Consultants usually work for one of three types of employers: generalist management consulting firms, specialist or “boutique” consulting firms, and internal corporate consulting divisions. Many large consulting firms have offices throughout the United States, and top firms also have offices worldwide.
Consultants may work for more than one type of employer during their careers. For example, a consultant may start his or her career with a generalist firm such as Booz Allen Hamilton before leaving to start a boutique firm or take a position in a Fortune 500 company’s internal consulting division.
To complicate matters further, some major companies that are not actually categorized as consulting organizations also have consulting arms. For example, the Walt Disney Company founded the Disney Institute in 1986 to provide advice on best practices and management techniques that have made Disney a success for more than eight decades. It markets its consulting expertise to private, public, and social organizations.
The largest and best-known consulting firms are generalists. These companies attempt to be everything to everybody, and by and large they succeed at it. A large firm such as Oliver Wyman (ranked by Vault.com in 2020 as the 10th-best consulting firm in terms of prestige) might handle everything from the expected management/strategy consulting to financial, information technology (IT), marketing, and sustainability consulting. Of course, the mix of what types of problems each firm tackles can vary greatly. For example, McKinsey & Company does lots of pure strategy work and a growing amount of IT strategy consulting through its McKinsey Center for Advanced Connectivity. When consulting trends change, generalist firms adjust their services to keep pace. But what differentiates these firms from others is that their marquee offering over time has been, and remains, pure strategy.
Generalist management consulting firms include:
Boutique, or specialist, firms provide highly specialized expertise. They may focus on a smaller number of industries (energy, retail, life sciences, etc.) and/or business problems, or they may provide specialized services relating to a particular function (human resources, marketing, operations, technology, finance). Some offer targeted advisory services in very narrowly defined functional areas (mergers and acquisitions, turnarounds, economics, and litigation) or methodologies (comparative analysis of company strategic options or analysis of the economic value added by, say, a geographic or product line expansion).
Boutique firms range in size from those operated by solo practitioners to large 1,000-employee firms. The key point to remember is that a boutique firm is classified as such not because of its size, but by its focus.
Boutiques offer such depth in particular areas that it’s increasingly common for a boutique firm (and potentially a very small one with only a few employees) to be the consultant of choice for a Fortune 500 company. These highly regarded specialist firms are extremely appealing employers for prospective consultants interested in developing a true expertise and who are not concerned with whether their employer is a big-name firm.
Some of the more well-known boutique consulting firms include:
Each year, Vault.com compiles a list of the best boutique consulting firms in terms of a good work environment, compensation, employment outlook, and other criteria. In 2020, the leading firms were:
Some corporations have permanent internal consulting units. Consultants from these units report to a central consulting division, which then staffs its employees within different business units in the company for expertise on issues such as project management, staffing and benefits, corporate strategy, and business development. Internal consultants typically work fewer hours and travel less frequently than external consultants do. The consultants work with the client for either a set period of time or throughout the duration of a specific project. Even though everyone technically works for the same company, the consulting arm acts as an outsider, since its consultants technically don’t work for the business units.
Corporations create internal consulting divisions for several reasons:
Internal consultants also work for nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Some formalized internal consulting practices that actively recruit recent bachelor’s degree and MBA recipients include: