Continuing professional development as a management consultant
The consulting sector puts an arguably unique emphasis on personal career development. The best consultants combine top-notch academic rigour with practical experience and consulting firms are keen for you to develop both throughout your career. The sector offers many avenues to support you in this but when and how you take advantage of these will depend on you.
Career development opportunities
There are numerous ways to develop the specialist knowledge and skills necessary to become an expert on a particular industry or function, or to climb the promotion ladder. Reflecting on your individual aspirations and interests will help you choose the right path for you.
Most consulting firms will offer you training opportunities throughout your career. OC&C Strategy Consultants, for example, holds an International Training Week every year. Run at a different venue in the world each time, it consists of a series of seminars and teambuilding exercises that are tailored to meet the needs of employees at different levels within the firm, plus socialising and company networking opportunities.
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. The qualification involves on-the-job assessment: you will provide a portfolio of evidence, submit questionnaires filled in by clients and then undergo a verbal assessment with two external assessors. It tests core technical and sector knowledge; builds essential skills for consultancy work including client-facing proficiency; and further develops general ‘soft’ skills such as independent working and analytical thinking. To apply to become a CMC you need to have at least three years’ industry experience and be an IC member. As an industry-recognised badge of competence it serves as a reassurance to clients – and is cheaper than many postgraduate courses. Starting out you can also take advantage of certificates and diplomas in management consulting offered by the IC. They provide an introduction to the sector and help develop key competences.
Formal further study opportunities are not the only routes to advance your career and expand your skills. ‘Externships’, or secondments, are becoming increasingly popular with consulting firms - see, for example, those offered by Bain & Company. These allow consultants to work in industry or with a client organisation for a fixed amount of time, usually up to a year. They are great opportunities to gain exposure to different working cultures and can confirm whether consulting is the right career choice for you. They are also popular with recruiters as the experience improves relationships with clients and allows you to build your expertise in a particular industry. Not only will the experience broaden your horizons but also produce a more informed and well-rounded you.
A postgraduate qualification is an ever-popular tool for career advancement among consulting professionals. Many consulting firms will sponsor their consultants to do these (see, for example, L.E.K. Consulting). High performing consultants at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants get the opportunity to research a cutting edge consultancy topic at one of the world’s top universities for three months, to contribute to the firm’s knowledge base.
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.
All of the graduates the TARGETjobs Management Consulting team talked to emphasised that you are encouraged to ask questions and that help will always be forthcoming from within your teams. However, your manager will be an essential port of call for assistance with any work-related concerns. Managers are often the 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. It is common practice to assign you a mentor as soon as you have accepted your offer to help you with any initial queries on topics such as relocation or to address first-job nerves. Some firms even provide you with several mentors of different seniority throughout the firm so you can build relationships at all levels. However, you will be given at least one recent graduate buddy and HR departments try to match common interests. Sometimes this works a little too well and HR professionals cite instances of consultants trying to expense ‘buddy lunches’ 18 months after joining!
Your personal contacts and reputation can make a huge difference to your career progression – consulting is very much a profession where your individual contributions within teams count and are rewarded. You should take advantage of the fact that you will be working with colleagues at all levels of the firm and remember that your fellow graduates could be leaders of the future.
Forging your own road
In management consulting you direct your career and a flexible approach to your development is positively encouraged. Don’t be afraid to ask about the type of support systems and development opportunities available at the firm during the assessment process. Some may surprise you. Oliver Wyman, for example, offers sabbaticals and 'non-profit fellowships', where you can work for up to six months for a non-profit organisation on 40% of your salary.
Questions about the nature of the induction programme or opportunities to network within the firm indicate that you are making a thoughtful and mature career decision and are committed to working in the sector. Take advantage of the fact that while other careers can pin you to a straight well-travelled route as a consultant you can forge your own road to success.
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?