Survive Your First Months as a Consultant: Insider Strategies

the image is the cover for an article on how to survive as an analyst with mckinsey and other consulting firms

Last Updated on February 22, 2024

Embarking on a journey in the competitive world of top-tier consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain can be both exhilarating and daunting. The stakes are high, and the pace is relentless, but the rewards of navigating this path successfully are unparalleled.

This article serves as a consulting survival guide for young consulting analysts and interns eager to make their mark and transform their initial opportunities into stepping stones for a flourishing career.

Extracted from the comprehensive playbook “Consulting Career Secrets,” this piece distills key strategies and insider tips designed to not only help you kickstart your career on the right foot but also provide actionable insights on converting internships into coveted return offers.

the image is an introduction of the book consulting career secrets by dr florian smeritschnig

Whether you’re stepping into the halls of McKinsey, BCG, or Bain, the information encapsulated here is your gateway to standing out, making an impact, and setting the foundation for a great career.

The information in this article can help you kick off your consulting career as a full-time hire as well as allow you to transform your internship into a full-time return offer.

Key Strategies For Young Consultants and Interns

Upon entering a top consulting firm as an analyst, it’s crucial to understand the key tasks and master performing at your peak to navigate through the progression of ranks and frequent micro-promotions while also steering clear of the “up or out” policy.

Similarly for interns, once you have secured your internship, it is natural to aspire to receive a full-time offer upon its conclusion. You are expected to perform like a newly-hired, full-time consulting analyst, with a bit more leeway, given that as an intern, you are usually earlier in your career. If you are joining as an intern during your MBA program, expectations are a bit higher.

Still, it is understood that you will not develop into a fully self-standing consultant in just a few weeks. What is more important is demonstrating your potential to grow into a world-class consultant and displaying an eagerness to learn.

Hence, make the most of your limited time to create strong impressions with key decision-makers, while at the same time also enjoying the experience.

How can you make that happen?

Prioritize visibility

If there is one aspect to focus on, it is visibility. The primary reason why new hires and interns fail is a lack of presence and visibility. For instance, rarely do interns fail to receive a return offer due to inadequate Excel or PowerPoint skills, as they are basic technical skills that can be quickly learned and improved.

To enhance your visibility, make your presence known in team rooms and meetings by speaking up, synthesizing and summarizing information, building on others’ points, and presenting your insights to clients. Engage with clients through conversation and involve them in the problem-solving process. Connect with leadership by reaching out to partners, sharing insights, asking questions, and demonstrating ownership of your work. Consulting is not for the timid; even if you create exceptional analyses and visuals, you will not receive a return offer without a strong presence in front of key stakeholders.

In addition, it is important to contribute to the positive energy in the team room. Be upbeat and assertive, bring good energy, share humor, and connect with your team. Avoid being the person constantly complaining about the workload or demanding clients, as this drains everyone’s energy and does not shine a positive light on your personality.

Offer your help in times of need. There will be instances when your team is busy finalizing a critical deliverable, and you might be unable to contribute significantly during these crunch times. However, you can still add value by taking on administrative tasks such as ordering food for the evening, organizing transportation, or tidying up the workspace. Everyone on the team will appreciate these small gestures.

Lastly, consider organizing regular team events such as dinners or fun activities to demonstrate your engagement and organizational skills beyond your core deliverables.

Embrace ownership and accountability

A key differentiator for new consultants is their ability to take ownership of and accountability for their work. While it is not expected that you will perform miracles, you should strive to provide value to the team and make the time spent coaching you worthwhile.

Rather than simply completing assigned tasks, take a proactive approach. Contemplate the necessary analyses, novel insights, and independent research, and reflect on the problem. Embrace your role as a solution-oriented team member, always looking for ways to contribute value and enhance project outcomes.

Project managers value new hires they can trust. Aim to deliver high-quality work on time, and keep your manager informed if you foresee any delays or challenges. Work diligently, transparently, and with integrity on your tasks. Adopt an ownership mindset regarding data, analyses, and client relationships, and always be ready to discuss topics related to your work. Always think about and write down a couple of bullet points for yourself about what you are currently working on, what insights and implications you generated, and how they are relevant in the project context. If someone asks, you will always be able to demonstrate your ownership and accountability, increasing trust in your work.

Triple-check your analyses and presentations

This point relates to embracing ownership and accountability. New hire expectations are not exceedingly high, and full-time offer conversion rates for interns are generally favorable. However, consistently making minor errors or a single major mistake – especially if it reaches a client meeting or email – can jeopardize your return offer. Avoid errors at all costs, as they can quickly erode trust in your abilities and leave you with little time to change perceptions. Full-time consultants may recover from a poor engagement, but interns rarely have the luxury of a second chance.

Work on all analyses and presentations with the ambition to make them “client-ready,” implying that you would feel comfortable sending them directly to your client’s C-level executives without another consultant or project manager having to review them first. Project managers highly appreciate consultants striving to provide client-ready deliverables autonomously, even though they will likely suggest several changes and improvements. While it is infrequent for a new hire consultant to produce a perfect, senior client-ready slide without any project manager or partner input, the effort and intention are what count.

Manage stress

As a junior consultant, it is essential to manage stress effectively, especially as you may be younger and less experienced than most other colleagues. You might perceive situations as more stressful than your peers and may not have developed effective coping strategies yet.

To thrive and keep stress at bay, focus on two key elements: avoiding significant errors and demonstrating a willingness to learn and grow. While perfection is not expected – indeed, internships or your early weeks as a full-time consultant are understood to be learning experiences – what distinguishes exceptional colleagues at this stage is the trust they earn from their teams, their reliability, and their ability to demonstrate potential. By avoiding significant missteps – see the other tips in this part – and learning quickly, you eliminate the constant worry about performing well enough, which can significantly reduce self-induced stress.

If you find the experience or project overwhelmingly challenging, remember that the two or three-month internship or initial project will end soon. This realization can help to improve your perspective during trying times.

Enjoy your time with the team and consider whether the job aligns with your long-term goals. Many interns become overly fixated on performance and neglect to consider whether a full-time offer fits them.

Starting prepared can also help you with this.

Seek guidance proactively

Like every junior team member, you will receive formal and informal advice and feedback from your project manager and colleagues. However, due to the fast-paced nature of the job, you may not always receive the attention you need.

In such situations, you are responsible for seeking guidance from your colleagues. This strategy entails three key actions:

  • Always align with the team before committing to a task or discussing matters with clients independently (unless you already have an established relationship). Clients often do not know you are an intern or new hire, and you want to avoid creating situations that put you or your team in an awkward position.
  • Seek regular input on your work to ensure you are headed in the right direction. This action also helps prevent any major mistakes and makes sure that you are working on the right topics at the right time in the most effective way.
  • Request performance feedback from colleagues, project managers, and partners bi-weekly or weekly. This request demonstrates your eagerness to progress and grow quickly. Remember, you have less time to develop and showcase your strengths than a full-time hire with longer review cycles.

Absorb all knowledge and experience available

This one is especially crucial for interns.

You must learn the same tools, skills, and techniques as any newly hired full-time consultant. It is your responsibility to absorb as much knowledge as possible and improve your skill set significantly during your limited time. While with the team, actively seek to maximize your experience: voluntarily participate in client calls and meetings where you do not need to be present, engage actively in problem-solving sessions, observe your colleagues’ work habits, and study their conduct and deliverables. Immerse yourself in your firm’s internal knowledge documents, research papers, and training programs.

Project managers assess not only your current capabilities but also your potential to grow into an exceptional consultant. They can extrapolate and establish your future growth potential by comparing your skill set at the beginning and the end of your internship. Earning your project manager’s trust in your potential will put you on track for a return offer.

You are placed in the same high-intensity, fast-paced work environment as full-time hires. Embrace the rapid iterations and feedback cycles, as they can teach you a lot about self-organization and how to work effectively. Regardless of whether you continue in consulting, the skills and experiences gained during your internship will benefit you in future roles.

Balance your priorities

Developing the ability to say no is valuable, even for new hires or interns who may feel obligated to accept every task. However, while looking after yourself and your work-life balance is essential, recognizing that during your limited internship, spending more time with the team and going the extra mile can facilitate recognition, learning, and progression – all important for securing a return offer.

Going the extra mile is not solely about working extended hours but embracing additional responsibilities and tackling tasks beyond your direct assignments. Approach these opportunities for visibility with a proactive and enthusiastic attitude rather than denying every request for your assistance or presence.

Still, be mindful of your workload and communicate with your assigned buddies and mentors if you feel overwhelmed or taken advantage of. Generally, consulting firms try to prioritize their interns’ well-being, as they understand that overworking them can hinder their performance and limit the enjoyment of the internship experience. All firms aim to retain their staff, particularly considering the existing challenges in hiring enough qualified consultants. Frustrating interns and causing them not to want to return is counterproductive to the goal of this process.

Establish boundaries and schedule time blocks for your workload. A great way to balance priorities is to take control of your calendar and establish personal boundaries. You should manage and protect your calendars as effectively as your colleagues. New hires may feel hesitant to set aside dedicated time for their work. This behavior can increase stress and may inadvertently encourage team members to delegate additional tasks. Defining time boxes can help you complete tasks efficiently, demonstrating your ability to organize yourself, a key skill project managers and partners look for in promising consultants.

Leverage support systems

Firm support systems are available to interns as they are for every other consultant. Learn how to utilize these resources effectively, as it not only alleviates your workload and improves the quality of your work but also showcases your ability to engage others for your purpose – a critical trait for a successful consultant.

However, always consult your project manager before involving support staff or external providers. Their time and effort will impact the project’s budget. Self-initiative is excellent, but you do not want to be the intern who commissions a potentially useless, two-week analytical effort costing thousands of dollars.

Capitalize on training opportunities and cultivate a network

New hires typically have dedicated training and even interns have access to some of the comprehensive training programs offered to full-time hires. Take advantage of every opportunity to enhance your experience and development.

Networking with peers and senior leaders is equally important as for full-time hires, and the same strategies apply. However, the challenge lies in the limited time available for relationship building. Hence, attend as many networking opportunities and events curated explicitly for internship cohorts as possible. Attendance allows you to connect beyond your immediate project circle more casually.

Moreover, do not limit yourself to intern or new hire-only gatherings. Explore other company-wide events, such as practice workshops and conferences. As a new hire, you might assume these events are beyond your reach, but that is untrue. Remember, you are an integral part of the organization, and these events are an excellent opportunity to gain broader insight into your firm’s people, culture, and operations. These gatherings can help you feel more connected, providing excellent networking and learning opportunities.

Another practical approach to gain visibility is to work on multiple projects during your internship, which exposes you to a broader range of colleagues and strengthens your support base for a full-time offer. Upon returning, you will already have an established network to facilitate a smoother transition. In many situations, you can actively push for getting staffed on two projects during your internship.

Key Mistakes to Avoid as a Junior Consultant

I also aim to discuss the three prevalent challenges that young consultants encounter, which hold the potential to prematurely conclude their distinguished careers. These issues not only test their resilience but also their ability to adapt and overcome obstacles in a highly competitive environment.

Understanding and addressing these challenges early on can be the key to a long and successful career in consulting.

Not being proactive enough

Consulting firms hire self-starters.

