Management consultants often quit their job after 2-4 years. Some are attracted by offers with higher pay, more autonomy, or better work-life balance; others quit to get new experience and refresh their learning curve, or to pursue other long-term plans. And lastly, a few consultants quit to withdraw from consulting culture.
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That’s probably the most common question I get, as soon as people know I’m a former McKinsey consultant. And here’s my answer: “Everybody quits”.
Well, it’s an exaggeration, but one not really far from the truth. There’s an “exit culture” at McKinsey, BCG, Bain, and other top consulting firms. A typical management consultant, especially at MBB firms, works for only 2-4 years at the firm – most people get out in just 2 years, and only a few stay up to the 4th-year mark.
Why do so many people quit? While the exact answer varies from person to person, there are six common reasons I noticed during and after my time at McKinsey:
- Reason #1: They receive an offer with higher pay
- Reason #2: They want better work-life balance
- Reason #3: They want to actually implement their ideas
- Reason #4: Their learning curve has plateaued, and they want to “refresh” it
- Reason #5: They want to break off from consulting mindset and culture
- Reason #6: They have other long-term plans, consulting is merely a means to an end
As you may have noticed if you’re a follower of my Youtube channel or my website – this list is by no means MECE. Former MBB consultants may have other reasons for their exit, many have multiple reasons at the same time.
Management consultants can easily get offers paying 50-100% more than their consulting salary after only 2-4 years working at McKinsey, BCG, or Bain; such offers typically come from major corporations, tech start-ups, or the finance industry, but they are not the only choices for an exiting consultant.
The reasons consultants can get such high-paying offers are the comprehensive skill set they get from consulting work (such as their exposure in high-level corporate management, or their people-influencing and dealing ability) as well as the brand name of their former employers (having MBB on your resume gives lots of bragging rights, and rightfully so). Good networking also helps a great deal – many consultants join their former clients in management or strategy positions.
This reason also explains why consulting is so attractive in the first place – consultants have access to incredible exit opportunities – we have corporate management, finance, public sector, NGOs, start-up, and even artistic pursuits – virtually everything. And somehow former consultants can always excel, wherever they go.
If you are curious about what I learned as McKinsey consultant, here’s a video to answer that question:
Work-life balance is the most common reason for leaving consulting. Work at top management consulting firms is typically stressful and very intensive, with 60-80-hour work weeks – more than most positions in the market.
Let’s face it – working 60-80 hours per week is not exactly good for your long-term health, social life, and family. It’s good to work in consulting when you’re young (say, fresh out of college – in fact it’s the best career choice, speaking from personal experience) – but once you have more things to worry about, it’s probably time to settle down and direct some of your energy towards making your personal life better.
However, consulting work is not as “hellish” as people usually think. Top firms (MBB) all have the “protected weekend” policy – on weekdays it is always 9-to-whenever-the-work-is-done, but we are allowed to rest on the weekend, except in very intense projects. In fact, managers who push their consultants on Saturday and Sunday are nearly always assessed negatively.
In addition, MBB firms have extensive support networks to take most of the manual work off their consultants – I’ve actually seen my colleagues achieving a “9-to-5” status in some of their projects – it sounds incredible but with proper resource management, you can pull it off.
No, I’m not talking about implementation consultants (though it is a track worth checking out). I’m talking about pulling off the ideas we sell in consulting projects, in general.
One problem with consulting work is that we can’t be sure our ideas are implemented correctly. It can be a demoralizing factor (which happened in my last project before leaving McKinsey – the Cement project I usually speak of – that project was more about corporate politics than actual problem-solving)
On the other hand, once we get out into the industry – preferably in a management position, be it a start-up or a big-name firm – we are actually in a position to get our ideas into practice. It’s so much more emotionally rewarding.
Consultants often leave the job when they’ve hit the “plateau” in their learning curve (that is, when they can learn very little from consulting work, even with large amounts of effort). Coinciding with this “flattening” of the curve is the transition from transferable skills (such as leading and problem-solving) to non-transferable, consulting-specific skills (how to sell consulting projects).
The flattening/transition often comes at about 2-4 years of experience, depending on the consultant. This is when they reach senior consultant/manager levels; they get out of the consulting firms to gain fresh experience elsewhere, and “restart” their learning curve.
This “problem” is even further exacerbated by the firm’s choices of candidates – management consulting firms recruit high-achieving and quick-learning people, many of which tend to get bored if stuck doing the same job for too long. That is, the same kind of people consulting firms need, are people who will leave those consulting firms.
For some people, consulting is merely a means to an end – that is, they have plans to jump out to another industry even before joining. Consulting is a career springboard where they can learn the important skills, get to know the important people, and gain an important brand name.
With that said, plans change. A whole lot. Not many stick with their original plans after a few years in consulting – most people still leave, but in other directions, while some stay and 6-7 years later they start to wonder “why am I still here”. That’s why this reason for leaving is not common in the consulting world.
The very same mindset and culture making consultants unique and so efficient, are also part of their “weaknesses” – consulting people tend to put too much emphasis on “structure”.
Structure can mean very different things, but in general, it’s a way to describe the general consulting culture: everything must be organized in a MECE way, everything must have an insight, and everything must be accompanied by a “next-step”.
Heck, even our Value Day (basically new recruits going on the stage and sharing thoughts and emotions about McKinsey) feels like a weird religious ritual, with every – single – speech having this pattern: “I have 3 thoughts. No.1: … No.2: … No.3: …”
Sounds crazy, right? Here’s another example from my days back in McKinsey – one day I was going to work and saw this car with its number ending with “777.77”. Being kind of amazed, I decided (wrongly) that it would be something fun to tell my colleagues when I got to the office; but when I did tell them that story, they all glared at me with that “so what” look on their face. Lesson learned: never tell consultants a story just for the sake of telling that story.
But don’t get me wrong – I’ve never regretted joining McKinsey. In fact, it’s the best thing that ever happened to my professional life, and one of the best in my personal life. If you feel that you have what it takes to be a management consultant – just go for it.
Wanting to help people walk in the same path, joining these prestigious consulting firms, and learning the best, most transferable professional skillset and earning a near-unquestionable brand name, has led to found this very platform – MConsultingPrep – offering comprehensive materials for every consulting recruitment step from the resume to the last case interview
If you wish to see more consulting prep content and insider stories, subscribe to my channel on Youtube – where we believe “anyone can make it to consulting”.