Some of you who have just got out of business schools must be all kicked up about joining consulting firms and begin a glorious career in delivering kick-ass recommendations to clients! After all, you have seen every episode of House of Lies. You are soon going to travel all over the world in premium first class, have swimsuit models as colleagues and work for moneyed clients who bathe you in molten gold and hang on to your every word as commandments from the Almighty himself (or herself, to be politically correct!) Well for all those of you, I want to give you an insider’s perspective of life as a consultant! But before that, I advise you to take a seat, drink a glass of water and be prepared!
Before we begin, some boundary rules! When I say ‘management consulting’, what I am talking about is ‘Strategy Consulting’ – in other words, the kind of consulting where you come up with a fancy grid, and get to call the client businesses all sorts of animal names! Although these points below may not all be applicable to other kinds of consulting – IT, Operations, Audit etc – they are close enough that you can expect similar experiences in these other branches of consulting too! So, with that said, here we go!
Your clients will end up hating you! – Let’s face it! Let us say that you have spent most of your working life in this company or industry and have got to your position in the organization through lots of hard-work and some old-fashioned backstabbing and playing political games. Now, you suddenly have this fresh-faced kid who has landed at your organization and is telling you how to do your job. The kid probably first heard about your company or even your industry only when he was boarding the flight earlier in the morning and his manager told him to start developing a point-of-view on the impact of the fiscal cliff on your industry. And he / she probably got all his information from the Wikipedia page on your company that was put there by the Chairman’s nephew who was an intern at the company and wanted to show his gratitude by putting in a highly flowery article that would have been embarrassing even to Kim Jong Il on a good day. In addition, on the very first day of the engagement, this kid announced to your CEO that the best way to increase sales is to fire half the sales and marketing staff, segment your market based on a ‘consumer-centric approach’ and developing a ‘flexible, time-based and targeted pricing strategy’ to support the market segmentation. What is this guy talking about? But all you can do is grin, clench your teeth and give him the exabytes of data on consumer behavior and company performance that will help him prove that you have been twiddling your thumbs all these years!
Your manager mostly hates you! – So, you are the latest recruit from HBS or Wharton (No, not everyone is perfect and can be from the IIMs). You have also realized that the approach that he has developed for working on the client case is too convoluted and can be short-circuited and be done in one-tenth the initial estimated time. Worse! You pointed this out to him in the presence of your colleagues, his colleagues, the partner of the firm and client CEO. Well, the only way you can be more hated is, if you publicly pronounce that the only way a girl can avoid getting raped these days, is to call her attackers as ‘brother’. No one is stupid enough to recommend such a thing. Oh Wait!
Your colleagues will almost certainly hate you! – Most strategy consulting firms have an ‘up or out’ policy. What this means is that, every couple of years, when it is time to decide whether you fit the bill to be promoted to the next level, it is also coincidentally the time to decide whether you will do better in a career not even remotely related to consulting. An unintended (or perhaps, intended) consequence of this is that your colleagues are always measuring their performance relative to yours. They know that even if they are stupid, all they need is someone who looks more stupid than them! And in such a situation, every colleague is a potential enemy who can be the cause for you having to leave the firm to pursue ‘alternate career-paths’.
Your team definitely has already started hating you! – Maybe you have survived all the 3 points above and have reached a stage where you are managing a team of people. Well, now you are in the unique spot where you have to tell your team on a Friday night that they need to work the next 48 hours non-stop to develop a ‘point-of-view’ deck on the consumer buying pattern for detergents in faraway Gaborone (Go ahead, look up this place in Wikipedia, and BTW, this is a true story). And all this because the partner in your firm boasted about the firm’s primary research capabilities to the client chairman during their weekly morning golf sessions.
You will hate yourself! – After 5 years in this industry, you may soon start questioning the true value that you are adding to the client organization. Also, you will have no time to spend with your family – either traveling or preparing the next strategy update for your client or both! Your children will start referring to you as that ‘uncle’ who turns up at home at regular intervals just to get a change of clothes and your wife has to look at your driver’s license to confirm that it is indeed the same person she had married a few years back.
So, is life bleak as a consultant? Well, it does have its benefits too!
Pay is good – All said and done, since the work-load is very high and the job environment is very stressful, it is compensated by a decently large pay packet. But this may no longer be true as consulting firms are having a tough time justifying their hourly rates, especially in these times of recession.
Steep learning curve – Ever had to learn all about an industry in 8 hours? Well, that will become commonplace for you soon. Pretty soon, you will be able to zero in on the most fundamental issue that an organization needs to address to continue to be competitive. This is a valuable skill to have, no matter what you plan to do going ahead.
Challenging environment – You will be pushed to your limits by your clients, your managers, your colleagues and mostly by your teams. Prepare to be questioned by everyone. Your assumptions, information, beliefs – everything can and will be challenged. Nothing will be more educational in your entire life!
So, if you are able to handle all the above, then consulting is the right career for you! Or that of a serial killer!
What do you think? Do you think management consultants add value to clients? Do you have examples or counter-examples that you can share?