Understanding Consulting Exit Opportunities: A Guide

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Last Updated on March 6, 2024

Entering the consulting field, particularly with top firms like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, is a goal for many ambitious graduates, drawn by the promise of challenging work and excellent career prospects. Yet, an aspect less discussed is the range of exit opportunities available to consultants ready to move on.

This guide aims to illuminate the reasons why consultants might leave such prestigious positions, highlight the sought-after skills they possess, and outline the various career paths open to them post-consulting. Whether you’re considering a change from consulting or interested in the potential career trajectories after leaving a top firm, this article provides insights into the opportunities for growth and advancement beyond the consulting world.

Why Consultants Leave Prestigious Firms

There are a variety of reasons that consultants may choose to leave the industry.

The Drive for Work-Life Balance

Consulting, with its rigorous demands and high-stakes projects, often comes at the expense of personal time and well-being. Many consultants reach a point where the allure of the job is overshadowed by the desire for a more balanced lifestyle. This drive for work-life balance is a significant factor behind the decision to leave prestigious consulting firms and clashes with the prevalent up-or-out principle in consulting careers.

Consultants are increasingly prioritizing their health, relationships, and personal interests, seeking roles that offer flexibility, reduced travel, and a predictable schedule. The quest for balance is not just about working fewer hours; it’s about having the autonomy to integrate work with life’s other passions and responsibilities effectively.

To address these concerns, consulting firms have begun to take steps to improve work-life balance and reduce burnout. For example, McKinsey & Company has implemented a program that allows employees to reduce their hours to better balance their work and personal lives. BCG has also introduced a “predictable time off” policy and Bain & Company has implemented a “global wellbeing program” that includes resources for physical and mental health.

However, reality and client demands often clash with such work-life balance initiatives.

Seeking Fulfillment and Professional Growth

While consulting offers a steep learning curve and the opportunity to solve complex problems, some consultants find themselves yearning for a deeper sense of fulfillment and a more direct impact through their work.

This could stem from a desire to be more closely involved in the implementation of strategies, rather than just the planning stages, or a longing to work in a sector that aligns more closely with their personal values. Additionally, the structured environment of consulting firms can sometimes limit professional growth to predefined paths, leading consultants to seek opportunities outside the industry where they can carve out a more personalized career trajectory and explore new challenges.

To address this concern, consulting firms have started to expand their focus beyond traditional consulting work. For example, McKinsey & Company has created a “public sector practice” that works with governments and non-profits to address social issues. BCG has also launched a “social impact practice” that focuses on working with non-profits and other organizations that are making a positive impact on the world. Bain & Company has similarly created a “Bain Social Impact” program that provides consulting services to non-profit organizations.

On top of that, all firms are becoming more active in the implementation stage to guide their clients as well.

Exploring Broader Career Horizons

The skills and experiences gained in consulting—such as analytical thinking, strategic planning, and client management—are highly transferable and open doors to a wide array of career opportunities. Consultants often look beyond the consulting world to explore broader horizons where they can apply their expertise in new contexts.

This might involve moving into leadership roles in the corporate sector, launching entrepreneurial ventures, or contributing to social and public policy in the non-profit or government sectors. Each path offers a different set of rewards and challenges, appealing to the diverse aspirations of consultants ready to apply their talents in fresh and fulfilling ways. The exploration of broader career horizons reflects a desire not just for change, but for growth and impact across different dimensions of the professional landscape.

Not every engagement manager wants to become a junior partner as the nature of work changes significantly.

To address this issue, consulting firms have begun to focus more on career development and flexible mobility. McKinsey & Company has created the opportunity to increase the length that consultants spend at different levels of the hierarchy or even transition to expert tracks to stay in the firm without being bound by the upward career pressure. BCG has implemented a “career development ladder” that allows consultants to take on more responsibility and plan their careers. Bain & Company has also created a “partner mentor program” that pairs consultants with senior partners to help them navigate their careers.

Cultural and Values Misalignment

Finally, another reason people leave consulting firms is due to a misalignment of culture and values. Consulting firms are known for their rigorous and competitive cultures, which may not be a good fit for everyone. Consultants may feel that the culture is too focused on individual achievement and not collaborative enough, or that the values of the firm do not align with their personal values. While this is often mentioned, from my personal experience I could not confirm this. You win as a team and lose as a team.

