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Is Consulting the Right Field for You?

Consulting is hot again! As investment banks struggle with the financial crisis, one industry stands tall and ready to hire: management consulting.

More MBA students are going for consulting than virtually any other field. It's hip again to think, strategize and work closely with clients. Demand is still strong for purveyors of intellectual capital and opportunities for undergrads and MBAs to get on the fast track in consulting remain very real.

The push into consulting is understandeable. Work in consulting is stimulating and the pay can be excellent. Salary offers (inclusive of guaranteed bonus) at top MBA schools in 2008 for consultants averaged $145,000 per year, often with significant signing bonuses, relocation reimbursement or tuition relief.

But is consulting really the right field for you? And, if so, how should you conduct your job search? A careful examination of your own skills, values and interests is an excellent idea, particularly given the wide range of available career options.

You should commit to an ongoing and serious process of introspection and skill inventorying before marching into your next job interview. The more convincingly and honestly you can answer questions about why you are across the table from the interviewer, the better you will do. To say nothing of long-term personal happiness. After all, making a difference in a career that you enjoy is an important part of life. Doing a good job today in finding a career that matches your values and skill set is an investment that will pay off for many years to come. It's very easy to see the time you're planning to spend exploring careers get taken up with other more immediate priorities. It's absolutely vital that you not let this happen.

The Options

There are basically two career options in consulting: generalist or specialist. Not surprisingly, specialists apply specialized process and functional knowledge to real organizations with real problems. It's great work that offers clear value to many organizations. Without doubt, the hottest area in consulting today is informational technology. This is technical stuff that offers strong productivity improvements to countless businesses in areas like client/server, sales force automation, CICS/VBASIC/UNAMEit. And, its why the big IT consulting shops, like Accenture, will continue to grow. More people work for Accenture today than do for the top five generalist firms combined. Speaking of generalist, the other option available is to work for a firm which provides a wide variety of advice designed to make enterprises run faster, better, cheaper, meaner and cleaner. Generalist firms include well-known names such as BCG, Booz Allen & Hamilton, McKinsey, Monitor plus a growing list of mid-sized consultancies and smaller boutiques. At the same time, some of the Big accounting firms have made tremendous inroads into the strategy consulting business. Some of these firms are managing to attract some of the very brightest students from institutions like NYU and Wharton.

In all, over 300,000 people work full-time in the management consulting industry, generating more than $30 billion in annual revenues. Just over half of these consultants come from the United States; another quarter come from Europe. The most rapid growth is currently being seen in developing economies such as Brazil and Mexico. There can be no doubt that this industry will continue to expand rapidly over the long-run although short-run retrenchments can and will happen.

Given the scope and size of this career opportunity, it is well-worth asking where you might fit into the industry. And, of course, whether you want to fit in. Let's start by asking what skills are in demand among consulting organizations.

The Skills in Demand

Consulting firm interviews typically involve a combination of general background questions, a case question and questions about your past behavior (the much dreaded behavioral interview approach). There are, of course, many different approaches to interviewing and, for that matter, to being interviewed. But the bottom line is that firms are screening for skills that match their needs. It is vitally important that you make every effort to understand what these skills are before you step into the interview room.

Common skills on interviewer check lists include...

Skill #1: A Passion for Ideas. You can't eat what a consulting firm makes. You can't drive it. You can't smell it. The product is an idea, an insight, a suggestion, a way of thinking. Ultimately, consulting firms are nothing more than repositories of pure intellectual capital. This means that their most important asset has to be the ability to use past intellectual capital and to generate new intellectual capital through rigorous thinking and careful research. Hence the frenzy to hire the best and the brightest of America's business schools. This intellectual focus of consulting is clearly important in deciding whether you would do well in the field. A good consultant has to be a great thinker with a passion for ideas. You need to be the type that does well in school and likes it. You need to enjoy problem-diagnosis, problem-framing and problem-solving.

If you find yourself struggling with the academic-side of business school, getting stuck on cases, disliking writing, but excelling along other dimensions (e.g. human interaction or entrepreneurialism) you probably should not be a consultant. You may very well get a job offer anyway. Firms may hire you opportunistically, knowing that they you can generate more value for them than you are being paid. But advancing and leading may be a different matter altogether.

Incidentally, some firms aren't nearly as pedigree-sensitive as some seem to think. Leaders of some of the most prominent firms in the consulting profession have made it with degrees from institutions far below the top-ranked schools. Pedigree can neither guarantee one success nor condemn one to failure. For that matter, the MBA degree itself need not be necessary. A number of firms are hiring persons with other degree backgrounds (e.g. law, engineering, public administration, medicine). McKinsey, in particular, has recently been aggressive in its pursuit of attorneys, PhD's and the like. Sheepskin is sheepskin... And, of course, many undergraduate students enter consulting, often in two or three year programs that are expected to be followed by a stint at business school.

