The Pros and Cons of Working in Consulting

the image is the cover for an article on the benefits of working as a consultant for mckinsey, bcg or bain

Last Updated on February 19, 2024

In the dynamic and ever-evolving world of business, top consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain have emerged as pivotal forces, guiding companies through transformation, innovation, and challenges.

The allure of consulting lies in its promise of diverse experiences, the opportunity to solve complex problems, and the potential to influence significant business decisions. However, like any career path, consulting comes with its own set of challenges and rewards. This article delves into the nuanced landscape of working in consulting, offering an insightful exploration of its benefits and drawbacks.

As an excerpt from my book “Consulting Career Secrets,” this piece aims to provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of what it means to pursue a career in consulting, equipping aspiring consultants with the knowledge needed to navigate the decision to work in this competitive field.

Through this exploration, we uncover the multifaceted nature of consulting work, including the high-impact projects, the intense work pace, and the profound professional growth it offers, alongside the pressures, demands, and lifestyle considerations it entails.

Top consulting firms offer numerous unique advantages to employees, consistently ranking highly in the best places to work surveys conducted by Glassdoor, Forbes, and others. Despite their reputation for long hours, challenging work-life balance, and extensive travel, these firms attract top talent for several reasons:

Benefits of Working in Consulting

Stimulating work environment and brilliant colleagues

Working alongside brilliant colleagues provides many learning opportunities and enriching interactions. Your teammates, typically within the same age range and chosen for their engaging personalities and wit, help create a stimulating and enjoyable work atmosphere. With decades of experience serving the business world, your leadership teams can offer advice and mentorship. Consulting firms strive to foster a supportive environment that promotes camaraderie and friendships, strengthened by the shared experience of working long hours toward impactful goals. These friendships formed within the team often endure, and the firms actively nurture leadership qualities in their consultants from the start, creating a culture of continuous improvement.

High-impact engagements and growth opportunities

As a consultant, you typically work on high-stakes projects that are top priorities on the CEO’s agenda. You tackle crucial issues concurrently or in rapid succession, taking on considerable responsibility from the start. Your work’s outcomes can significantly influence the client’s business trajectory, providing an opportunity for impact and responsibility early in your career that few other professions offer.

The constant flow of new experiences and challenges and an engaging work environment facilitate your rapid personal and professional growth through a steep learning curve. You can explore multiple industries and business functions, consistently challenging yourself intellectually while acquiring new skills and expertise. Additionally, most firms support your development with a robust training curriculum, with training for young consultants often rivaling C-level programs in other organizations.

Top-tier clients

As a consultant at a leading firm, you typically work on projects commissioned by prominent corporations and institutions within their respective fields. From day one, you can work with executives of global companies on highly visible and impactful projects. These clients entrust you with critical questions concerning their multi-million or billion-dollar businesses, expecting you to generate a positive impact.

As a junior consultant, you collaborate closely with senior clients and may get to coach individuals with significantly more experience. Early in your career, you gain insights into the business world, strategy development, boardroom dynamics, C-level politics, and decision-making processes – insights that many professionals outside consulting might never encounter throughout their entire careers.

These three factors create a stimulating environment where many consultants thrive, contributing to their willingness to accept the drawbacks. While the entry-level salary is typically higher than the median income for the respective country, and the prestige of a top consulting firm offers substantial exit opportunities, these aspects alone do not guarantee positive employer reviews. Nonetheless, it is relevant to discuss these additional benefits:

Competitive compensation and benefits

Top firms reward their consultants generously, offering an attractive starting salary that often surpasses the earnings of peers from the same graduating class. In addition to a competitive salary that tends to increase significantly over time, these firms also cover all expenses while you are away from home. These policies boost your monthly net income and allow you to make a comfortable living at a young age.

Moreover, consultants often benefit from comprehensive packages, including generous insurance coverage and company car policies, among other perks. Maintaining a high savings rate is often possible thanks to comprehensive expense coverage during work weeks and competitive salaries. The savings rate allows you to repay your tuition debt quickly and accumulate substantial savings early in your career.

McKinsey hierarchy and salaries

BCG hierarchy and salaries

Bain hierarchy and salaries

Unique opportunities and experiences

A career in consulting offers extensive travel and exposure to diverse locations and experiences at a young age. These experiences could include visits to exotic client sites, unique places like oil platforms or gold mines, and enriching professional encounters such as high-stakes boardroom meetings or private dinners with top CEOs. The associated lifestyle is often luxurious, with consultants being well cared for during their travels, staying in top hotels, enjoying fine dining, and traveling in business class (depending on the firm and office).

