Incredible learning opportunities, the ability to address complex problems, and generous compensation packages make management consulting an attractive profession. There is no secret formula for how to become a successful management consultant, but there are four basic paths to break into the industry:
- Undergraduate recruiting
- MBA recruiting
- Advanced Degree recruiting
- Experienced hire recruiting
This article is aimed at the working professional who has completed an undergraduate or advanced degree, is working full-time outside of consulting, but is thinking about how to become a consultant. The consulting world often calls you an “experienced hire”.
We’ll start by quickly reviewing why it’s so common to consider a career in management consulting. What type of consulting are we talking about? What are the benefits? We’ll then review each of the four paths, focusing on what’s most relevant for an experienced hire looking to break into the industry.
What Type of “Consulting” Career are we Talking About?
First, we should be clear that there are many types of “consulting” careers. Here, we are concerned with what is typically described as “strategy” or “management” consulting. Information technology, operations, supply chain, financial, or marketing/brand consulting are all somewhat different.
For example, let’s use Deloitte as a microcosm for the broadly defined world of consulting. In this prior article we analyzed the structure of Deloitte, a giant global “consulting” firm that consists of four business units: Tax, Audit, Financial Advisory, and Consulting. Within the Consulting unit, there are three sub-segments, Human Capital, Technology, and Strategy and Operations. When we write about how to become a consultant in this article, we would be referring to the type of work done in one sub-segment of Deloitte’s Consulting group, the Strategy & Operations practice.
What Makes a Management Consulting Career Attractive?
Management or strategy consultants are typically “generalists” who help companies solve major problems, re-define their business models, or refresh their five-year plans. They help companies get aligned on where and how they make money and what initiatives to prioritize to drive growth. The best known, “Big 3” strategy and management consulting firms are of course: Bain, McKinsey, and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
Typical reasons for focusing on a career in management consulting include:
- It’s intellectually stimulating and enables you to address complex problems
- You learn a lot about different industries and business functions
- You’ll develop concrete data analysis, project management, and communications skills
- You’ll be well compensated
- You’ll build an impressive network of both clients and coworkers, making your exit opportunities limitless
- You’ll have the opportunity to travel
Great. Now on to our question, “How to become a successful management consultant?” There are several different paths to explore.
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The Undergraduate Recruiting Path to Become a Consultant
One obvious path is to go through an undergraduate recruiting process. The major firms like BCG or McKinsey count many undergraduate institutions as target programs from which to recruit new analysts. Your first opportunity to break in is during the beginning of your junior year, as these firms recruit for summer internships. Landing a position with a top firm is not easy. But interestingly, these top firms cast a somewhat wide recruiting net. They go beyond the Ivy League to many different well-regarded academic institutions.
Bain recruits heavily at Indiana University to staff its Midwest offices, for example. If you are still an undergraduate, students will often ask about what to study to become a management consultant. The answer is, pursue an intellectually challenging major that will demonstrate to top firms that you can think critically (bonus points if the degree is quantitative or STEM in nature). Biology, economics, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, and many other majors are all great options.
As you may have read, the interview process often includes a mix of case and fit interviews, whether you are seeking an internship or full-time position. You’ll need to prepare for case interviews. But enough about the undergraduate recruiting process. How do you become a consultant if you are working full-time in a different industry?
Becoming a Consultant Through Experienced Hire Recruiting
If you are already working full-time with just a few years of experience and want to break into consulting, I have good news and bad news for you. Let’s do the bad news first.
It Can Be Difficult, But Not Impossible, to Find a Role with a Top Consulting Firm
The bad news is that finding a role with one of the larger well-known firms is not easy. These firms have both regular, annual internship and full-time recruiting processes active at dozens of schools, and a vast majority of their talent will come from this path. However, if you are willing to network, there is an opportunity there for the taking. The first thing you need to do is ignore the firm’s online application portal – at least at first. You must network inside your target offices, and only after securing a referral should you apply online.
