Do you think you might want a career as a management consultant but aren’t quite sure if you’re cut out for it? Are you currently a management consultant but desire to broaden your portfolio and gain the necessary credibility to advance to the senior ranks? In order to build a successful career in the management consulting profession or elevate yourself beyond your current consulting role, you need to understand what management consultants actually do. It’s also helpful for you to know the education, experience and skills needed to get hired and promoted in the profession over time.
I don’t know if it’s due to the expansive categories of consultants, the often ambiguous and varied career paths or the lack of defined competencies within the profession, but people tend to have difficulty understanding what management consultants do. Even current consultants sometimes have difficulty describing it themselves. If you ask my friends or family what I do for a living, they’d probably tell you something like I travel a lot to help executives accomplish goals or that I help organizations maximize performance. Throughout nearly two decades of being a management consultant, I have obviously shared more details than this with those in my life, but this is how I hear them summing it when they talk with other people.
As with many professions, the average person’s eyes starts to glaze over if you go much beyond a simple descriptor. But this is surely not the case for junior-level management consultants, those aspiring to become one and those who want to advance up the ranks. When these ambitious consultants or candidates ask about my management consulting career, they really do want the nitty gritty details and can’t seem to get enough information about how to succeed as a management consultant or—even better—how to stand out for upward mobility and career advancement. And the inquiries never surprise me because while management consulting is an extremely demanding career choice, it is a massively rewarding one as well.
A general overview of the management consulting profession.
Management consultants work with domestic and/or global clients (organizations, executives, leaders and teams) to identify and solve complex business, organizational and operational problems and define and improve processes. And though it can be a highly competitive and demanding profession, it can also provide many long-term benefits and career perks. Management consultants have opportunities to work with the senior teams and top executives within organizations, and this helps with cultivating powerful relationships and building a supportive network. The profession is typically dominated by frequent and heavy travel schedules, long work hours, continual learning and development, close team collaboration and a focus on short and long-term projects.
What do management consultants actually do?
The core work of a management consultant tends to fall within three key areas:
- Management consultants provide industry counsel, advice and functional expertise in specialized areas such as strategy, mergers, governance, reorganizations, organization design, strategic leadership, operations, digital transformation, information technology, organizational change management, organization development, human resources, talent management, advertising, and marketing to name a few.
- A management consultant serves as an objective third party to conduct in-depth research and analysis and then provide an unbiased opinion and perspective on difficult matters and complex business problems and issues.
- Management consultants work directly with senior leadership and internal project teams to deliver hands-on project management and leadership consulting to include project implementation, execution and measurement.
Though management consulting is interchangeable with the concept of advising, it’s actually distinct from the professions of executive coaching and training. Still, each of these professional disciplines should have a sustainable—albeit different—methodology or framework by which to deliver services. High-quality management consultancies will have developed a sound management consulting methodology by which to inform the work of their management consultants. To maintain a competitive and differentiated competitive advantage, this methodology tends to be proprietary and serves as a guide that management consultants adhere to as they effectively conduct assessments, perform analyses, diagnose issues, test hypotheses, intervene and make recommendations and deliver follow-up services for clients.
What distinguishes highly successful management consultants from the rest?
It’s been my experience that the mindset of a management consultant makes all the difference. Whether it’s from my own management consulting experiences or the success—or lack thereof—of those I’ve worked with or hired, it is abundantly clear that the mindset you have for this kind of work is critical. The best management consultants are those who have a propensity for strategic thinking and a bent toward statistical analysis, critical thinking and process improvement. Management consultants who are best at analyzing issues, diagnosing problems, executing substantial interventions and designing focused solutions are those who:
- are strategic thinkers with an ability to focus on the whole system and consider the interconnections and interdependencies within it.
- help other leaders and teams to not only define what success looks like but also to ascertain whether operational capacity exists to deliver it.
- apply a process-improvement mindset and methodology so as to effectively solve problems but also to evaluate the systems and processes beyond it to limit the likelihood of unintended negative consequences or experiencing long-term harm down the line.
- comprehend the full scope of strategy and ensure the right strategic outcomes are defined, and then lead navigational efforts to help execute and measure the results.
- have deep understanding of performance metrics and are able to define which data align with which metrics, how to turn the data into actionable intelligence that decision makers can use and how, and in what format, the information should best be communicated.
What education and experience do you need to become a management consultant?
The education and experience requirements vary depending on which level of management consulting you work in or seek to occupy. In general, there are basically four different categories on the career ladder. Within my firm, we hire in at the first three levels. Regardless of whether you work for a large or small firm, the consulting level you end up in will depend largely on your education and experience and then your competence.
The first consulting level is entry level, and it’s typically a business analyst or associate consultant role and usually requires an undergraduate degree with very little (if any) experience. The second level tends to be known as the actual management consultant level. Where I work, we require an undergraduate degree and four years of consulting experience or a graduate degree and two years of consulting experience for this management consulting level. The third level is what’s known in the industry as a senior consultant or project lead. It usually requires the equivalent of a graduate degree and seven years of experience or an undergraduate degree and 10 years of direct consulting experience. The top level is a partner or principal, and this level usually calls for a graduate degree and more than 10 years of directly-related consulting experience.
What skills and expertise do you need to succeed as a management consultant?
The required skillset varies depending on the different industries and the specific client base that a particular management consulting firm targets and works with. But you should know that you will be expected to finely tune your functional expertise and specializations (see above) around your assigned industries, and you’ll be expected to develop your skills and expertise in any area where you want to deliver consulting services and strategic advice. The higher up the career ladder you go, the stronger skillset you need to have and the more you need to know.
To reiterate, management consulting work typically requires extensive travel, lots of time with clients and—even still—lots of additional time processing and analyzing work even when you aren’t with clients. In addition to specialized expertise, you will also need many of the following skills, and these will vary depending on the consulting level.
- consulting and advising (in your defined areas of expertise)
- strategic thinking
- analytical processing
- action research
- problem solving and process improvement
- communication (writing, speaking and listening)
- conflict management
- judgement and decision making
- emotional intelligence
- executive presence
- client engagements and relationships
- managing ambiguity
- analytics and data interpretation
- statistical thinking
- critical thinking and analysis
- project management
- business systems
- marketing and sales
- contracting, budgeting and financial management (for senior-level consultants, partners and principals)
If your goal is to build a successful career in management consulting, I recommend you enhance your education, experience and skills to align with what I have detailed above. I also recommend that you thoroughly engage in interview prep, and study up on the case interview method. This method is often applied during at least one phase of the interview process.