position usually belongs to senior consultants with the most experience and achievements in the firm. They create a broad strategy, set objectives, acquire funds and other important resources for the project, and act as the project ambassador.
The Project Managers (PM) usually are from a consulting firm's mid-level positions, sometimes higher. They manage the day-to-day work of the project, ensure its quality and quantity, and act as a bridge between the staff and the Project Owners.
The Project Owners
If a consulting project is a company, then the Project Owner (PO) is its big boss. For example, at McKinsey, any consultant with the title “Associate Partner” or higher can start a project and become a PO.
The PO would be free to employ the PMs for a project through a “possible candidate” list and several phone calls. Technically, those are job interviews. The process is much like recruiting a CEO.
Outside of a project, most of the PO’s effort (or, more appropriately, Partner-level personnel, since the PO only exists inside the project) is spent on doing research publications as part of the marketing, networking for potential clients, and drafting proposals. Of course, most of the execution work is delegated to “beach time” consultants.
The Project Managers
Second in the hierarchy is the Project Manager (PM). The PM is the de facto CEO of the project. While the PM is still under the PO's command, a PM has near-absolute control over the workstreams. The PM is also in charge of recruiting consultants for the project and serves as the contact point between the client and the firm.
The priority of a project manager is to ensure the project is absolutely on time and the quality is top-notch to maintain the firm’s prestige. The PM acts as a mentor/instructor for the subordinate junior consultants and has the final say in their output.
However, unlike their subordinates, PMs rarely get “beach time”. They are frequently in short supply, and once they commit to a project, it's a full-time commitment.
This section covers the true experience of a consultant in the cement workstream of a state-owned enterprise project.
I was assigned to the cement workstream in a bigger state-owned enterprise project. I immediately began by going to the McKinsey content library to download the 100-page “Cement 101 PD”, scanned and picked up the industry key terms & concepts. Then I went to the client's website to learn basic information: their plants, location, technology, sales, and product.
I created a blank slide with those data and started with the Client fact sheet.
Next, I tried to find all cement market reports in the region and found out that the market was severely oversupplied.
=> I created a Basic market perspective sheet and jotted down this biggest takeaway along with some other insights.
I then called the Engagement Manager (EM - at McKinsey, this is equivalent to the Project Manager) to get the feeling for the workstreams and the overall project objective: “helping the client decide whether or not they should close down their major plant.”
=> With this in mind, I went back to the 101 documents to study more in-depth on the subject (cement turnaround, lean cement production cost, etc.). At this point, I knew that the client’s cement plant wasn’t doing well.
The next day I arrived in the city for the project, met the client for the first time, and confirmed unofficial information discussed by the EM. It turned out that the client’s objective was indeed to find out if they should close the major plant or not. I later got introduced to a key contact point on the client’s side, and I quickly established a nice foundation for a good relationship with him.
Next, I used the internal network to find out about similar projects McKinsey has done elsewhere in the world. Surprisingly, I found a very comparable one in China six years ago.
=> I immediately emailed each of the key personnel on that project to introduce myself, explain the project context, and ask for sanitized documents of that China project.
At the same time, I went back to the market report and tried to find out what was up with some of the most prominent players in the market. I found that most of the big ones still stay in business, while the smaller ones drop out more often.
=> I immediately added that insight to the “market perspective note”.
At the end of the day, I caught the EM on the taxi ride back to the hotel to discuss what the overall deliverables structure would look like. When we got back to the hotel, I made the very preliminary version of the final document, with just big chapters and various placeholders. In consulting, we call it the “ghost deck”.
The next morning, I got a nice reply from the China team, along with detailed, sanitized final documents. The overall structure was different from ours. But I picked up a ton of insights to update my 1st version of the “ghost deck”.
The same day, I got to the client site for the second engagement workday, met the client's key contact point, and casually announced ahead to him that I would need him to introduce me to key cement personnel and facilitate the data gathering process. He was cooperative!
In a good mood, I asked the guy to provide me with any data he already had on the cement plant so I could take initial looks even before the official data came home. He refused! I got the first sense of this organization's bureaucracy and mentally prepared myself for the challenges ahead.
I went back to the China team’s document and studied a little in more depth. I pulled out a blank slide and started noting down questions I would ask the China team’s Engagement Manager, who now has become a partner at McKinsey. He’s a busy guy, and I needed to make the best out of the interview time with him.
At the same time, I prepared myself for another important task: draft a data request to be submitted to the client. Given how bureaucratic this SOE client was, I knew how long this process could take. Hence, I had to make it as perfect as possible on the first try.
I decided to do this after the interview with the China partner. So for that day, I turned on beast mode to get as many insights as possible from all available documents back then to prepare myself for the phone interview with the partner and the client data request form.
At night, we had a team dinner with the leaders (Associate partners in charge) to discuss team norms, working processes, MBTI, Personal Development, etc. I am used to the process as we do this at the beginning of every project!
Although my team did not have good chemistry (yet!), I was looking forward to working with them.
Later that night, I went to the market research team to get any public data on the cement industry and then later filed a request for the specific data I needed.
=> At the initial stage, any public data will be useful, although, in developing countries, public data can be unclear and inaccurate. I told them that I would file a more detailed request in later stages.
Before going to bed, I drafted the ideas for the questions with the China team. Then I scheduled a phone interview with the China partner and prepared the “version 1” data request form to send to the client.
The next day I made the call with the China partner, taking the lead, and the call was well over 30 mins. The call was so insightful that there were so many things I could’ve done following it. But I decided to prioritize finalizing the data request and submitting it to the client. It was important to send it on Thursday because I did not trust the client to work very hard on Friday.
Once the data request was submitted, I returned to the ghost deck and did some editing. This 50-pager started to feel like the baby I would nurture for the rest of the engagement. At the moment, the running hypothesis was that the client should close down the plant. It was still too early to say, but at least we had something to work with.
Five days later, the data came. It looks horrible, both in terms of the data's reliability and what the data said. I immediately drafted a report entailing every question and concern on the data and sent it back to the client.
On the other hand, the parts of data considered reliable at the time confirmed the running hypothesis. The client was making a negative profit all the way from its origin. But to confirm the hypothesis, I still needed more.
I plugged the data into the turnaround excel model: a complex model with many inputs to answer one key question: “The plant is bad, but under all sources of improvement levels, can it make a profit?”. So I took on six levers of improvement scenarios.
Unlike in case interviews, in real life, for each lever, we need to go out and hunt for the answer in any way possible. Each one really feels like a mini case itself.
One interesting example was the lever of cutting logistics costs by using water boats on rivers. I explored a method no one had ever done in the country but has been successfully implemented in Thailand. I talked to some of the best mechanical engineers in the country and even took him on a business trip with me to see how people did it in Thailand.
So just like that, I tackled several levers that covered up to 80% of the possible final result. Not really one by one, but rather almost all at the same time. The “ghost deck” at the beginning of the engagement was constantly updated throughout the process. We had a few meetings at certain checkpoints with the client. Unsurprisingly, the document said, “version 36” at the end of the project.
After the final presentation and handover process were done, we spent the last week sanitizing our document and summarizing unique knowledge gained from the project into a new document called the “Practice Document” (PD) so that future projects could benefit from this.
When you put your name into the PD, future teams can call you to shed light on what you have done and know best. You become an expert in a very “niche” area.
Do consultants spend all day making slides?
Of course not! This is a weird misconception about consultants. How can a consultant generate any profit if they just spend their whole day working on slides? In fact, no firm wants their consultants to spend entire days refining PowerPoint visuals.
Usually, consultants will sketch their ideas and concepts, maybe even outlining a complete slide with placeholder text, before capturing it in a photo and forwarding it to a visual graphics team along with a deadline. The stricter the deadline, the higher the cost.
Big consulting firms even have dedicated design centers in many regions around the world.
Do management consultants always travel?
It depends! If the client sites were close to the office, then of course, a consultant wouldn’t have to travel much. Even so, a consultant might still have to take short business trips to client sites in different cities.
For consultants that have to travel to client sites in another country, they might fly there on Monday and return to the office on Friday. At McKinsey, this is called “in-office Friday”. This means a consultant would spend the whole weekdays at the client sites, which also means that consultant has to travel 3-4 times per month.
How long does a project usually last?
A consulting project might last anywhere from three months up to a year, depending on the scope defined in the contract. Anything longer would be broken into multiple projects.
The cement workstream in the above story is a part of a bigger project that takes eight months in total. The client is a conglomerate and represents six different industries. The first eight weeks were spent on overall diagnosis, followed by 16 weeks of detailed strategy for each industry, assigned to each consultant on the team.
Do consultants work on multiple projects at a time?
No, they do not work on multiple projects at the same time. Everybody from the Product Manager (PM) level or below is fully dedicated to just one project at a time. Partner-level personnel, however, can have multiple projects running at the same time.
What can a consultant do better than a company's management?
Providing best practice
Consulting firms also consult with many other clients in the same industry across the globe. So even though nobody is 100% certain the advice would work, everybody knows that consulting firms will bring the “best practice” - the most updated, and the most proven solutions - to the table. Sometimes, hiring consulting firms is as much about standing out as it is about not being left behind.
Sometimes, consulting firms are used as a political tool to create buy-ins, raise the stake, or eliminate rivals. For example, if there are two rivals with opposing ideas on how to run the conglomerates, is there any better way to add weight to one’s argument than saying it comes from McKinsey people?
When it comes to problem-solving, consultants have two major advantages over anyone else.
Comprehensive and efficient problem-solving process trained at consulting firms.
The extensive support network of expertise, which allows consultants access to the best practices in any given industry.
Client managers usually have daily tasks and corporate politics to worry about; consultants, on the other hand, are employed full-time to focus on just one single problem; that’s why they can solve in months what may have been swept under the rug for years.
At MConsultingPrep, we have developed this Rookie Consultant Course to help Rookie consultants quickly adapt to their workplace’s principles, requirements, and standards so that they can survive, excel, and get promoted fast. The Course includes six deep-dive videos and two detailed guidebooks to pump up your rookie consulting career.