The best consultants combine top-notch academic rigour with practical experience, and consulting firms are keen for you to develop both throughout your career. There are numerous ways to develop the specialist knowledge and skills necessary to become an expert in a particular industry or function, or to climb the promotion ladder.
In addition to formal career development opportunities, good consulting firms will ensure that you feel supported within your organisation from day one. Following your initial induction period, you should find a number of additional support mechanisms in place.
Managers and mentors
Your manager will be an essential port of call for assistance with any work-related concerns. Managers are often partners or more senior associates and you should have regular catch-ups with your manager to discuss your progress – how often will depend on your particular task of the moment. In contrast to the more formal work and social support systems, most firms operate a ‘mentor’ or a ‘buddy’ system: that is, they will pair you with a more experienced consultant to help you find your feet and answer any queries on an informal basis.
If you look at the TARGETjobs Inside Buzz reviews, you’ll find that consulting graduates across the board emphasise that their firms encourage them to ask questions, and that help is always forthcoming from other member of their teams.
Secondments and networking
Secondments or externships allow consultants to work in industry or with a client organisation for a fixed period of time. They are great opportunities to gain exposure to different working cultures and are popular with employers, as the experience improves relationships with clients and allows you to expand your expertise.
Networking is important in consulting: your personal contacts and reputation can make a huge difference to your career progression. You’ll need to take advantage of the fact that you’ll be working with colleagues at all levels within the firm – and that your fellow graduates could be the leaders of the future.
It is possible (but not essential) to work towards becoming professionally qualified. The certified management consultant (CMC) qualification is awarded to consulting professionals by the Institute of Consulting (IC) in recognition of a consultant’s experience, competency, skills and integrity. To apply you need at least three years’ industry experience and to be an IC member.
A postgraduate qualification is a popular route to career advancement in consulting. The traditional route is the masters of business administration (MBA), which is normally only open to applicants with at least two years’ industry experience. Many organisations sponsor promising associates to pursue an MBA after three years’ employment. Rob Wild, a consultant at L.E.K. Consulting, is all in favour of MBAs. He comments: ‘Taking time out from consulting to do an MBA is highly beneficial for both professional and personal reasons. While you are unlikely to be thinking about it right now, you should be! Many consultants return to studying in the form of an MBA just a few years into their career, and many consulting firms pay for this further education. My firm sponsored my MBA at INSEAD, one of the world’s leading MBA programmes. My MBA allowed me to realise and reflect on how much I had learned in my career so far, as well as learn so much more, not least from my classmates. Combined, my class had over 2,000 years’ worth of experience at the world’s leading firms, and we brought this joint experience to every case study and piece of work we completed. ‘
Masters and PhDs
You could consider a masters degree or PhD before you apply. Relevant areas for a masters degree include HR, IT and accountancy. A doctorate allows you to complete research in an area of specific interest to you. However, for maximum benefit you must ensure your subject is relevant to the area you want to work in and will be valued by your future employer. Recruiters value practical experience and work-based skills as much as academic excellence, so find out what benefits a postgraduate degree will give you over other candidates. The university’s reputation will also count with recruiters, as it is seen as an indicator of quality. As a postgraduate you should not expect to command a better salary at entry level than graduates; however, those with postgraduate qualifications do tend to progress more quickly.
Consultants work long hours, often away from home. But many firms reward this hard work with increasing opportunities for personal growth and a good work/life balance as their consultants progress. Here’s a snapshot of the options one firm (Oliver Wyman) currently offers its consultants:
- Plan a month or two away from the firm – or arrange a sabbatical as long as six months.
- Bring your skills to a non-profit organisation for up to six months
- Take a break from consulting and see what you learn in another kind of business through an externship.
- Extend your business network by rotating to a new position here or at our corporate parent, MMC.
- Transfer to another office.
- Create more time by adjusting your work schedule on a temporary or long-term basis.
It’s up to you
In consulting you direct your career and a flexible approach to your development is positively encouraged. Many respondents on Inside Buzz comment that one of the things they like about consulting is that because it is a results driven job, few employers expect ‘face time’. ‘Work can be done when you are most effective,’ says a graduate at BCG. During the assessment process, don’t hold back from asking questions about the support and development opportunities available at the firm. Intelligent questions show that you’re making a thoughtful, mature career decision and are committed to working in the sector. Take advantage of the fact that, while other careers might pin you down to a predefined route, as a consultant how far and how quickly you progress is up to you.
Where to start
With all these options open to you it can be difficult to know where to begin. Start with some self-assessment and consider your individual interests and skills to help plot your future development.
- Where do you want to be in a year’s, five years’ or even ten years’ time?
- What are your personal goals/aspirations?
- What type of assignments do you enjoy?
- Which sectors/functions interest you most?
- Which skill areas do you need to improve?
- What is the recruitment market like for the area you want to go into? Does it particularly value the technical knowledge gleaned from postgraduate study or the practical experience acquired from a secondment, for example?