Management consultants of metafilter - tell me about your work day!
January 31, 2013 8:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the early stages of exploring a career shift into management consulting. I've spoken to a few people in one company, but I'm interested in hearing from people who do not have to speak for their employer as well.

The nature of work I'm looking at would almost certainly involve a fair amount of travel and time away from home, so I want to get a better idea if the lifestyle would be rewarding for me. For background, my current role is in the public sector as a subject matter expert/senior policy analyst. If you are in consulting, what do you love about it? How do you feel about dealing with different clients and reporting structures? What's a really bad day on the job like? A really good day?

Also, if you used to be in consulting and decided to go back to a traditional, full-time employment arrangement, what prompted that?
posted by Kurichina to Work & Money (4 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I've worked on the fringes of management consultancy (i.e. provided some of the advisory services management consultants do) and worked for a while as a management consultant on a specific project. My old roommate joined a McKinsey-ish strategy consultancy spinoff out of university that had the big firm aspirations but was mid size. My wife worked for a couple of years for a mid-size management consultancy that specialised in sales force effectiveness. There is no one management consultancy role, nor one type of company.

My roommate was well paid, travelled extensively, and got fantastic things to put on his CV. As a junior grunt, he was worked like a dog. I barely saw him through the two years he did in the job. When he was on a project nearing delivery he worked all the hours. He would then often go into a lull and get bored. He hated it, but valued the experience it gave him. He was also never left in doubt about how competitive and up and out the culture was. Either you progressed and the company funded your MBA or you were out on your ear.

My wife did a more specialised role and did not enjoy it, eventually leaving to join a very focused boutique firm that specialised in IT implementation rather than number crunching. She found her work in her first job tedious - in the sense that she spent a lot of her time driving a spreadsheet. She enjoyed her second role much more because it was more hands on. Again, as a grunt, she resented doing the bulk of the project, putting pp slides together all night and then handing over to a partner to present it as his own. It's the way many firms work, but it can be soul destroying. You want to be climbing the ladder quickly if you're going to enjoy it.

My own experience in consulting is that I've loved the challenge and the variety of coming to something new each time, and found dealing with different client expectations a challenge. For example, flying out to South America to deliver some findings to my client, having his boss come in on the meeting and declaring that a project whose scope, methodology, findings, presentation etc had all been agreed at each step was not what he wanted at all. The reverse of that are the times when you nail it and walk away feeling 10 feet high. In my last role, I worked independently for a public sector project and it was totally different: much less overt pressure, but occasional bouts of flat out panic where a higher up changed the goal posts or a stakeholder refused to budge and the whole project team had to work furiously to bring things back on track.

The key thing for you is to be very clear on your work style and the kind of company you want to work for and what the company you're joining actually does. There is a real tendency in many strat houses to overemphasise the highs and not the lows, especially the workload and its toll on your personal life. On that note I had dinner with a guy a couple of months back and was astonished that, 3 years into his marriage he'd never lived with his wife until the month before. He had spent the entire time in different countries in Eastern Europe doing very high flying financial management consultancy for a big firm. He was a partner at his firm and clearly successful. But what a life.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:14 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

So ... how many people are going to answer this obviously during business hours, eh? The hell with it, I'll go:

"Management consulting" can describe a lot of different things; I sometimes describe myself as a "management consultant" when I don't want to go into (or I don't think the person asking the question is really interested in hearing) a more detailed explanation of my job.

I do a lot of business travel, probably about 50% overall but with long stretches of 80-100% on-site time, where I'll de facto "move" to another city Monday-Friday.

Whether and how much that sucks depends on a lot of things. The exact nature of the contract matters a lot -- do the employees see you as someone there to help, or as the executioner? I've been on contracts where everyone was friendly, everyone went out for dinner/drinks after work, it really felt like a team, etc. And I've been in places where nearly everyone was openly (and not unreasonably) hostile, and where they turned the lights off on me at the end of the day without so much as a "see you tomorrow." Comes with the territory. The exact nature of the work you do will influence this, but it's rare to always have everyone on your side all the time.

The locations you travel to matter a lot. Traveling to a major corporation's headquarters, in a skyscraper in a major East Coast city, with hour-long lunch breaks, staying in a nice hotel with a $60/day meal tab and no obnoxious restrictions against expensing alcohol? You win at consulting. Traveling to be the hatchet man at a windowless callcenter in a place mostly known for pig farms, staying at a Motel 6 where the number-of-days-since-last-bedbug-infestation is in the single digits, where Applebee's is fine dining, and everyone eats lunch at their desk? You will start to seriously consider where things went wrong in your life, and if perhaps there isn't a God and perhaps that God is angry at you.

International travel is its own separate can of worms; the suck factor there (in addition to everything with domestic travel) boils down in large part to whether you'll be under a lot of policies that conflict with local norms ('no alcohol' or FCPA bullshit), whether you're allowed to travel first/business class on long flights, and just generally whether your company is going to support you when something goes pear-shaped and you're stranded on the other side of the planet.

Positions with a lot of travel tend to be the province of young people, or at least people without kids, but there's a high turnover. Lots of people think that traveling 50+% of the time would be fun, but the shine wears off for a lot of folks pretty quickly. If this turns out to be you, get out promptly and don't make yourself miserable. If your company offers some sort of secondary / alternative career track that's lighter on the travel that you can switch to, should you desire it in the future, that's a big plus.