As a junior consultant, it’s important to take initiative and be proactive, day in, and day out. Examples of this are plenty:

  • Don’t wait for the client or your senior colleagues to give you specific tasks; instead, identify areas where you can add value and propose solutions.
  • Don’t wait until someone asks you about your progress or if you need help; rather, reach out immediately if you need help or have made a mistake. There is no time for dragging out anything on a usual engagement.
  • Don’t wait for someone on your team to ask if you have free capacity; rather, proactively approach your colleagues or manager and highlight that you would be glad to take on more work (only do this, if this is truly the case. Avoid getting burned out by always saying yes to everything).
  • Don’t wait for your manager to give you feedback; approach them yourself and ask about their opinion of your work and interactions.
  • Don’t be a victim to the team’s or your manager’s way of working; tell them beforehand about your specific lifestyle needs (e.g., going to the gym 2-3 times per week at a given hour of the day, etc.).

Lacking an understanding of the client’s business

It’s important to thoroughly research and understand the client’s business and industry so you can provide informed and accurate recommendations. Understand why you are there and what your role is. While you are not expected to be an expert on the client or the industry by your team and leadership, the client stakeholders usually don’t know this.

Hence, you need to get up to speed with a new client or industry quickly when starting a new engagement. Your firm usually offers plenty of resources for you to do this. How can you go about it?

  • Schedule calls with previous teams that have worked with the client and get their input on the client’s business, key stakeholders, results, and work of the past
  • Look through previous engagement documents with your client
  • Browse through your firm’s internal knowledge database for relevant articles and presentations
  • Schedule calls with firm experts for particular industries or functional areas
  • Read through the research output of your leadership team (your partners on the team)
  • Set up Google Alerts for your client and key competitors as well as the industry as a whole

Learn more about how to kick off a consulting project here.

Not communicating effectively

As a consultant, good communication skills are essential to communicate with your team and client stakeholders.

Low-performing entry-level consultants often have difficulty conveying their ideas and recommendations both in internal team problem-solving sessions and during client meetings. Make sure to listen actively, ask questions, and summarize your understanding to ensure that you, your team, and client stakeholders are on the same page.

Learn the tools of the trade from your peers. This includes the ability to communicate both verbally and visually clearly and concisely. Learn how to navigate client meetings and interactions by observing how your more experienced team members are doing it and asking the right questions to your peers.

Bonus: Delivering faulty work

Even though you are not expected to perform at the same level as a tenured consultant during your first months on the job, you need to deliver flawless analyses and charts. Triple-check the products you deliver to your team and the client. Go through your analyses and look for mistakes in logic and execution. Go through your presentations and look for mistakes related to your findings and recommendations. At this stage, it is acceptable to take longer to solve a question or create a presentation, as long as you are transparent about your progress and ask for guidance if needed.

However, it is an issue if you deliver work that is flawed or contains obvious mistakes, especially if it goes out to a (senior) client. A mistake once in a while is fully okay and even expected. However, new hires with repetitively faulty output would lose the trust of their team quickly and can find themselves in a tricky spot. The same is true if your team or the client gets the impression that you are not fully familiar with the area you are working on or have issues explaining the data and your analyses.

You are the content owner of your workstream and should know every little detail about it, especially when you are being challenged by a partner or a client. If in doubt, let your colleagues or project manager look over your work. If you make a mistake, do not let that get you down. Learn from it and do not repeat it. Always work with an end-product (usually slides) in mind that is readily client-sharable.

None of these points I discuss above alone would lead to you being asked to leave your firm. However, low-performers, who eventually are counseled to leave (as McKinsey calls it somewhat euphemistically), usually combine several of these mistakes repeatedly.

Make sure to avoid these mistakes in the first place, or quickly pick up on them and stop them before it becomes a career-threatening issue. Consulting firms will let you know when you are on the “watchlist” and many will help and provide special training to help you make a turnaround. If that fails, you will end up with their ask to leave.

I don’t want to scaremonger. The latter case is very rare and I would say that in the first two years as a consultant at McKinsey, less than 5% of my peers were actually asked to leave due to poor performance.

Share the content!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *