Management Consulting: No Room For Error


Author's Note

Gaining an insight into this exclusive world was enlightening because most of us who are educated in Singapore believe that by being academically able, we can easily be a management consultant and fall in the "high-flyer" category. 

However most are not aware just how harsh the work environment is. My source for this article worked for one of the top firms in the world and shares her insight on what it goes on in this exclusive world.

Management consulting in a nutshell

Imagine sitting across an important CEO of a huge asian MNC, leader of a billion dollar business and you are tasked to advise him on his business to increase profitability by 20%. You learn about the business, break down the problem, and structure a hypothesis on the main problems of the business and cost reductions to solve them. Based on the hypothesis, you create a framework to test the hypothesis, collect and analyse both external and internal client data.

As a twenty something, if that's your role, you are likely a management consultant.

Getting into the role of a management consultant

There are two ways to get into a “top 3” management consulting firms (likes of McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Bain & Company).

  • Graduate from a prestigious university- think about Ivy league schools, top 10 universities in the United States; combined with top grades or be in the top 5% of your class
  • Must-have a Masters of Business Administration (MBA)

There are different paths for you depending on how you enter the firm:

  • Graduate from a prestigious university
    • You start as a Business analyst,
    • Senior analyst,
    • Associate,
    • Manager,
    • Principal and then finally partner
  • Route via Masters of Business Administration (MBA)
    • You start as an associate so you save about 4-5 years of working in the firm itself, bearing in mind most reputable MBA require working experience to be admitted
    • Rest of the progression is the same

What you actually do as a management consultant

Essentially, you are helping your client (the company they represent) solve problems; likely problems they themselves cannot solve. It could range from a market sizing project, or designing a 5-year strategic transformation plan—anything that could possibly be an issue for the company could bring business for your firm. 

Working alongside a team, you will usually be at the client’s place of business, and very quickly have to understand, identify the problem, followed by a solution. “Quickly” usually means 24-48 hours. Any problem on hand can have a million permutation of solutions, so the key is deciding what is the key solution or rather hypothesise in record time, then drill down to what exactly would the solution look like in the rest of your engagement with the client.

A project can be a week long nightmare, or 4-5 months long. You will get a quick break in between projects where you'll be on “the bench” waiting for the next project. Since there are problems all year long for companies, there is no regular peak or lull season.

Shorter projects become a nightmare because you are trying to identify, solve and recommend in a shorter amount of time. That means, more room for error and in management consulting, there is very little room for error. In management consulting, you are expected to deliver top notch solutions no matter the timelines given to you by the client. 

Why there is little to no room for error

You are graded and reviewed constantlyevery project you work on means you will be graded on a scale of 1-5. Get a grade below 3 more than twice, you will most likely be deemed as an under performer and may be fired. The “Up (promoted) or Out (leave the firm)” rule is quite realistic in most consulting firms.

Your project manager will be the person grading your performance. The evaluation criteria is the manager’s expectations of you. So to make this easier, there is an initial expectation setting meeting, mid project review and final evaluation at the end of the project. In reality, things get so busy that you never get to the mid-project review stage. What’s more, at the end of the project, you normally only know what you failed to do and never what you did well. It’s what makes you work harder the next round.

That's not all; there's your peers too.

So let’s say you topped your cohort in university and most people around you revere you as “the smart one”. That might be true, until you enter management consulting, where you are now benchmarked against peers who are likely smarter than you are. When that happens, you are screwed because your peer knows everything, gets everything correct, is always the first one to have everything ready and even anticipates what managers need. He’s a superstar, and if you have a superstar that you are benchmarked against, no matter how well you do, you will be graded less, so… good luck.

Meanwhile, back to no room for error. We’re all humans, we make mistakes right?

Well, any mistake you make or crappy work that you did, will first garner you an awful review for that project, followed by the entire firm knowing what mistake or crappy job you did, and no one will want you on the next project.

When you have no projects to work on, you are on the “bench” or in some firms, the “beach”. This is when you are dumped in the dumpster to do lots of other non-client facing activities. More than 6 months on the bench; face it, it’s time to look for another job because no one wants you on their project and you are "useless" because you haven’t been billable asset for such a long time… Someone will most likely escort you to the door in the next year end review.

Variety of work as a management consultant

You will mostly be exposed to two types of projects: strategy development (e.g. transformational growth design) or operational improvement (e.g. cost reduction issues).

Within those types, there is a myriad of combination within function and industry. For example, you may be in a project dealing with a large healthcare pharmaceutical producing generic drugs (industry), dealing with workforce optimisation and redesigning their organisational structure (HR function). Every project is so different and diverse, it feels like a brand new adventure each time!

So what do consultants do at each job level?

As an analyst or senior analyst, you're fresh out of university and will be doing most of the grunt work. Tasks such as data crunching, building excel models, gathering information and conducting client or third party interviews are very common at this level. You will be given some guidance from an associate or manager.

As an associate, you will most likely manage workstreams. A project may require in-depth work and to make things easier, it is broken down into several mini-projects known as workstreams. For example, in a cost reduction project across a company, there could be three workstreams segmented by function: finance, human resource and sales. Your job as an associate is to lead the workstreams and constantly communicate to the project manager on your findings, timelines and the way you are framing the problem and output. You will most likely be staffed with one or two analysts to deliver on this. Your success is dependent on how good your analysts are and how well you are able to structure or frame the problem, as well as the relationship you have with your manager and the client. You are expected to deliver as an associate and there should not be any mistakes as you are expected to ensure quality work from your analysts and derive solid recommendations.

As a manager, your role becomes extremely interesting and your success depends on your ability to manage the top and bottom ranks of the company. At this level, you are basically the leader of the project and you have to oversee all workstreams. The number of workstreams can go up to double digits, which becomes fairly challenging to manage all at the same time. You need to be at the top of your game to make sure that the workstreams connect succinctly and that the recommendations made are sound. You are also sandwiched between the client (you are the client’s main point of contact)  and your partners/ principals who are busy and have no time to have lengthy discussions with you.

Your job is to constantly make sure that all wheels are rolling and delivery is done in a timely manner. If you have juniors on your team who aren't delivering, you are just as good as dead. It is your job to make sure that they are able to deliver quality work and you have to provide guidance when necessary. On a side note, you will be grading the juniors who are not delivering anyway so you do not have to worry about working with them again.

At the partner or principal level, you are basically selling projects to corporate clients. You will start to have sales targets and your success in the firm is determined by how many projects you are able to sell. This is highly dependent on how great your relationships are with your clients and your ability to pitch why you are the best consulting firm for the client.

Sometimes if there aren't enough resources in the company, the principal will need to play the role of a manager. However, you are no longer doing the grunt work at this stage, rather "speak and it will be done.” Your have a lot of weight in the firm and can basically make or break the careers of managers and below.

Basically as a management consultant, you will be expected to have a sharp problem solving ability and stellar Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint skills combined with the ability to be coherent in presentations. Managing your client, your team members and your personal life is crucial to not work yourself to death. If you can manage expectations and delivery timelines well, you will be able to sustain a manageable consulting lifestyle. 

Promotions and culture

Every year, there will typically be promotions. If within 2 years, you’re not promoted, once again, look for another job or someone will escort you out of the door the next year end review.

When you first step into this culture, yes it’s tough, but you think you’re top of the world. Where in the world would you be paid $8,000-$9,000 a month as a fresh graduate, flown around, staying in 5 star hotels, and if you have time to eat, eat the best?

At the same time, if you’re good, or rather a superstar, you’ll thrive in this no-nonsense environment. It’s an honest and brutal environment that compensates very well but has no mercy. Be prepared to pay your dues and do the grunt work at the start (admin work, preparing decks), in no time, you'll be working your way to partnership!

Last minute changes happen all the time as a management consultant

Imagine this typical scenario. You've been working overnight on a presentation for your firm's partner because your manager decided to change the methodology at 10pm last night. You're so proud of yourself for rushing the changes through. There you are, still sitting at your client’s office at 6am, your partner walks in, and throws out an entire section because he thinks that this part of the presentation doesn't fit, or a different way of thinking should be used to solve the problem 

You look at your watch—the client presentation is at 2pm which means, after working overnight, you have only 8 hours to get it right to your partner's satisfaction. You redo the analysis in Microsoft Excel, write up 5 slides whilst corresponding constantly to your manager for review, all before the 2pm client meeting. 

Partners don’t care about your life. You've worked 24 hours and they make a last minute change? Too bad—someone else more capable will take your place. That’s how it is. If they send a message out on a Sunday to have a team meeting, everyone is activated, and you have to turn up. 

Within a project, depending on whether they are short or longer projects—you tend to have at least 1 day in the week to enjoy (1 day out of your weekend) and pulling an all-nightly is not very frequent unless it's a very urgent and demanding project. You tend to work 12-13 hour days and sometimes sleep 5 hour a day on days when you need to rush a deadline. Midnight finishes are common, especially at the seniority levels below a Manager.

Tight bunch of folks… or not?

Sounds like really hard work right? Well, with all the long hours, intense pressure, you tend to have a tight bond with your colleagues when you’re still a junior staff. Complain together, bond together.

However, in between every project, you are constantly “selling yourself” to project managers to have you on their team. You can imagine what that means when it comes to competing with your peers to be on certain projects. You have to manage good relationships with your own manager so that maybe he or she will help indicate to his colleague that you're keen on another project. Or you may need to do your own campaign where you have to try to talk to various stakeholders, explain your interest in the various projects available.

In some firms, there will a person who organises everyone's schedule so you may need to “suck up” to them so that they will think of you when a new project comes up, and schedule you in. However, if you have a bad reputation, the manager who received you on the team can still reject you.

Do note there’s a very clear barrier between junior staff, and managers and above. They normally don’t talk to associates as it’s quite hierarchical, unless its about work or a project.

Also, although it's important to have senior folks like you, (so they'll help you along the way) but to think everyone is helpful and will guide you in your new role? You can dream on. You learn on the job—that’s why you’re paid what you’re paid.

Why it’s awesome being a management consultant

The pay is a huge incentive to why people join management consulting. 4 years into the role, you can probably buy an apartment with that money. Your increment every year is about $20-30k, not a meagre 3%-5% like most companies. Your bonus is about 1-3 months of your base pay and progression is very quick.

On top of that, because so few people make it in this brutal industry, a few years in, and you know you can handle anything in any industry. After a while, all the pressure and demands of the role may take a toll on some, and that's why many consultants end up leaving for other industries.

Most management consultants are also in it to ensure they can have access to high ranking positions in other corporations like private equity or conglomerates in their next role.

Concluding thoughts

This is not an industry for the faint-hearted and it certainly seems that you need to be gregarious enough to be able to posture your capabilities and make known your achievements so that you are always employed.

Additionally, you must actually be able to deliver on the project because you cannot hide behind a super star as everyone is accountable for their performance.

However, with the promising prospects and high pay, it certainly is beneficial for individuals early on in their careers where they may not have relationship obligations and also have the energy to deliver at such an extreme pace at all times.