Finding a Role with a Smaller to Mid-Size Consulting Firm is Another Good Option
If you are struggling to break into the top firms, the good news is that top-level talent is not always easy to retain at smaller firms. Smaller firms tend to have uneven demand, and often find themselves in a position where they need talent quickly.
It always seems reasonably easy to find a consulting professional with 10-15 years of experience who is available on a contractual basis. But those individuals tend to be expensive and, in a sense, overqualified. Often, the true need is for a person with 2-3 years of experience who understands some accounting and finance and can build models and identify insights. If this is you, you may be in more demand than you realize.
This creates an opportunity to become a consultant by targeting smaller management consulting firms. You may have much better luck breaking in at a smaller management consulting firm, and then transitioning over to MBB in 2-3 years if that is your ultimate goal.
A list of large and small management consulting firms is available here.
The MBA Recruiting Path to a Career in Management Consulting
If you sit a few years out of undergrad and think that consulting might be for you, another path is to bypass the experienced hire recruiting process altogether. Instead, pursue an MBA at a top program where consulting firms actively recruit. The BCG and McKinseys of the world follow the same internship and full-time recruiting process for MBA hires as they do for undergrads (albeit on a slightly different timeline).
There are a few benefits to this path. First, you’ll earn an MBA in the process, which will benefit your career as you look to continue to move up the corporate ladder. Second, you’ll be breaking into the consulting industry as post MBA-hire, with a much higher salary and different, more enhanced role. The downside, of course, is that it’s a long-term play. The process of studying for the GMAT, applying to business school, and then going to business school may mean that your career in management consulting starts four years into the future.
The thing to keep in mind though, is that each year, thousands of pre-MBA management consultants leave the industry to pursue an MBA. Many of these MBA students then find themselves returning to consulting. So sure, you’ll have to wait several years to break in if you pursue the MBA recruiting path. But if you decide instead to find a role with a smaller firm as an experienced hire, you may ultimately decide to pursue an MBA anyway.
Bonus Path: Become a Consultant by Pursuing an Independent Consulting Career
There is another path to a career in consulting, although definitely non-traditional. You can go independent, at least for a while. By independent, we don’t really mean go off on your own and find your own clients. That’s possible for someone with years of experience.
But let’s say you have 2-3 years of experience post undergrad. You’ve been working in finance or marketing for a mid-sized company. You’ve decided you want to become a business consultant, but don’t want to pursue the four-year path of getting an MBA first. You should certainly pursue the experienced hire path described above and target smaller firms. But you should also consider participating in the growing industry of independent consultant “on demand networks.”
Exploring the “On-Demand Independent Consulting Network” Path
Business Talent Group (BTG) and Catalant are the best examples of what we’re talking about here. These companies connect companies looking for consulting help to individuals who are available to provide their consulting services. As mentioned above, good analytical help tends to be in short supply on these platforms. So one option, if you are a bit of a risk-taker, is to become a consultant by making yourself available on an online marketplace for consulting jobs.
How could this work? Well, these roles tend to pay very well, at least for the duration of the project. It might take you a month to find a project, but for the next 2-4 months, you’ll make a nice monthly or weekly salary. You’ll be able to make it clear that you don’t have consulting experience, and you will probably still have some project options presented to you. Firms like BTG put teams together, and can accommodate 1-2 individuals without consulting experience.
Once you complete one project, you immediately have some consulting experience to put on your resume. This can lead to it being more likely that additional consulting projects are presented to you through these platforms. It can also make you more attractive as an experienced hire to small or maybe even large, traditional consulting firms in the future.
Summarizing the Paths to a Career in Management Consulting
If you know you want a career in management consulting and you are still an undergraduate, the world is your oyster. But even if you are currently working outside of consulting, you have multiple paths to break in. Do your research and choose a path that works best for you. Have questions about your specific situation? Write us!
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