Top consulting firms offer these benefits not necessarily as a token of appreciation but to ensure their employees remain undistracted by non-work-related concerns, as everything else is taken care of. Still, offices or teams often organize fantastic events to show appreciation for their consultants’ hard work and contributions. For instance, many top firms invite all consultants, including close family members, within a region to a holiday retreat every two to three years.

Sense of accomplishment and exit opportunities

Being selected to work for a prestigious consulting firm from a highly competitive pool of candidates can instill a strong sense of accomplishment and pride. There is an excellent reward for contributing to organizational improvements and aiding in employee success. While occasional negative stereotypes about consultants may exist, most client relationships are characterized by mutual respect and appreciation.

Debunking the myth that consultants solely focus on cost-cutting, most engagements center around value creation. As such, consulting can be an enriching journey, especially for recent graduates. This sense of achievement is also recognized in the job market, with top consultants being highly sought after and frequently headhunted. In the eyes of headhunters, a year of experience in top management consulting often equates to three to five years in a role outside of consulting.

Travel perks and rewards

As mentioned earlier, consultants typically enjoy a range of travel-related benefits, such as the convenience of always using taxis for transportation, staying in luxurious hotels, dining at upscale restaurants, and participating in engaging off-site events with their team, practice, or office. These additional perks can significantly enhance the overall work experience.

On top of that, frequent travel often leads to a significant accumulation of frequent flyer miles, hotel points, and status benefits with various travel companies. These perks can be used for personal vacations, offering free or discounted flights, upgrades, hotel stays, and other advantages such as complimentary lounge access and breakfasts. With strategic use of membership and reward programs, you could reduce the cost and improve your private travel experience.

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

Cons of a Consulting Career

Consulting is not without its challenges. There are significant downsides to consider, and it is essential to balance these factors before deciding to pursue a career in this field. Some individuals may find the lifestyle unsustainable and regret their decision to join a top consulting firm, leading them to exit early. You will inevitably encounter particular challenges associated with the job, including the following aspects:

Long working hours

Consultants often work longer than peers in other industries, with a few exceptions. Depending on a range of factors – including the firm, country, project, client, leadership, and your proficiency – workdays can range from 10 to 16 hours. Some weeks may be more demanding, while others may offer some relief. All-nighters are not common but can occur. In most firms, countries, and offices, there is an emphasis on keeping weekends work-free.

However, despite efforts to maintain a work-life balance, the realities of client and leadership demands often undermine these ambitions. You might work around 50 hours in the least demanding weeks, but this could increase to 70 or even 80 hours during more challenging periods. It should be noted that these hours are more typical of strategy firms. Consultants in Big 4 firms, in-house consulting firms, and some boutique consultancies typically work fewer hours.

In addition to long working hours, consultants often face routine weekly travel. Due to these demanding schedules, you may compromise personal relationships, hobbies, nutrition, sleep, and exercise. While this schedule may be manageable in the short term, it requires the development of effective coping strategies and resilience for sustained success in the medium to long term.

Intense work environment

The high standards and tight deadlines inherent to consulting create a high-pressure environment where teams strive for exceptional results. This constant stress, the fast-paced, iterative nature of the work, and frequent feedback cycles can lead to a more challenging experience than what you may have encountered in top universities or previous jobs. Few experiences can elevate stress levels like receiving a critical email from a senior partner regarding a C-level presentation scheduled for the following day, landing in your inbox just 10 minutes before midnight.

Situations can be further compounded by tough projects, demanding clients or leaders, poor project scope, or unfavorable team dynamics. The up-or-out practice prevalent in consulting can also add to the pressure. Challenges may arise within your workstream, client relationships, or office politics. Sometimes, these issues may be beyond your control, yet you might still be held accountable. Some consultants find it challenging to cope with such demanding situations daily, which can adversely affect their physical and mental health.

Little time to rest and celebrate

The rapid pace of consulting exposes professionals to many projects and clients quickly, which can be both exciting and overwhelming. Consultants rarely witness the long-term impact of their work as they quickly move from one project to another. You never stay for the party and rarely see your ideas grow.

Continuously changing teams and clients can be challenging, particularly when it involves parting ways with colleagues after a successful collaboration. The team typically disbands after a project’s successful completion and handover to the client on a Friday afternoon. By Monday, you will find yourself working with a new team and facing new clients, ready to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

Ambiguity and uncertainty

The dynamic nature of consulting also requires constant availability and adaptability to sudden changes in tasks, deliverables, schedules, or locations, which can be challenging to manage. For instance, it is not uncommon to receive a call requiring you to board the next flight to the other side of the globe with minimal notice due to an “unmissable opportunity” or an “urgent client request.” I once found myself booking a plane ticket through my firm’s travel hotline as the flight’s boarding process was about to start. I was already at the airport; however, unsure if the opportunity would materialize.

