The first job after you graduate can set the course for your future, so how do you make sure it's the right one? Typical groupthink says to look for things like cultural fit, compensation, or brand. While these factors are undoubtedly pertinent to the decision-making process, exclusively relying on them to pick the “ideal” management consulting firm post-graduation is less than an ideal approach. The management consulting industry, with its entire gamut of industry specialization and functional capabilities, offers more than meets the eye. Vault publishes its signature list of the best consulting firms to work for – Vault Consulting 50 – every year. Working at any of these firms as a management consultant would offer a prudent consulting experience, however, the depth and the breadth of that experience would be conspicuously different from one firm to another.
Below are the five criteria to consider that uniquely apply to the management consulting industry:
1: Generalist vs. specialist
Some consulting firms only recruit for generalist roles and offer opportunities for specialization after two to three years of working as a generalist, while others align their new recruits to specific industries e.g., financial services or healthcare from the onset. Ask yourself whether you have an affinity towards a particular industry and whether you can demonstrate that affinity through your professional profile. If so, working as a generalist might not be the best option as it might dilute your professional brand. On the other hand, if you are at the exploratory stage of your career and crave a diverse professional experience, a generalist role is better suited.
2: Full-service vs. boutique
Some consulting offers pitch their value proposition based on the niche subject matter expertise and capabilities they have developed for themselves, while others take pride in offering an end-to-end, one-stop-shop solution – from M&A diligence to tax advisory – to their clients. Full-service firms offer significant career mobility within the organization, while boutiques allow honing in on specific skills and experience, and serving a niche market segment. Ask yourself whether you prefer developing a broader perspective and business acumen. Outside of the management consulting industry, numerous large-scale organizations offer rotational programs, where new recruits have the option to work in four to six different departments within an organization over a period of 12 to 24 months. If such a setup appeals to you, a full-service management consulting firm might be a better fit. On the other hand, if you have already identified your craft and all you wish for is to continue to develop your dexterity in it, being part of a boutique that encourages your craft is a good option.
3: Regional vs. national/international travel
The consulting industry is known for being travel intensive. A typical work-week for most management consultants involves traveling anywhere from 50% to 80%. However, not all travel is the same. Some consulting firms draw regional boundaries and require new recruits to pick their region at the time of onboarding. For example, a management consultant working in the west coast region would most likely be limited to traveling between San Diego and Seattle. On the other hand, consulting firms that manage their talent pool at the national level can offer engagements requiring bicoastal travel – such as from San Francisco to New York City. Some people are drawn to the idea of traveling and building frequent flyer status with airlines, while others prefer more “localized” travel. Ask yourself what category you fall into with respect to your travel preference.
Management consulting firms tend to be deliberate about fostering a loose and a flat organizational structure. They aspire to create an ecosystem of think-tanks, where ideas flourish through osmosis. Some people tend to appreciate the dynamic nature of the consulting workplace and thrive in such an environment. And some find the lack of organizational structure, where one does not have a designated functional manager or a functional team that meets every day and works together on a regular basis, daunting. It is important to introspect on what the ideal workplace means to you. Irrespective of your workplace preference, however, becoming a newly minted management consulting can lead to the feeling of isolation or being lost in the “crowd” at times. And the best panacea to long-term success in the business is to find a mentor, who can help you navigate the organizational network. Ideally, you would want to find such a person while conducting informational interviews, even before you join the firm. For information on how to network professionally and engage others in informational interviews, check out my 5-step method. After conducting several informational interviews as part of your recruiting campaign, if you still don’t find anyone with whom you resonate at a particular organization, it’s probably safe to direct your focus somewhere else.
5: Post-consulting career opportunities
Some people enter management consulting with a can-do attitude – they see themselves doing whatever it takes professionally to establish a long-term career trajectory. Some also enter the industry with a Panglossian view – they perhaps aspire to have a long-term career in the industry but find it hard to balance the workplace demands, which eventually leads to burnout. Finally, there are some who enter the industry with an opportunistic view – they aspire to attain a certain kind of professional experience, which they then intend to leverage in the pursuit of their long-term goals. No matter what category you fall into, it is important to reflect on your long-term professional aspirations and how a career in management consulting would facilitate the attainment of your long-term goals.
Recipient of the Presidential Award from The White House, Vibhu Sinha is an intrapreneurial and bottom line-driven senior management professional with experience in leadership roles across banking and capital markets. He has advised institutional clients on corporate strategy, idea generation and pitching, financial planning and analysis, M&A, investor relations, and ESG. Vibhu developed his acumen in behavioral psychology at Harvard University as part of the master's degree program and also earned an M.B.A. from UCLA Anderson.
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