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.
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.
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.