Finding a Firm that Fits

by | March 10, 2009

Before accepting any job offers, there are a number of questions you should consider. These questions should be asked at the time of an interview or during your research phase.

Do analysts/associates work on more than one project (also known as an engagement or study) simultaneously?

Are you more interested in working on high-level strategy issues? Or do you prefer to roll up your sleeves up and dig into the operational details of a company? Ask these questions of yourself and of the firms where you interview. Understanding yourself and your potential employers yields vital information about firms' working style and culture - and your suitability there.

Some companies, like McKinsey and Booz-Allen & Hamilton, assign their associates and analysts to a single project at any given time. Others, like BCG, prefer to staff consultants on up to five engagements at once. This results in a number of differences in working style.

  • When on a number of studies at once, you cannot get everything done in the time available. Therefore, you must become adept at managing expectations and delineating complex priorities and trade-offs.
  • If you plan on consulting for just a couple of years, consider breadth and depth of exposure to industries and study types. Judge if you prefer to dig into fewer areas in greater detail or to get maximum exposure to a wide range of experiences.
  • Working on multiple projects normally means that you spend more time in the office than at the client's - after all, sitting at Client A's office discussing Client B's distribution problems on the telephone would be unprofessional.
  • Single projects generally last from a few weeks up to a year (or longer on some occasions). By the end of the project, depending on staffing needs, you might find yourself unwillingly pigeonholed into an area of expertise.

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Do project teams include both consultants and full-time client members?

While almost all consulting firms mention "considerable client contact" as one of their attributes, examine this further. Discern if this means weekly meetings with senior client managers or daily interaction with client staff who provide full-time support to the project. Again, the answer to your query indicates a lot about the style of your projected work patterns:

  • On the one hand, client team members can be burdensome. They require you spend time schooling them in your consulting methodologies and pulling them through the "wallow phase" (when there's just too much information). They also need you to adjust your schedule to their other commitments and often disregard a reciprocal request.
  • On the other hand, working with client team members can be the most valuable way for a consultant to spend his or her time. For one thing, you to start to develop management skills (something many consultants sadly lack). You also gain better insight into your client's industry and company (which is especially valuable if you ever want to consider jumping ship to a client at some point).

Does the consulting firm have offices worldwide, or is it focused in a small number of key sites? How does this compare with its client distribution?

You should find out how much consultants at the firm travel and what proportion of their studies tend to be out of town. BCG, Bain, McKinsey, and Andersen Consulting work from offices in most major locations around the world. More localized competitors like Monitor generally send their consultants to faraway destinations for extended periods. Some consultants enjoy the extensive traveling (and the accompanying frequent flyer miles), while others loathe the prospect of getting stuck at yet another airport lounge.

While the number of offices a firm operates helps determine travel frequency, ask about the firm's policy on staffing between offices. Some consultancies take a more pan-regional approach to staffing projects, especially in European and Asian offices. This means that even if you work in the London office, you might find yourself shipped off to Hungary or Chiang Mai. Consulting firms with strong specializations are also more prone to send consultants on extended trips - specialized assignments require the best consultants, no matter where they might be based.

Also ask about how each firm distributes its offices: geographically or by specialty. While most firms today organize their offices geographically, most still retain what are commonly called "Centers of Excellence" (or COEs). If you work for a COE, you will probably report geographically to that office, meaning you will probably maintain your residence nearby. Some firms, like Diamond Technology Partners, allow employees to live anywhere and work out of any of their offices. However, they still must report administratively to the COE. Keep in mind that where you live impacts how far you travel and how long you stay away from home.

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At what level do consultants begin to specialize by industry, function, or geographic expertise?

As you enter consulting, you might have a clear idea of an industry or functional area in which you wish to specialize. On the other hand, you might want to use consulting to remain industry-neutral in the short-term, while assessing your options. So consider consulting firms based on their attitudes to specialization. Almost every firm encourages its consultants to choose an area of expertise as they increase in tenure - the question is, how quickly?

Most big strategy firms prefer their new hires follow a generalist track for a couple of years before specializing. That said, once you complete a few successful projects in a particular area, you are often asked to do others in that area. At other firms, you are hired specifically for your current skill base. All firms encourage training (at least in theory), but training generally relates specifically to your current skills. All this amounts to what is commonly called "pigeonholing," meaning: "Good luck in transitioning out of your specialization!"

From the Vault.com Career Guide to Consulting

Filed Under: Job Search


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