Conversely, there are times when the situation is reversed. I had once packed and prepared to depart for a new client that evening, only to receive a call from the partner just before leaving for the airport, informing me that the engagement had fallen through at the last minute. Such instances are common in the consulting world, necessitating comfort with ambiguity and a willingness to somewhat surrender control over one’s schedule.

Frequent travel

Consultants often spend more than 40 weeks per year traveling. While this may seem appealing to some, the novelty can quickly wear off for others. Frequent travel in the early or late hours of the day, particularly when delayed or exhausting, can compound fatigue and stress, especially when dealing with different time zones or multiple client locations.

During one project, I took four to six weekly flights to meet clients across various locations, including flying back and forth between Europe and Asia within three days. Under such circumstances, jet lag becomes a persistent companion. Balancing personal life amidst such a demanding schedule proves to be a challenge, with the impact felt more acutely by those with families. For singles, constant travel can make it challenging to form new connections. Weekends often become a whirlwind of catching up with family and friends and attempting to recharge, only to find oneself boarding another flight to the client site early Monday morning or Sunday night.

Lastly, travel is not always glamorous. I once spent a summer working alone in a British highway motel near the M1, with the team operating in a decentralized manner. Getting there every week was not only challenging, as I had to choose between two flights or one flight followed by a lengthy taxi ride on a Sunday night, but it was also exhausting. The motel, which was entirely run down, was undergoing noisy renovations at the time – although it did offer a delightful English breakfast. You will likely face similar logistical challenges every couple of projects.

Organizational politics

Consulting projects are often rife with political landmines within client organizations, which teams must navigate carefully. Politics can obstruct optimal solutions, create extra work, and strain team-client relationships. In some cases, political games within a client company might even lead to the cancellation of an engagement.

While junior consultants can generally avoid internal politics within their firms, this changes as they progress into more senior roles.

Ultimately, it is up to you to determine if the advantages of a consulting career outweigh its challenges. Based on personal experience and discussions with hundreds of colleagues, coaching clients, and alumni, the vast majority of people do not regret their time in consulting and view it as a very positive and rewarding experience. I would agree with that sentiment.

Determining if Consulting is the Right Career Path for You

Embarking on a career in consulting is a significant decision that requires careful consideration. With its unique challenges and rewards, consulting isn’t for everyone, but for those who thrive in it, the career can be incredibly fulfilling. Here are some strategies to help you determine if consulting is the right job for you:

Seek insights from current consultants

One of the most effective ways to gauge whether consulting is a good fit for you is to connect with people currently working in the firms you’re interested in. Reach out to your network or utilize platforms like LinkedIn to find consultants willing to share their experiences.

Ask for candid insights about their daily work, the challenges they face, the aspects they enjoy, and the advice they have for someone considering this career path. Hearing firsthand accounts can provide a realistic picture of what to expect.

Similarly, before committing to an offer, ask to talk to people in the office you received the offer from. I remember talking to many consultants and my interviewers after I received the McKinsey offer to get their honest perspectives.

Experience consulting firsthand through internships

If you’re still in school or have the opportunity to take on a new role, applying for an internship in a consulting firm can be an invaluable experience. Internships offer a hands-on taste of the consulting world, allowing you to face the same pressures and lifestyle demands as a junior full-time consultant. This direct exposure is perhaps the most telling way to determine if the consulting environment suits you, providing clarity on whether you can see yourself in this role long-term.

Explore other career options for comparison

Considering and trying out different careers, such as banking, tech, startups, or roles within large corporations, can provide valuable perspectives. Each of these fields comes with its own set of challenges, work-life balance, and satisfaction levels.

By comparing these experiences with what consulting has to offer, you can make a more informed decision about where your interests and abilities align best. This exploration is not about finding the “perfect” job but understanding where your skills and preferences fit best.

Understand the flexibility of your career choice

It’s important to remember that choosing a career in consulting – or any field, for that matter – is not a lifelong commitment. The skills, experiences, and networks you develop in consulting are highly transferable and valued across industries.

Should you decide that consulting is not the ideal long-term fit for you, these assets can significantly aid in transitioning to other roles. Recognizing this flexibility can alleviate some of the pressure to make the “perfect” career choice and encourage a more open-minded approach to professional opportunities.

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