To address this issue, consulting firms have started to focus on building a more diverse and inclusive culture. McKinsey & Company, for example, has launched a “diversity and inclusion initiative” that aims to increase the representation of underrepresented groups in the firm. BCG has implemented a “diversity, equity, and inclusion task force” to address issues of diversity and inclusion within the firm. Bain & Company has also created a “diversity and inclusion council” that is responsible for developing strategies to increase diversity and promote a more inclusive culture.

Reason for LeavingDescription
BurnoutConsulting can be a high-pressure and demanding job, with long hours and tight deadlines. This can lead to burnout and a loss of motivation among some consultants.
Lack of job satisfactionSome consultants may find that the work is not as fulfilling or interesting as they had hoped, and may choose to leave the industry in search of more fulfilling work.
Better opportunities elsewhereThe demanding nature of consulting can make it difficult to maintain a good work-life balance. Some consultants may choose to leave the industry to have more control over their time and to prioritize their personal lives.
Work-life balanceThe demanding nature of consulting can make it difficult to maintain a good work-life balance. Some consultants may choose to leave the industry in order to have more control over their time and to prioritize their personal lives.
Lack of professional developmentSome consultants may feel that they are not being given the opportunity to develop their skills and advance their careers, and may choose to leave the industry in search of more opportunities for professional development.
Limited career progressionSome consultants may feel that they have reached a ceiling in terms of career progression within the consulting industry and may choose to move on to other opportunities.
The key reasons why people are leaving top consulting firms

The Best Time to Leave Your Consulting Job

Deciding when to leave a consulting job is a pivotal moment in a consultant’s career, marking the transition from the demanding yet rewarding world of consulting to new ventures filled with opportunities and challenges. Understanding the best time to make this transition can significantly impact the trajectory of one’s career and personal life.

Understanding the Timing

The allure of consulting, especially with top-tier firms like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain is undeniable. Consultants are drawn to the profession for its intellectual challenges, the prestige of working with renowned clients, and the accelerated career progression. However, the decision to leave is nuanced, and influenced by personal and professional factors.

A commonly advised timeline suggests that reaping the full benefits of a stint in consulting, particularly with MBB firms, occurs after a minimum of two years. This timeframe is critical for several reasons. Firstly, it allows consultants to immerse themselves deeply in the consulting world, gaining invaluable skills, insights, and experiences. Secondly, it’s during this period that consultants are likely to see a significant increase in external opportunities. Headhunters and industry leaders begin to take notice, presenting roles that are not only high in prestige but also offer a step up in terms of responsibility and impact.

The Grass is Greener Phenomenon

Many wonder why consultants would consider leaving a field they’ve worked tirelessly to enter and succeed in. The answer lies in the evolving nature of a consultant’s career and personal aspirations. Initially, the benefits of consulting—such as rapid learning, diverse project experiences, and high-level networking—are immense. However, as one progresses, the incremental benefits of staying can start to diminish compared to the benefits of pursuing opportunities elsewhere.

Finding Your Point of Transition

The ideal moment to leave consulting is deeply personal and varies widely among professionals. For many, it aligns with achieving a level of expertise and recognition that opens doors to attractive roles in the industry, roles that offer comparable or better compensation, a more desirable lifestyle, and opportunities for substantial impact.

This juncture typically arrives when the marginal benefits of staying in consulting—such as further skill development, network expansion, and career advancement—begin to be outweighed by the benefits of new opportunities. These opportunities might promise a healthier work-life balance, the chance to focus on specific industries or functions, or the fulfillment of long-held entrepreneurial ambitions.

The Appeal of Former MBB Consultants to Employers

Former consultants from all firms across the spectrum carry a cachet that is highly sought after by employers across various industries. The rigorous selection process, intense training, and challenging projects these consultants have navigated at MBB firms and others equip them with a unique set of skills and perspectives.

