For those who decide to enter the consulting industry, management consultancy offers the opportunity to work across a wide range of sectors, from the public sector to financial services and from telecommunications to media. It's this exposure to so many different business sectors and challenges - combined with the potential to fast-track one's career - that typically makes consulting an attractive career option for ambitious young professionals.
The aim of this article is to give you an understanding of the points in your career when it's most probable you could secure a role with a consulting employer. This in turn will help you figure out whether you can successfully move into consulting right now, or if there's a window of opportunity approaching in your career that you need to be planning for to maximise your chances of success.
Broadly speaking, the major branded consulting firms hire three distinct streams of candidates: fresh university graduates, new MBA graduates and experienced hires. The desired candidate profile for each of these hiring pools is distinct and a failure to recognise this often leads strong candidates to stumble in their attempts to break into the consulting industry. So let's look at each in turn.
In spite of clients demanding that an increasing proportion of consulting project teams be comprised of professionals with deep sector expertise, the major consulting brands still have a voracious appetite for hiring and training up fresh university graduates. Generalists who will undertake much of the research and 'leg work' of a consulting project are essential to each firm's ability to offer a service that both delivers ROI to their clients and a financial return to themselves.
Whilst thousands of graduate openings will typically need to be filled each year, the competition for places is nonetheless intense. For every successful candidate there will be dozens who don't make the grade. It's essential that you grasp the intensity of this competition in order to really appreciate some spin-off ramifications for your chances of securing entry via this route:
1. Each consulting firm will have a rigid set of criteria that are the hurdle that any undergraduate must attain to even be considered for interview. These hurdles are likely to be set such that consulting firms will only:
- Consider applicants from a certain subset of elite universities.
- Consider applicants who have surpassed their grade thresh old (usually 2.1 or above- and often extending back to look at A level and GCSE grades too).
- Consider applicants coming straight from university (or a post-university gap year) such that they are taking on trainees who are totally malleable to that firm's values.
2. It is not uncommon for a consulting firm to receive 100 times more applications than they have jobs to fill, or to have 20 prospective applicants for each interview slot they are looking to fill. Given these numbers, the reviewing of applications becomes a matter of ensuring that the firm is interviewing a strong set of candidates (from which they will be able to make the requisite number of hires). These firms are not in the business of 'making exceptions' and looking for talented hires in the pools of candidates not meeting their criteria. There are more than enough candidates who meet all their criteria for them not to need to consider those who do not.
3. Consulting firms trade on their reputations. If a client buys from a certain firm, they know the calibre of individuals that they are likely to see working on their assignments. They know that the CVs of all the consulting team members will check out, and that they will all have been trained in a uniform manner and be consistently good performers. Consulting firms' hiring programmes are therefore all about ensuring the continued supply of consulting staff who fulfil these expectations and where the risk of client rejection is minimised. Combined with the points above, this explains why firms do not diverge from their standard hiring criteria and why you are wasting your time applying to any firm where your profile does not fit their norms.
Given the above, for the vast majority of university finalists there are a set of consulting firms who are realistic target employers - and some where you are simply out of contention. Your key goal should be to determine - via internet research and discussions with your university careers service - which consulting employers would consider applicants with your background and which would not. You should then focus all your attention on establishing which of the 'potentials' are the best fit for you personally and putting out of your mind any resentment towards firms who will not 'give you a fair shot'.
To really reinforce the point, the single biggest issue I have seen amongst university finalists struggling to break into consulting is an inability to overcome resentment at the perceived lack of fair treatment of candidates. Trying to fight the procedures and criteria that these firms have in place is fruitless and simply serves to taint your perception of the firms where you do stand a fighting chance of securing a job. If instead you are accepting of the fact that there are some firms you can interview with and others who have closed their doors to you, then you will find yourself in a better frame of mind for excelling with those firms you are interviewing with.
A similar point is true of graduates who've gone down a career path only to realise it was the wrong one and then wanting to back pedal to get into consulting a year or so into their careers. For most graduate employers in the consulting sector, this year of employment and being 'moulded' by another corporate will be seen as a negative. Candidates often feel this added experience should help differentiate them and make them stand out from other applicants - possibly even justify being brought in at a higher grade; however the reality is that it makes you more of a hiring risk and many firms have enough fresh graduates wanting to join that they will simply not take that risk.
Given the above, university students thinking of pursuing a consulting career should approach this with the utmost seriousness and commitment. As the rest of this piece will discuss, once the window of Milkround hiring has passed, you will be several years into your career before it is likely that another opportunity to move into consulting will surface. Get into consulting straight from university and you will find that there are many opportunities to move between firms throughout your consulting career, but fail to get in at the outset and the windows of opportunity to make the switch will then become far rarer.
Experienced hire openings see consulting firms bringing in staff who have amassed professional experience with another business either inside consulting or externally. At certain points in the economic cycle we may see firms advertising to fill junior positions and in these time windows it may be possible to join a firm with only a couple of years' experience. But this is the exception rather than the rule- and comes about only really when firms are trying to make up for a shortfall of graduates having been hired into the business during recent recessionary periods. For most of the economic cycle, experienced hire recruiting is limited to recruiting people who have amassed significant sector experience and where the consultancy is crying out for people with that specific sector experience, or to bring on board experienced generalist consultants who can hit the ground running and be immediately billed out to clients.
What should be immediately obvious from the above is that this route isn't going to be open to everyone who at graduation was of 'consulting calibre'. To be hired as an experienced consultant you clearly have to be working in consulting already. So if you missed the cut at graduation time, this isn't a route into the sector. But to be hired on the strength of your sector experience, you need to have the good fortune that consultancies are finding themselves winning a lot of work in your particular sector at the point in time that you are wanting to change careers. That's to say that for this to be a route into consulting for you later in your career, there needs to be a match between the sector experience you can offer and the sector demand profile that consulting is enjoying.
Usually you'd be looking at being several years into your career before this option potentially opens up to you, which is why I've stressed the importance of getting into consulting straight from university if you possibly can. Making plans to move into consulting several years into your career often simply do not come to fruition.
One last important point with regards to experienced hires recruiting is the age restriction that effectively exists for candidates wanting to move into consulting as an experienced hire. As noted in an earlier chapter, beyond the Senior Consultant level within a consulting firm, the ability to sell consulting assignments becomes an increasingly essential skill. Above Project Manager level, it is inconceivable you could secure a role without being able to demonstrate a proven track record of consulting sales success. Having sold big ticket items in another industry is rarely considered credible proof of your ability to sell consulting work.
In essence this creates the situation where professionals who have not made the switch into consulting by the Senior Consultant/ Project Manager level will find it more or less impossible to ever break into consulting. If you don't have consulting sales experience, you can't secure a consultancy role at these more senior levels. But if you can't secure a consultancy role, then you have no opportunity to demonstrate your sales skills within a consulting environment. It's catch 22 and I'm afraid to say many people who aspire to a career in consulting choose to aspire to this too late in life to actually be able to realise that dream. Hopefully this chapter will help you avoid making the same mistake.
Most of the world's leading consulting brands- and certainly all the top strategy consultancies- still put a lot of emphasis on hiring candidates who have just graduated from the world's leading business schools. For those who missed becoming a consultant straight from university, this hiring of MBA grads certainly gives you a fresh crack at getting in, provided you are able to secure a position at one of the world's top business schools.
Consultancies hire at this level both MBAs with prior consulting experience and MBAs coming from a non-consulting background. Where they tend to be very rigid is in the schools from which they will accept applications - most firms have a set of schools they target and will accept applicants from, with all other candidates effectively being out of the running. So if you are viewing the MBA hiring route as your path into consulting, the absolutely critical thing to research is whether the school you plan on attending has a track record of its graduating students going on to be employed by your chosen firms.
When researching this, settle only for hard facts. Any decent Business School careers service should be able to tell you how many students from the last few graduating classes have gone on to be employed by the types of firms you would aspire to joining. They should also be able to confirm whether those firms actively market on their campus to attract applicants. Combine these insights with research on Linkedln and you should not even consider embarking on the MBA route into consulting unless you can see a well-trodden path of candidates graduating from your chosen school into the types of firms you would like to be joining.
The difficulty with MBA hiring as a route into consulting is that getting into the schools who the top firms will be interested in will usually require having been to the types of universities that they would have been interested in at university graduation time. So this route is fine for those who just didn't realise at the outset of their careers that consulting was for them. But it is unlikely to work out for candidates who weren't strong enough to secure a consulting career at university graduation time and who are now looking to use an MBA to give themselves a fresh chance at entering the industry. Unless such candidates have been able to secure a business school place that is a real step-up from earlier academic achievements, an MBA is unlikely to open the types of doors you want it to open. I sound this note of caution as I can think of countless people I've met over the years who've been sold the promise of the doors their MBA will open for them, only to find that the firms they really wanted to join are not beating a path to that school's doors.
What I hope has come across very clearly in this article is the sense that there are limited windows of opportunity for breaking into the consulting sector, so careful career planning is needed to maximise your chances of success. Having outstanding academic achievement is a must for getting into the top firms - and for most candidates there are likely to be subsets of firms who will and will not countenance hiring someone with their background and academics. Being aware of these constraints now - and indeed accepting them - will leave you most able to shape your career in a way that entry into consulting is secured. Good luck!
This piece is adapted from The Definitive Guide to UK Consulting Firms, a 400+ page careers guide for candidates looking to pursue a career in management consultancy. A free resource, this guide contains over 100 pages of career editorials followed by a directory of consulting firms active in the UK market - with over 380 employers listed and 189 employers profiled. The guide is free to download in PDF format, with hardback copies also available. You are welcome to download a complimentary PDF copy or order the hardback via the following link:
The Definitive Guide to UK Consulting Firms (2nd Edition).