Pyramid structure and up-or-out
Most management consulting firms such as McKinsey, BCG, and Bain share the same basic pyramid structure when it comes to hierarchies of their consulting staff. While we find many analysts at the base of the pyramid, the top is made up of the most senior partners of the firm. This deliberate structure is aligned with the project work strategy consultancies are engaged in.
While an analyst works solely on one project at a time, senior partners share their time and wisdom across multiple projects simultaneously. The pyramid shape is achieved through a company’s ‘up-or-out’/’grow-or-go’ philosophy, where consultants who do not develop sufficiently within a very narrow time span are asked to leave. In order to balance the churn and even grow strategy firms constantly need to fuel these hierarchies from the bottom. That is why top-tier firms spend a considerable amount each year to attract, interview and retain new consultants.
Typical consulting staff roles
As said above, the pyramid is the same for almost all consultancies, however, the labels of the roles differ slightly among them. The tenure usually depends on the level of entry. If you apply with an MBA or Ph.D., you will be able to skip the first step in the hierarchy.
On top of the pyramid are senior partners/ directors. Their tenure with the firm is usually between 15 and 25 years. They usually own the client relationship and give broad directions for the team within the course of the project. Depending on their role you might never actually see them in person. Additionally, they hold other leadership functions within the firm.
Second, to the top is the partner tier that consists of individuals who have been with the firm for eight to 15 years. They are more involved in the conceptual discussions and problem-solving sessions, and are usually present in the team room at least once a week to give guidance, help structure the project, and present to the client. Both senior partners and partners are equity partners of the firm.
Below are the junior partners/ associate partners/ principals who have been with the firm for seven to ten years. In this role, consultants are in the transition from a typical consultant role and employee status to an actual owner of the firm. It is usually the most stressful period in a consultant’s career and many fail to actually make partner. Junior Partners have to start building relationships with existing and new clients. Towards their transition to leadership, they are asked to manage multiple projects at once for the first time. They usually spend one to three days a week with the team depending on the status of the project.
Separating the working consultants from the partner tier is the project managers/ engagement managers/ case team leaders/ managers, who have been with the firm for three to seven years. They are responsible for the day-to-day management of the project and the team. They work both closely with the partners to align on what work needs to be done as well as with the consultants to agree on how it should be done. Project managers are usually the first point of contact for clients as they are on the ground with the team full-time. In their mediator role, they are responsible for pushing back to leadership as well as to clients to avoid scope creep and safeguard lifestyle. Depending on the scope of the project, project managers are rarely involved in producing actual content or creating analyses. Their schedule is usually filled to the brim with managing and helping the team and clients as well as preparing and holding meetings.
Below the project managers are the (senior) associates/ consultants, who have been with the firm for up to four years. Consultants do the major chunk of the analytical work and content production. Consultants actually drive the engagement towards a recommendation and implementation. They will gather data, analyze it, visualize, and present results. At this stage, they are highly independent and need to drive their workstreams autonomously. The project manager and partner will come to them for their opinion and advice on particular matters. They are usually at the client site for the full consulting week (Monday to Thursday) and are in close contact with the client team every day. Depending on their tenure, they are asked to manage parts of the project.
Lastly, at the bottom of the pyramid, we find the business analysts/ fellows, who are with the firm for up to three years. At this level, we increasingly see applications of BSc candidates in Europe. Their role is very similar to the associate role, however, they work less autonomously, especially in the early months of their career. Project managers often help guide their efforts, spending extra time to discuss what to analyze, how to analyze, and how to visualize it. They usually work on particular parts of a problem and supply their output (usually an analysis and a PowerPoint) to the project manager or another associate. Depending on the skills of the consultant, they can move to the next level of the hierarchy pretty quickly.
As a rule of thumb, the more senior a consultant the less often will he or she do any actual analysis or work on a slide deck. As they move up the ranks their priorities shift to build and keep alive client relationships, further knowledge development as well as direct and help out their teams. In any role, your responsibility will constantly increase and you will be asked very early on to take up tasks of the next level in the hierarchy. In practice, as an associate, you are asked regularly to project-manage part of the engagement.
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