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The Doom and Gloom of Consulting

Debunking the myths of a prominent profession

The job goal of many Economics or Business students is to become a consultant: management consultant, strategic consulting – you name it. The big firms are of course prominent everywhere, recruiting on campus online but also smaller and local firms try to have their shot. Consulting is popular, very popular to say the least. Therefore, it is time to investigate the facts of what it entails – and what not.

Who would not like to pass on knowledge and influence other people in their decisions? Who would not like to travel around a lot, earn a lot – and all this by advising people on what to do? Conversely, who would like to work 80 hours a week constantly, spending most of their time preparing slide decks, all this while scraping their free time for sure? As with all other domains of high achievement and high impact, consulting does not come without the usual sacrifices. While in business or politics you can at least say that you are responsible for the decision and claim the reward and laurels, while in consulting you are simply the provider, and your client might welcome your proposal – or simply discard it. So, how is it really looking in the consulting world?

You sacrifice a lot of time – but at least in a planned fashion. As a consultant you will mainly work for and with clients, which usually demands you to be on-site. COVID-19 marked a clear exception here where consultants were able to work from the comfort of their home– if they were demanded at all, given the tighter business environment. Anyway, most weeks you will be at the client four days a week, which usually means four days away from home, a very early start on Mondays, very limited time off during the workweek, of course no time for hobbies or friends during this time. Fridays at the office, depending on the firm and client, another long day – or not. The only benefit: weekends are weekends – at least for most. Normally, as consultants are tied to the projects they do at their client’s, they can at least spend some time off on weekends. But even then: some presentations might still need to be prepared, or some additional work is to be done. It all depends on the position you have, the projects – and extra projects – you take on, and of course the company culture. Where McKinsey has already made strong leaps to improve the company culture, other strategy consulting firms still like long hours.

You’ll collect an excellent resume and earn a lot – if you play by the rules. At least you are being stuffed with good skills, learn how to perform under high pressure and how to deal with various situations. If you take on the bit extra, work the longer hours, do not pretend your contract would be important and show the necessary respect, you can rise up quickly. The burn rate is high, with few people staying in the profession longer than a couple of years. In most ways it is about acquiring routine quickly so that you can make partner (or at least senior associate) and then load off the more cumbersome jobs to juniors. Who is not able to manage by routine at a certain point will clearly be outmaneuvered by younger entrants. And of course, the usual risks of working a lot remain. Needless to say, relationships or health could suffer – or not, with the proper self-management tools. Even though the reputation of the firms might not be the best, they are not as heartless as that they would just drain talented people. It’s more about using the tools they are offering you. How you deal with what you are presented with is up to you.

You can make an impact – if your client says so. The possibility at least is there that you make something happen. Consultants are demanded because companies face problems or struggles that they cannot or do not want to solve themselves. And the biggest advantage of being a consultant – not being tied to your client – is also your biggest weakness: In the end it is only about them and they decide. You perform the analysis, you clean the data, prepare the proposal and report of what seems like the best solution – of course you are paid for all that, and then the firm chooses what to do with it. They state the problem, you get at it and do whatever you can to fix it, and either they say they fixed it, or they don’t even fix it in the end. For the worst, your impact could be exactly 0, but of course you also do not carry responsibility if your results turn out to be wrong. You solve problems in the back, and do not step to the front. As a consultant you are a sophisticated problem-solver for others that should be versatile in data science, economics, and logic to grasp the impact and cause-effect relationships. Always remember: your best friends will be Excel, PowerPoint, and linear regression.

In the end, consulting should not be mistaken for advisory firms as they are also to be found, where experienced people pass on their knowledge and help entrepreneurs (or persons). Consultancy is mainly about research, investigation, analysis and then trying to help resolve the problem a client faces (and cannot solve himself). One can make good money, rise up quickly – if one has what it takes, and that is mainly endurance and good technical skills, and enjoy being away most of the time. If this sounds good to you, it’s your way to go. And even if not, it might still be worth a try – if only to see what to stay away from.