Skill #2: A Passion for Client Service. With all of the money being thrown around by the consulting firms these days, it can be easy to get into the profession for the wrong reason. After all is said and done, consulting is a service profession and most firms screen carefully for commitment to others and ability to excel in meeting client needs. As a consultant you will always be working to help others. Your ability to serve clients will determine your success and the prospects of your employer. While intangible, a personal commitment to excel in meeting the needs of your clients is vital to enjoying the profession. In a recent letter published by a seasoned ex-McKinsey consultant put it this way: "It is only through personal excellence that this profession becomes truly enjoyable. Those who demonstrate superior skills gain personal control early in their careers. These individuals are in such demand that, at any point in time, they have numerous options to choose from. They typically become engagement managers sooner, and tend to set the pace for their teams. Through their intellectual leadership they gain respect from the clients, the partners and their teammates. In a business world where institutional loyalty is rare, the individual needs to excel and generate his or her own marketability. The result is that the institution needs the individual, not the reverse. Over the years, I have observed that unfriendly clients become attentive when listening to people of excellence because their contribution is unique. Those who achieve excellence feel great about themselves and are more likely to find the consulting experience a path to fulfillment. The financial rewards become window dressing and the high of the experience becomes the drug of first choice."

Skill #3: A Passion for People. Consultants will often note that some of their most fulfilling relationships are with clients because he had built life-long, lasting partnerships with a number of clients through repeated contact and hard work. These relationships are what can make the long hours, stressful travel and corporate frustrations encountered by consultants worthwhile. Consultants who enjoy talking to people do well. It's a field where the gregarious do well with their teammates and their clients. This isn't to say that you must be the ultimate extrovert, but you do have to connect. However you accomplish this, whether it be by charm, humor, listening or hard-work, it's vital that you enjoy, understand and communicate with clients. Consulting firm interviewers are looking for people that they'd like to work with themselves. It's only human.

So, it's an odd admixture in demand at the consulting firms. Smart, likable people who are good at helping others. Not necessarily a natural combination of abilities you might say. The screening process, of course, can vary widely and many firms are looking for a unique traits. Other characteristics in demand including understanding of specific business issues, a tolerance for ambiguity, tolerance for absolutely abusive hours, superb IT skills, personal appearance, the ability to work quickly in spreadsheets, logical thinking skills, writing skills, willingness to travel and facility with languages.

Landing the Job You Want

Let's suppose for the moment that you've decided that you would like to pursue a position in consulting. Moreover, let's assume that you don't yet have offers from the three firms that you truly want to work for. What then is your next step? This all depends on where you are going to school. At some institutions, all the big firms show up and will talk to you. You pick them and they pick you. This practice works well if you are coming out of a top 5 MBA program.

Many candidates who land positions in the consulting profession do so by scrambling, hustling and working hard in the job search process. This is referred to a self-directed job search and is a critical approach to take, particularly if you are interested in breaking into the medium-sized and smaller consulting firms that do not recruit on campus.

Anne Harris, Head of MBA Career Services, at the University of Virginia's Darden School argues that the most important aspects of conducting a consulting firm career search involve preparing the right resume, networking in the profession and getting "face time".

The Resume The resume/CV is a necessary evil in your job search. Consulting firms are looking for organized resumes that convey the skills they are looking for, solid schooling, some relevant functional expertise (e.g. engineering or finance) and a successful track record. The firms are typically tolerant of "career changers" but will be looking for you to provide a coherent story about why you are changing. It's not particularly important to worry about font choice and paragraph formatting. A good interviewer is looking for experience, enthusiasm and skill.

Networking The key to landing a consulting position is to network. Not bad since a consultant has to be a natural networker. It really helps to have others batting for you and educating you about the profession. If you indicate in an interview that you already know someone at a firm your chances of landing a position will go up dramatically. There are lots of good ways to network. It's not as hard as many seem to think. Most people will be willing to help you if you give them the chance. Sometimes the firm you want is right on campus and provides an opportunity to get acquainted at a cocktail party or other so-called "cultivation event." More likely, you will need to strike out on your own. You should contact people at the firm you are interested in who come from the same school you attended or who you are linked to in some other way. The best way to get acquainted is over the telephone. Our database of Top Consulting Firm Recruiters should prove to be quite helpful in this regard.

Making The Phone Call The networking phone call is the single most valuable weapon in your job search arsenal. You can overcome the "intimidation factor" by practicing this technique with a colleague or your friendly career services director. You want to call a consultant and let them know that you are a student with a specific interest in their work or firm. It's important to be sincere, polite, friendly and very interested in the person you are calling on. If you are on the job market now, be direct and ask for help with your job search. "Can I send you my resume?" "What are you looking for?" You might ask a series of questions about the pros and cons of the firm, the work and the life. Or, alternatively, you might ask for help with an upcoming interview. Better yet, ask for a meeting, even if only for ten minutes or so. "I'll be in New York (or wherever) next week and would love to ask you a few questions over breakfast."

Unfortunately, many networking phone calls end up with one of two negative outcomes: (1) "the person is not available", or (2) "sorry but we are not looking." If your contact is not available, ask for voice mail and leave a voice mail introducing yourself and explaining why you are calling. This is a great opportunity to get a conversation started. If you don't hear back, keep trying. A dirty, but effective trick, is to call the office in the evening. This is when the real work gets done and you'll be often surprised to hear the person you are calling pick up the phone and be willing to talk. Now, what if your contact indicates that they are the wrong person to call or that they are not looking? This is the time to ask for help networking with other people. Instead of being pushy or hanging up, what you should do is ask for names of others that you might contact in your efforts to learn about the field and locate a position.

Face Time Ultimately, there is no good substitute for meeting someone. One of the most helpful things you can do is to get personally acquainted with consultants at firms that interest you. This may be costly, but it's almost always worth it. If you go to school outside of a major metropolitan area, you will need to visit people at the firms that interest you. It's human nature to favor those whom we know and like in the hiring process.

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