A really good day for me, in terms of my actual job, is much like a really good day for anyone else in an office position: it's one where I'm productive, where everything falls into place, where my interactions with other people are pleasant and helpful, etc. I get my satisfaction from the problem-solving and working-with-people aspects of my job, so the days I get to do those are typically good ones. A crummy day is one where I end up sitting in a windowless cube farm, staring at a computer, doing nothing productive, and particularly doing nothing that I couldn't have done from my own office or my own house. That's always irritating. But both kinds of days happen, and are the province of any modern office job, they are not in any way specific to consulting or management consulting.

tl;dr: Good day. Bad day.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:02 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

On a good day you will feel like a champion genius who can meet any challenge and is definitely Going Places.

On a bad day you will feel like a suit-wearing blow-up doll which is fed bullshit and produces powerpoint presentations. And you won't even get credit for the powerpoint presentations. (Unless they suck.)

High-travel positions can be awesome in many ways, not least in the accumulation of frequent flyer miles and Marriott rewards points that you can then use for your own personal travel and in the natural cost savings of rarely having to buy your own meals. They can also make you eat terribly, never exercise, become a stranger to your friends and family, and never do anything but work.

You will quickly get a large variety of useful experience and skills that you can take with you into your future career.

You will quickly learn that your salary is nowhere near your bill rate.

You will meet a large number of bright, energetic, awesome people who make you feel smarter for having worked with them.

You will meet a large number of complete tools who make you feel like you need to take a long shower while listening to Rage Against The Machine.

My five years as a management consultant gave me wonderful skills in project management, strategic thinking, communications planning, flexibility, adaptibility, working to deadline, running a good meeting, etc., that I will use constantly for the rest of my career, as well as a wide overview of a lot of different areas in my field that helped me make contacts and learn what I did and didn't like in a job.

They also taught me that I was not born to make my career as a management consultant. I now work for one of my former clients and I'm much, much happier.

The main reasons I loved consulting:
1) I was encouraged to stretch and grow, and as a result did some things I never would have thought I could.
2) I learned SO MUCH and I still use it every day.
3) I had some wonderful friends and mentors as my co-workers, including one of the very best managers I've ever known. That woman can run a meeting like she's conducting a symphony, and I still kind of want to be her when I grow up.
4) I got to do lots of different things, and it ended up introducing me to a field I adore but that I never would have heard of otherwise.

The main reasons that I left consulting:
1) I prefer to be an SME rather than a generalist, and I like to follow a project through implementation and iterative improvements rather than just getting it off the ground and moving on.
2) I found the culture stressful and the expected time commitment (not only in working hours but in socializing-after-work) higher than I wanted to give.
3) I was focused on subject matter expertise rather than business development or wanting to move into a management/financial role, which limited my upward mobility.
4) I didn't like having to be constantly "job hunting" for a new assignment when my current one was over, and I hated the fear of going on the bench.
5) I got married and suddenly there was someone who would miss me if I didn't get home from work until eight.

I now work in the public sector. Both have good and bad points. Which one you enjoy more will be a function on which set of good and bad points is the better match for your personality and working style. For me, the public sector won because of the ability to specialize and stay with one project for a long time, the greater job security (though at the cost of rapid advancement potential), and the fact that [new public sector employer] is better at work life balance than [former management consulting employer.]

I will say that even though it wasn't for me in the long term, I gained extremely valuable skills, experience, and contacts from my time in consulting, and would definitely recommend a stint in consulting to anyone who has the skills and thinks they may like it. I will say that ON AVERAGE, management consulting, particularly the travel-heavy positions, tend to be more of a young-person game, at least based on what I've seen. Tons of eager 20s-and-30s consultants rising through the ranks, but a lot of people leave consulting after a few years. It's really easy to burn out. All the upper-level people at my old shop were extremely driven Type A's who basically did nothing but work. People who wanted to have time to do other things tended to self-select into other fields after several years.

Again, all this will vary a lot depending on your consulting firm and your clients. Consulting for, say, the military or the government is a LOT different from consulting for a bank or a large corporation.
posted by oblique red at 1:13 PM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I worked as a management consultant for two years for a fairly small, boutique-style consultancy firm. I traveled the world business class, stayed in upmarket hotels and went to places like Brazil, Morocco, Egypt, and Cameroon as well as places I didn't personally find as fascinating like Poland and Germany. I also got to spend a lot of time in Athens. My first year I absolutely loved it and my second year I hated it with a passion.

The travel opportunities were amazing and I learned so much from working with people from around the world. I felt I was able to get to know different cultures in a way that would have been impossible as a tourist. On the other hand, my personal life really suffered and I was very lonely a lot of the time.

I'm a fairly extreme introvert and I feel that if I'd been an extrovert the job would have suited me a lot better. Of course, YMMV.

Another thing that bothered me more and more was the fact that the work I did made no difference in the world beyond making lots of money, mostly for other people. I'm an idealist and ultimately couldn't stand working so hard just for money.

What is your Myers Briggs type? If you don't know, find out, and that will help you decide whether management consultancy is for you. As an INFP myself, I was exactly the wrong type for the job and it showed. Although I was successful in terms of money and promotions because I was able to "fake it" quite convincingly, I ended up miserable with some psychological issues that came from the extreme pressure and the fact that the job wasn't a good fit.

I ended up using the money I was able to save to go back for a master's degree in a field that's meaningful to me, and now working in my new field I've never been happier. I wouldn't trade the time I spent as a management consultant for anything, even though it was very tough on me. But the benefits I got out of it and the belief in myself - that I could travel the world by myself making presentations in front of top business people, often in my second language - have served me extremely well in my new career. But if I'd had to continue with management consultancy for life, I think I would have ended up dead through alcohol or suicide within five years. So, extreme ups and downs for me. And I was very lucky in that the traveling I got to do was absolutely stellar.

To summarize, it's obviously not a job for everyone. Take some personality tests and career interest inventories to see how well you might fit. And if possible, have a back-up plan for how to get out of it if you need to.
posted by hazyjane at 1:08 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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