Management consulting provides excellent opportunities to work with high-level and talented executives, gain broadly-applicable skills, travel to many different places, and earn high incomes. To gain access to these benefits, however, candidates must train intensively to overcome hundreds of thousands of competitors, with a <1% acceptance rate.
In this article, I have compiled the most common reasons why people should and should not pursue consulting. These are the most refined insights coming from over 30 interviews I conducted with my ex-colleagues, as well as my personal experience as an ex-McKinsey consultant.
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Any background can get you into management consulting
A particularly lovely thing about consulting is you can become a management consultant regardless of background. Diversity and openness is a given. Hell, you can become one without a degree.
Consulting firms will hire candidates from any academic discipline, as long as they fit three criteria: leadership, achieving, and analytical problem-solving. Then, consultants will receive all the training they need for the job. The same thing can’t be said about something like engineering or finance, where you’ll most likely need a degree to get in.
Anyone saying they didn’t get into consulting for the money is LYING. The MBB pay new consultants north of $90,000 per year, while upper levels can make anywhere from $200,000 (senior consultants) to over a million (partners and directors).
So next time, if a consultant preaches to you about “I went to McKinsey to make the world a better place,” his “world” sounds more like his wallet, and I tell you what, McKinsey definitely does not do what it does the world a better place (for most of the time, will get to this later).
(Somewhat) glamorous lifestyle
You might also have heard that when traveling, consultants will travel first class, stay at five stars, and dine at the best restaurants in town. Well, yes and no. On the yes side, consulting firms always ensure the highest-standard travel experiences possible for their human assets, so everything will be top class for consultants.
But remember, if you get the best of something already bad, it’ll still be bad. There’ll be projects that bring you to some village in the middle of nowhere, with no electricity, and people living in tents or something. If that’s the best the place offers, surely you aren’t fine dining or five-star dwelling (just an exaggeration, but you get the idea).
Also, think about all the expensive meals you’re gonna eat, not because you have so much money at your disposal, but because you don’t have the time and that’s all you can get. Sometimes, that becomes a suffering, not something to brag about.
Plenty of career support so you can get the best of your time
Right from the beginning of your consulting career, firms are more than ready to provide you all the support you need, so you can save 99% of your time doing consulting work. Even as an intern, you can get people working for you right away. Cool, right?
Back when I was at McKinsey, there was an entire team of professional PowerPoint designers (no wonder the consulting PowerPoint jokes) to support consultants. All I had to do was draft the contents on a piece of paper then send it to the PowerPoint guys, so they could take care of the grunt work while I focused on real consulting stuff.
Other services work the same. You can’t afford an hour to figure out complex Excel models? Send it to the Excel guys. You need industry experts’ advice on your client’s case? Look up McKinsey’s network and help will come in minutes.
Bottom line is, consulting firms want consultants to focus on the big content, and utilize all the support they can get to take care of the rest. Time is money, so saving time by spending pocket money on mundane tasks will always be a priority.
Reasonable work/life balance
A consultant will work anywhere from 60-80 hours per week, but the average should be around 65. And of course, the actual number depends on project type, job title, office geography, and how well each consultant can utilize given resources.
That sounds a lot for someone with a typical 9-to-5, but compared with other high-profile careers, consulting hours is still very forgiving.
Take a look at a banker on Wall Street. Yes the name is there, and the pay is there (fresh bankers can earn north of $120,000 per year before bonuses), but he’s working 100 hours a week all around (Goldman Sachs first-year analysts averaged 95 hours per week).
And I tell you what, your misery increases exponentially with every added hour you work. So, say from 40 to 60, not too bad. 60 to 80? Gets worse, but somewhat manageable. But 80 to 100? That’s something else. (I’ve been there, trust me). So ask yourself, is the 30% more pay worth the 50% more hours, and like, 100% more suffering?
Here’s my very crude hours worked to misery chart so you can get the idea
Also, some consulting firms actually try to create a sustainable experience for their employees. At Bain, there are daily work-hour tracking systems to record overtime hours, which will be compensated for with extra leaves (comp-offs). That’s not something we can say about Goldman Sachs.
