Management consultancy and investment banking are the two top career choices for business school graduates. Join a consulting firm and you can become comfortably off: choose investment banking and you’ll be obscenely rich. But it’s about more than the money, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
My contention is that consultancy is the better choice. In the course of your time as a consultant you’ll see a wide variety of businesses across a wide variety of sectors, work alongside a wide variety of skilled professionals on a wide variety of problems….and be able to take all that experience off into the real world when you finally decide to get a proper job (typically after 3-5 years as a consultant, for reasons I’ll explain later.)
The UK consulting industry is recovering after three awful years. Firms are hiring again, but the competition is fierce. So the first thing you need to do is to polish up your CV. You need to stand out from everybody else in your class who’ll be applying. Any application, whether by post of email, must be tailored for the specific opportunity. And a cover note needs to highlight: what you’re good at, what you can bring to the firm, and how they’ll benefit from hiring you.
If you’re hoping to join a strategy house (McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Bain are the ‘holy trinity’ of the top tier firms), get on to their websites right now. The closing dates for applications are generally about a year in advance of start dates, so you need to apply early. (Hint, if you’ve missed the deadline, still apply. Other applicants may drop out/choose investment banking instead, and you might get lucky…)
Most other firms, however, recruit on an as-needed basis. Check out their websites for current vacancies. Remember, these requirements are listed around 4-6 months before the new recruits are expected to start, so there’s no point in applying too early.
As well as a consultancy firm’s own website, look for advertisements posted on job boards (eg Top-Consultant.com), and trawl around social media (YouTube, Facebook etc) for other recruitment announcements.
But don’t just wait for an opportunity to be advertised. Be proactive. Find people you know (friends, alumni) who are working in consulting firms and ask them to put your CV in front of a hiring manager. (Almost all organizations encourage their staff to do this now).
Scour the business pages of quality newspapers for comment from consulting firms (journalists frequently solicit quotes from consulting industry figures for analysis pieces on issues of the day). Make that the reason for introducing yourself to them. (“I saw your comment in the FT about supply chain disruption and…… By the way, I’m finishing my MBA shortly with a view to becoming a supply chain and logistics consultant, and I wondered if you could introduce me to….”)
Don’t just target well known consultancies. Although a big consulting name on your CV will resonate widely when you move out into industry, a small consultancy which specializes in the sector in which you intend to make your long-term career can be just as valuable. (Hint: think about your exit before you even enter a consulting firm. Say you plan a long-term career in the pharmaceutical industry: why not seek out the niche firms who consult in this sector?) There are many good reasons why a consulting career with a boutique (ie small) firm makes sense: you’ll be exposed to the problems that keep that industry’s CEOs awake at night, you’ll learn at the shoulder of a director or partner of a boutique consultancy (rather than just a senior consultant or manager at a large consultancy), and you’ll have more dealings with the CEOs of the companies you’ll want to join when you eventually leave consulting.
If your course requires an internship or summer project, why not find a placement in a consulting firm? Even a few weeks in consulting will demonstrate you know what consulting is like. And 70% of interns are offered a permanent job at the end of a placement.
Be realistic: not everyone can become a strategy consultant. Most business school graduates who go into consulting will join a mainstream consulting firm (eg Accenture, Deloitte) and will be hired not just for their intellectual horsepower but also for their pre-business school experience. So if you have a background in the insurance sector, say, then look for opportunities in the financial services team at a consultancy. Or if you’ve been as software engineer, try to position yourself in IT advisory.
And don’t get hung up on rank. Unless you are nationally known speaker in your field, you’ll join at the standard entry level….even if you’ve been a senior vice-president managing scores of staff and managing a budget of tens of millions. You’ll need to go through consultancy boot camp just like everyone else.
Salary? Again, you’ll have to take the ‘going rate’. It’s currently around £60,000 in the UK. That’s base salary: expect a bonus (but don’t rely on it to pay the bills) of 15%, a pension contribution and local market ‘big company’ benefits such as private healthcare and life insurance. Holidays: around 25 days or your local market average. And if you’re good, and you last that long, you’ll double your base salary in around 4 years.
So…why do I think you won’t last that long? It’s the baggage that comes with consultancy which makes consultants leave after 3-5 years. Work life balance? It’s all work, and no life.
Expect to spend around 70% of your working year away from home. (Some consultancies will ask you to sign an agreement to spend 100% away.) That means three nights in a hotel and four days on the client site – which might be five hours journey time from home. The working week averages 50 hours, and a stretch of 70 hours a week to bring a project in on time is not uncommon. Think of the impact that has on your personal life….and you’ll understand why I think you’ll last 3-5 years before you move on.
Still want to go into consulting? Good. I think it’s the best possible choice for consolidating your business school education. And just look where former consultants end up: UK Foreign Secretary (William Hague); former HSBC Chairman (Stephen Green); Enron CEO (Jeff Skilling)…ok, maybe not that last one.
Whatever you choose – investment banking, setting up your own business, or consultancy – study hard, enjoy your time at business school, and good luck!
Copyright Don Leslie 2011
About the Author: Don Leslie is a recruiter at management consultancy recruiters BLT. That’s his day job. What he really enjoys doing is evangelising for the consulting industry. You can contact him at BLT via email@example.com