Exceptional Problem-Solving and Analytical Skills

One of the hallmark traits of consultants from top-tier firms is their exceptional problem-solving and analytical prowess. Trained to dissect complex issues, these professionals approach problems with a structured thinking process, breaking them down into manageable parts to identify the root causes and potential solutions. Their ability to sift through vast amounts of data, discern patterns, and extract meaningful insights is unparalleled.

This skill set is invaluable for organizations facing strategic challenges, needing to navigate uncertainty, or looking to optimize operations. Employers value this analytical capability as it directly contributes to informed decision-making and innovative solutions.

Leadership and Project Management Expertise

Leadership is ingrained in the DNA of consultants, cultivated through their experience leading colleagues and teams, managing stakeholder expectations, and driving projects to successful completion, already from very early on in their careers.

Their tenure at consulting firms often involves orchestrating complex projects with multiple workstreams, ensuring that deliverables are met on time and within budget. This project management expertise, combined with the ability to inspire and motivate teams, makes former consultants prime candidates for leadership roles within organizations. Employers appreciate the blend of strategic vision and operational efficiency these individuals bring, enabling them to oversee initiatives that drive significant business impact.

Adaptability and Industry Insight

The project-based nature of consulting work, coupled with the diversity of clients and industries served, endows consultants with remarkable adaptability and deep industry insights. They are adept at quickly understanding new business environments, assimilating into different corporate cultures, and applying best practices across a spectrum of scenarios. This versatility is particularly attractive to employers in dynamic sectors where the ability to pivot and innovate is crucial. Moreover, the industry knowledge and strategic frameworks that former consultants bring can provide a fresh perspective to companies, helping them to identify opportunities for growth, efficiency, and competitive advantage.

These are just a few examples of the skills that make consultants so desirable in the job market. The combination of these skills makes consultants valuable assets for companies and organizations looking for expert guidance and strategic direction.

Exploring Typical Consulting Exit Opportunities

For many consultants at top-tier firms like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, the journey doesn’t end with consulting; it merely evolves. The skills, experiences, and networks they’ve built open doors to a wide array of career paths. Here’s a closer look at the typical exit opportunities that await former MBB consultants, showcasing the diversity and potential of life after consulting.

Transitioning to Industry Roles

Many former consultants leverage their consulting experience to transition into industry roles, where they can apply their strategic thinking, problem-solving skills, and industry insights directly within a corporate setting. These roles often offer the chance to focus more deeply on a specific sector or function, such as finance, technology, healthcare, or retail.

Ex-consultants are particularly valued for their ability to drive change, lead strategic projects, and bring a fresh, analytical perspective to business challenges. They may enter at a higher level than their peers who have climbed the corporate ladder traditionally.

Senior Management Roles or Board Positions

Depending on their tenure with their firm, some consultants go on to take senior management roles in a company, using their consulting experience to lead and manage teams and drive business strategy. This is usually the case for consultants who leave their firm at the project manager level or above.

The Entrepreneurial Path

The entrepreneurial journey is a natural fit for many former consultants drawn to the challenge of building something from the ground up. The broad skill set developed in consulting — from strategic planning to operational efficiency — serves as a strong foundation for entrepreneurship. Whether launching a startup, joining an early-stage company, or investing in new ventures, ex-consultants bring a wealth of knowledge about market analysis, competitive strategy, and business model innovation. Their ability to navigate uncertainty and make data-driven decisions is invaluable in the fast-paced, high-risk environment of entrepreneurship.

In-House Consulting and Freelance Ventures

Some consultants choose to continue their advisory roles by moving into in-house consulting positions within larger organizations or by launching their own freelance consulting businesses. In-house consultants bring their strategic expertise to bear on internal challenges, offering companies the advantage of having top-tier consulting skills available on demand without external consultancy fees. Meanwhile, freelance consultants and those who start boutique consulting firms enjoy the flexibility to choose projects that align with their interests and expertise, often focusing on specific industries or functional areas where they can offer deep insights and tailored solutions.

Opportunities in Government, Non-Profit, and Academia

For those driven by the desire to make a societal impact, transitioning to roles in government, non-profit organizations, or academia presents a fulfilling path. In these sectors, former consultants can apply their skills to address complex public policy issues, lead organizational transformations, or contribute to social innovation.

In academia, ex-consultants might engage in teaching, shaping the next generation of business leaders, or conducting research that advances the understanding of business practices and economic policies. These opportunities allow individuals to leverage their consulting background in service of broader societal goals, whether by influencing policy, advancing educational missions, or driving social change.

Stay With Their Firm and Transition to a Different Career Track

Some consultants stay with their firm and switch to a different career track, for instance by becoming an expert or professional development manager. Even though consulting firms are working with the up-or-out principle, they still try to keep their employees close and offer other opportunities before letting them go.

Navigating Upward Moves to Prestigious Consulting Firms

Consultants from smaller, tier-2 or Big 4 firms often look towards making an upward move to more prestigious consulting firms, such as MBB. This ambition is fueled by the desire for greater challenges, exposure to a wider array of industries, and the prestige associated with top-tier consulting firms. Most commonly, we observe the transition from the Big 4 to MBB.


Some consultants decide to retire after a successful career in consulting. This move is mostly relevant for senior partners at the end of their careers.

It’s important to note that these are just some examples of exit opportunities for consultants. Many other paths and opportunities are available, depending on the individual’s preferences, skills, and circumstances. On top of that, sometimes, several roles can be combined. For instance, a former MBB consultant might move to a senior management role, while becoming a lecturer for an MBA program, all while sitting on several advisory boards.

Consulting firms may also offer career development programs to help their employees plan for the future and make a successful transition to another career.

Preparing for Your Exit: Tips and Strategies

Leaving the consulting world for new opportunities requires careful preparation and strategy. Whether you’re aiming for a role in industry, entrepreneurship, or another field, making a successful transition involves more than just deciding to leave. Here are essential tips and strategies for preparing for your exit, ensuring you’re well-equipped to embark on the next phase of your career.

Building a Strong Resume and Cover Letter

Your resume and cover letter are your first opportunity to make an impression on potential employers. Tailor these documents to highlight the consulting skills and experiences most relevant to the roles you’re targeting. Focus on achievements that demonstrate your ability to solve complex problems, lead projects, and drive impact. Use quantifiable results to convey your contributions and the value you brought to your clients and firm.

  • Highlight Transferable Skills: Emphasize skills such as strategic thinking, analytical ability, and leadership, which are valuable in any context.
  • Customize for the Role: Adapt your resume and cover letter for each application to reflect how your background aligns with the specific job and company.
  • Tell a Compelling Story: Use your cover letter to weave a narrative that connects your consulting experience with your career aspirations and how you can contribute to the potential employer.

Acing Your Interviews and Assessments

Interviews and assessments are critical components of the job application process, providing a platform to showcase your skills and fit for the role. Preparation is key to success:

  • Research the Company: Understand the company’s challenges, culture, and industry trends to tailor your responses and demonstrate your genuine interest.
  • Practice Your Responses: Prepare for common interview questions, focusing on structuring your answers to highlight your problem-solving process, leadership experience, and impact.
  • Showcase Soft Skills: Beyond technical skills, emphasize your interpersonal and communication abilities, showcasing how you’ve led teams, managed stakeholders, and navigated complex project dynamics.
  • Prepare for Assessments: If the application process includes assessments, familiarize yourself with the formats and practice under similar conditions to improve your performance.

Continuous Learning and Networking

The consulting environment is one of constant learning and professional development. Maintaining this mindset after leaving consulting can enhance your career prospects.

  • Stay Informed: Keep up with industry trends, emerging technologies, and best practices in your field of interest. Online courses, webinars, and professional certifications can bolster your knowledge and skills.
  • Leverage Your Network: The relationships you’ve built in consulting can be invaluable as you transition. Reach out to former colleagues, mentors, and industry contacts for advice, insights, and potential job leads.
  • Engage with Professional Communities: Joining industry groups, attending conferences, and participating in professional forums can expand your network and open up new opportunities.

Preparing for your exit from consulting involves a strategic approach to showcasing your skills, acing the selection process, and continuing to grow professionally. By focusing on these areas, you can navigate the transition smoothly and set the stage for success in your new career path.

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