And here’s a tip: don’t overdo yourself. Take it easy, sure you aren’t making as much as those bankers, but why work your health out of you just for money, then burning that money just to get that health back when you get older? WORK-LIFE BALANCE, guys.
Fast and well-rounded personal development
Aside from the money and name, consulting is also known for its fast, high-level, and well-rounded personal development that lasts a lifetime. Consultants are trained to excel in a diverse range of skills and to be comfortable with steep learning curves.
For me, I was already meeting with my Prime Minister and pitching ideas to CEOs in the first couple of weeks at McKinsey. And when I wasn’t meeting high-profile people, I had to keep up with the work of my superstar teammates.
It could be difficult for new guys in the first 8 weeks, and usually takes 3 months to learn the ropes. But after that, you will be the master of strategic thinking, analysis, efficiency, resourcefulness and communication. These are the kinds of well-rounded skills that make consultants successful in whatever they do later in life.
Flexible exit options
Thanks to the well-rounded skills mentioned above, with the prestige and alumni network, consultants can excel at anything and work in anything after their time at firms.
Okay, consultants work with different industries, so of course, they’ll learn numerous transferable skills for their later careers. But the bigger fish might be the connections; as you’ll be working with high-profile people, every project is a networking opportunity. Do your job well, they might even hook you up with a lucrative position some day.
Here are some common exit options for consultants:
Nonprofits and NGOs
Short prep time
Preparing for consulting should take you around 2 months to a year, and that includes everything from networking, preparing consulting resumes, test prepping, and practicing case interviews. Also, you can get into consulting at any time in your career.
That’s not something you can say about other high-profile careers, like banking. Banking would usually take all 4 years of college to prepare for, and the process is usually much more demanding, with lots of emphasis on networking. And don’t even think about jumping to banking mid-career.
You are too ethical
One thing you have to know about consulting is firms will always work for the clients’ best interest, therefore consulting firms, especially McKinsey, are notorious for prioritizing profits over human values. So forget about “making the world a better place” preaches, you’re making your clients’ pockets deeper.
You may know about the Purdue Pharma case, where McKinsey helped the company making insane money from opioid sales. In the end, McKinsey settled $600 million for 49 US states for its role in the scandal.
So, if you’re the social-equality type of guy, consulting might not be for you. But hey, that’s just how business works. No one ever gets rich without even the slightest wrongdoing.
You are not an overachiever
Here’s the thing: All consultants I’ve met were constantly worried about the quality of their work and always tried to push forward. They never settle for less. So if you’re the “good enough” type of guy, then consulting is probably not for you.
You don’t like the lifestyle
Sure, traveling first class and staying at 5-stars are tempting to most, but the cost of those are the long hours and barely any social time with friends and family. Clients first, remember? Not family and friends first.
Still, consulting hours are still somewhat tolerable, you may get busy depending on projects, so social life isn’t completely out of the question. But if what you’re looking for is a 9-to-5, then dinners with the folks, then a good night sleep, consulting is not for you.
You have problems with communications
Consulting is about combining numbers and people. Sure, you can train yourself to become the greatest math genius in the world, but the soft skills, the ones that link everything together, are a lot trickier.
Yes, you can learn all the soft skills/public speaking courses you want, but if in your heart, you are still averse to communication, they won’t be useful.
So, you don’t like working with other people and hate speaking to a crowd? Consulting is definitely not for you, because, well, you’ll always be working in groups and pitching ideas to clients.
Here’s a wrap up, consulting is right for you if:
You like the pay, in exchange for some social life
You like working with amazing people
You want a rapid, well-rounded development
You want to achieve great things (“great” varies by people, so find what “great” means for you)
And if you are fresh out of college, don’t have a clear direction on your career, but tick all the above, sure, get into consulting.
From then on, to climb the ranks in your firm or to find a more exciting, better-paying job, that’s on you (I quit McKinsey to focus solely on MConsultingPrep, so yes, you can literally do anything, whether big corps or start-ups).
But consulting is NOT for you if:
Your concern is ethics and social equality
You are not an overachiever, ready to settle for less
You want to maintain social life
You aren’t good at public speeches