The Dark Side of Consulting Careers

by Mark Wong on June 13, 2011 · 18 comments

in Career,MBA

Every top MBA program places a significant number of graduates in the consulting function.  The high salaries, variety of projects, and fast-paced work environment all encourage MBAs to propel themselves onto this career path.  And while these benefits would be enticing to any professional, every career path has its dark side.  During my three years as a management consultant, these were the aspects I liked the least and have made it very unlikely for me to return.

(Please note that my comments apply primarily to the larger management and strategy consulting firms, made up of the Big Three (McKinsey, Bain, BCG), the current Big Four (PWC, E&Y, KPMG, Deloitte), and the various spinoffs from the original Big Five (Accenture, IBM, Bearing Point, Cap Gemini).  A lot of smaller boutiques have actually built their consulting firms around directly addressing the points below)

Work Life Balance

In nearly all recruiting presentations by consulting firms, there will be a lengthy section about work life balance.  Some of the ones I saw showcased an extremely busy partner, who had an overwhelming work schedule, but managed to spend time with his family and had a great relationship with his kids.  Strange how most other career tracks don’t make such a hard sell…

If the pre-emptive sales pitch wasn’t a giveaway, let me put it very simply: your work life balance will likely suck.  You’ll work longer hours and endure more stressful deadlines than your industry peers.  During my tenure as a consultant, I spent about 70% of my time in city away from home.  I knew the all of the quickest routes through SeaTac airport and some flight attendants knew me by name.  I lost count of the number of inconvenient times I’d receive calls from friends asking me to hang out.  My response if it wasn’t the weekend?  “Sorry, I’m kind of in Florida right now…”

Despite what the sales pitch may tell you, I know from what I’ve personally witnessed that a consulting career can ruin your personal relationships.  For many people this isn’t a dealbreaker, because they’re willing to forfeit their social lives for career advancement.  But as you get older, the sacrifice you make undoubtedly becomes greater.

Travel

My most lavish travel experience had me staying at the Ritz Carlton and the W Hotel in the Bay Area.  We played golf during a team outing and had amazing dinners at restaurants I would never get into by myself.  The bill for our team dinners was usually higher than my monthly rent.  On the flip side, I also had a project where I stayed at a Motel 6 for five weeks.  My most lavish dinner was provided by the hotel vending machine.

The likelihood of getting staffed in a great location with great venues is just as good as being staffed in the middle of nowhere.  I consider myself lucky to have wined and dined in New York and San Francisco as many consultants never get to experience the “good-life” of consulting travel.

Another thing to note is that just becoming a consultant doesn’t automatically give you first class service on airlines and hotels.  You have to pay your dues first.  You’ll spend numerous hours dealing with delayed flights, lost luggage, and loud, family travelers before United finally gives you a free cheese plate during your flight.  (The perks aren’t what they used to be)  And after you start counting all those hours spent in airports, cabs, and hotels, you’ll realize that they would’ve been better spent at home.  Suffice it to say, the perks and the miles never make up for the time you surrender.

The Staffing Process

One of the things that surprised me about consulting was how little control you have over which projects you get staffed on.  The staffing process, which had been sold to me as “endless variety,” seemed to be better characterized as “unfair randomness.”  Hoping to get on that sexy, channel marketing strategy project and utilize your marketing degree?  Well, if your partners are only selling Oracle implementations, that’s what you’ll be staffed on.  The consulting world is driven by the demand from clients, not by the expertise of consulting personnel.

Also, while the idea of getting a variety of projects may seem appealing at first, the scenario can quickly wear out its welcome.  It’s extremely stressful to get staffed on a project, in an area where you have no expertise, if you’re already billing hundreds of dollars for each hour of your time.  Yes, ramping up in an entirely different industry and entirely different function is a good skill to learn.  But you shouldn’t be doing it your entire career.

So who gets the cool projects?  Many times, it’ll depend on who you know, not what you know.  When politics come into play with the staffing process, it only makes things worse.  That dream project you’re perfectly qualified for, the one that you know you’ll knock out of the ballpark, can easily slip away simply because the project partner doesn’t know you.  Each staffing decision has the potential to make you feel like you’re going through the recruiting process all over again.

Think Long-Term

Despite everything I’ve mentioned above, I know I benefited from the time I spent in management consulting.  I developed a great problem solving capability and a strong tolerance for ambiguity.  In my opinion, those skills alone make consulting a great career investment.   The problem is that consulting isn’t a great long-term career destination.

The stats show that most consultants don’t last beyond three years, with very few ever being considered for partner.  Eventually the travel, the politics, and the workload all catch up to you.  If you do decide to make the leap into consulting, it’ll look great on your resume and you’ll build skills that you wouldn’t attain elsewhere.  But make sure you develop an exit strategy.  If you focus on building your expertise early on and plan your departure well, you’ll likely springboard yourself onto an even better career path.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

FFNo Gravatar October 3, 2012 at 4:49 am

Really helpful post. As a university junior, I’m planning for a consulting career after undergrad and this really helped put things into perspective!

Antwan PascaleNo Gravatar October 13, 2012 at 12:13 am

Really enjoyed this post.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.

AsiyaNo Gravatar December 7, 2012 at 3:54 pm

I enjoyed reading this post. I’m a newcomer in IT consulting, and it helped me visual what’s coming up in my career. Love to read more!

HardikNo Gravatar January 6, 2013 at 6:32 am

This article helped me understand many nuances of the industry that I otherwise wouldn’t have understood.
Great article for a person who is contemplating on whether to jump into consulting as a career option.
Thank you!

Jack FraserNo Gravatar April 4, 2013 at 10:30 pm

Consulting is not interesting, tedious, and a waste of your education skills. I’ve seen many co-workers need therapy after such positions. Avoid at all costs.

JasonNo Gravatar April 10, 2013 at 3:37 am

Awesome, Awesome, Awesome!! Review of Consulting, all the more reasons why I plan to leave it. Airmiles, Hotel Points, Rental Car Points, Lavish Meals, and all the so called perks of consulting can be earned elsewhere! The only part left out was the “physical affects” of consulting, poor diet and exercise. The random projects and favortism are beyond irritating and you never meet your career potential. People forget that the average span is 3years and the higher salary you recieve is used to influence your stay with the company. Life is waaaay better outside of consult, make your own moves professionally. Work for a variety of stable companies and you will get the same consulting experience, but even better, you will have your “personal life” and time for yourself.

ChristineNo Gravatar April 24, 2013 at 7:28 pm

Wow, you stirred up some memories for me with this article. I consulted for 4.5 years, traveling 4 days out of 5 and loving every minute of it. Yes, it was stressful being billed for, and expected to be an expert in, a skill set you didn’t have but it sure made me into a quick study and as you note, you learn to problem solve on your feet. And every time I got caught in a traffic jam or was delayed at an airport I just said to myself “it beats sitting in a cube.” I still miss it.

www.zimmer-law.comNo Gravatar June 17, 2013 at 2:53 am

Hello, just wanted to say, I loved this article. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

AndrewNo Gravatar August 31, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Hi Mark -

I’m nearing the end of my undergraduate studies and am researching relentlessly on the life of management consulting and the path to get there (from a non-target school).

I really appreciate articles like this, but if at all possible, could we talk through email? I would be very appreciative if I could just have 5 minutes of your time.

Thanks!

JohnNo Gravatar September 11, 2013 at 6:40 am

Thank you very much for this review. It’s nice to have a bit of perspective on a career surrounded by so much hype.

Cheers

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