Management consulting jobs: 5 mistakes that will get you fired


First, getting fired in management consulting doesn’t happen often. There are many reasons for this (eg, the rigorous recruiting process, the supportive development-focused culture).

However, in tough economic times select firms will significantly tighten hiring and raise the bar on promotions. Those who don’t make the cut must leave the company within a rough timeframe – the “up or out” policy.

Not all consulting firms employ “up or out” – some are comfortable letting people stay in the same positions for many years. Booz Allen is one example

1. Not managing upwards effectively

The best consultants are experts at upward management. Until you’re a senior partner, you’ll always have people above you that need to be managed. This is the ability to do a few things:

-Manage expectations regarding deadlines and work quality. You don’t want the senior partner of your project demanding a functional model in 2 weeks if the data won’t arrive for a week and a half

-Learn to pushback effectively when suggestions are not efficient or practical, or when you’re simply overwhelmed. You don’t want to involve 5 partners in weekly brainstorming sessions when only 2 have relevant content knowledge and the rest argue incessantly

-Engage senior consultants in areas where they can contribute the most. You don’t want expert consultants on HR hiring policies to attend a low-level 2-hour discussion on streamlining IT systems

Process management. This is the ability to stay on top of all the little things – from daily status updates for your project leader to scheduling key partner and client meetings early

Pushback is an art – I’ll cover how to pushback effectively in a separate future article

2. Drinking too much at work functions or client dinners

This is an obvious no-no, but it happens all the time. Two casual happy hour beers after-work can turn into drinks at the restaurant bar before dinner, which becomes a few glasses of red wine during the meal.

At some point, you’ll be complaining about the client team with the senior partner sitting to your left. You’ll share your secrets for avoiding unwanted work with another consultant, only to see your project leader starting at you from across the table. Bad news.

3. Staying silent during team and client meetings

This is a common mistake for junior consultants – you’ve only spent 3 months studying cellphone manufacturers when the partner has spent 10 years, so what can you possibly contribute to the discussion? You’re afraid of being the guy that asks a dumb question, or makes a meaningless remark that is swiftly ignored by everyone else.

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Silence digs your career grave. It may take a few weeks to acclimate, but the best consultants get up to speed quickly

Here are a few strategies for contributing effectively when you know very little:

-Ask specific questions – questions can be as powerful as comments, and are much easier to generate

-Become master of your domain – whatever information you’re in charge of, know it well. Not only will you have the answer when called upon, but you can reference esoteric points of data unfamiliar to anyone else

Synthesize what’s being said – this is an invaluable skill, and doesn’t require new insight. Simply take a few important points and sum them up, in the guise of trying to understand the conversation’s direction:

“So if I’m understanding this right, it seems that the collections process is inefficient because of 2 reasons – one, 75% of the processes that could be automated are manual, and two, none of the frontline employees are compensated based on performance…”

4. Repeating mistakes

Consultants make mistakes – blame it on the unfamiliar clients, rotating working teams, and constant travel. The key is to avoid making the same mistake repeatedly. Here are a few examples:

-Not double checking new additions to a financial model, even after calculation errors were pointed out at a team meeting

-Forgetting to confirm the attendance of a specific client executive, after they were left out of previous progress reviews

People notice repeated mistakes, and eventually you’ll be known as unfocused, careless, or worst of all, lazy.

5. Not seeking help when you have no clue

Like mistake #4, consultants constantly cover unfamiliar territory. Your responsibilities change from project to project, and part of consulting development is to acquire new skills. That adaptability is part of the reason why companies hire consultants.

You’ll be asked to take on new challenges. Whether that’s developing potential business unit organizational structures, or constructing a performance-based compensation policy, you’ll often find yourself clueless.

At times like these, be upfront about what you don’t know. Seek help immediately, whether from fellow consultants or your engagement manager, your friend in investment banking or your firm mentor.

If you don’t, it rarely ends well.

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3 Responses to “Management consulting jobs: 5 mistakes that will get you fired”

  1. Tom Spencer

    Thanks Kev, I enjoyed this post. I think these are probably common mistakes of a junior in any profession, although perhaps more costly to a young consultant than to a junior lawyer, for example.

  2. Rich

    thanks for this post, I have been referring back to it over time. I was wondering if you had any suggestions on #4, repeating mistakes. How can I, as a junior overworked consultant, systematically find errors?

  3. MattJ

    Getting “fired” doesn’t happen that often in management consulting? No. It’s called being “counseled out” and it happens to anywhere from 5-15% of employees every year, especially at the junior levels. Usually for no reason other than falling toward the bottom of the rank & yank performance rating system.
    And any consulting firm I’ve been at, they drink an awful lot.
    Here’s are some more tips:
    Glom onto a rainmaker – Utilization is everything. If you aren’t bringing in work, you better be close with a partner who is.

    Handle your sh*t – Client dinners, happy hours, drinks with coworkers, partner meetings at strip clubs. Consultants work hard and they play hard. The trick is to not play so hard you make an ass of yourself.
    Stay silent during team and client meetings – It’s better to be suspected a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. If the senior partner wants your input, he’ll tell you it. Be engaged, but know your roll and make sure if you are going to say something, it is relevant and insightful.
    Don’t make mistakes in the first place – Consultants are supposed to be hired brains who know everything. Our work must be flawless.
    Know everything, or say you’ll find out – duuuh…I don’t know” is not acceptable. If someone asks you something that’s complex and outside of your area of expertise, you don’t need to give some off the cuff BS response. That’s not useful. Say that you have some ideas, but you want to get some data to back it up (or some such BS). But you best be knowledgeable and eloquent when you are supposed to know something.

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