A guide to understanding management consulting firms
You will likely begin your job search by creating a list of firms to apply to. Needless to say, there are a lot of firms out there. Of course, there are well-known, highly prestigious firms that regularly top Vault’s Top Consulting Firms list, but there are also many broader professional services companies with consulting practices, as well as countless boutique firms. If you’re unsure where to start or are worried you’re missing some firms, Vault is a great resource.
We created this article to serve as a guide for understanding and evaluating different firms (and offices/regions) as you navigate the application and interview process, and ultimately decide which offer to accept. That being said, this is just a starting point. We recommend doing further research on these areas utilizing firm websites, networking conversations, and of course, asking questions during your interviews.
We know we included a long list of factors to consider. Capabilities, industry, and staffing model will likely be really significant factors in your search. However, others like mobility could be especially important if you want to live in a certain region or have the flexibility to move if, for example, your partner were to move. Use this as a guide and weigh these different items as makes the most sense to you and your search.
|Business & Organizational Purpose||M&A, Transactions & PMI|
|Climate Change & Sustainability||Marketing & Sales|
|Corporate Finance & Strategy||Operations|
|Customer Insights||Organization & People Strategy|
|Digital, Technology & Data||Pricing & Revenue Management|
|Diversity, Equity & Inclusion||Risk Management & Compliance|
|Innovation Strategy & Delivery||Social Impact|
|International Business||Zero-Based Budgeting|
You are likely on this website right now because you want to work in strategy consulting at McKinsey, BCG, or Bain. However, these firms (and many others) offer a wide range of capabilities. As you can see in the graphic above, strategy is just one of the 22 capabilities provided by BCG. Though many of the other capabilities likely fall under the type of work you have in mind when thinking about strategy consulting (e.g., growth, international business, pricing). It’s important to be aware of the different capabilities the firms you are applying to offer, as well as the composition of work that they do. A firm may list 10 different capabilities it provides, but in fact, 75% of the projects they sell may fall under just one. Capability, like industry, will have a huge impact on project duration, the specific work that you do, and your work/life balance. For example, an M&A due diligence project could involve 90 hours/week across a 6-week sprint, while a turnaround project could involve 50 hours/week over 6+ months. It’s also important to keep in mind that capabilities often vary not just by firm but by region and office.
|Aerospace & Defense||Insurance|
|Automotive||Principal Investors & Private Equity|
|Consumer Products||Public Sector|
|Energy||Technology, Media & Telecommunications|
|Financial Institutions||Transportation & Logistics|
|Health Care||Travel & Tourism|
|Industrial Goods||US Public Sector & Government|
Many consulting firms do work in many industries, while others focus on just one or several. As with capabilities, it’s important to understand the composition of the firm’s work and any specialties. In addition, the industry can have a big impact on the types of functional work that you will do, as well as an impact on travel and hours. Consulting firms’ hours tend to mirror or be slightly longer than their clients’ hours. As you can imagine, this means that your week will look very different if you are working in the financial services sector versus the public sector. In addition, consider what you may want to do after your time in consulting. Many people enter consulting because they want to keep their options open, as well as “try out” specific industries.
Opportunity (or expectation) to specialize
Many firms hire generalists, particularly out of undergrad and business school. As you saw from the long list of capabilities and industries, it is hugely valuable for firms to hire smart, adaptable people rather than attempt to match skill sets to each and every specialty. That being said, some firms will expect you to choose a track and specialize within a certain industry or capability after a certain level. This could be a pro if you are especially interested in a certain area, or a con if you want to ensure a wide range of project work. On the other hand, some firms or practice areas within firms (e.g, life sciences consulting, digital services practice) want a more specialized background and will expect you to focus on that capability or industry while working there. We suggest researching this on firms’ websites, as well as asking about this during your conversations with firms.
Culture hugely shapes your experience at a firm. It impacts the way you will interact with your colleagues, as well as how project teams approach client engagements. Culture can vary significantly from a large professional services firm versus a small boutique firm (the former is often more formal and structured). However, culture does not vary as significantly across McKinsey, BCG, and Bain. Instead, we see culture vary more by individual office (impacted by the leadership at the office, the project mix, and culture of the location itself). The best way to understand a firm’s (and individual office’s) culture is to speak with consultants there. In your conversations, try to get a sense of each firm’s degree of:
- Formality: This can include attire, the way team members interact with one another and clients, and the atmosphere of company events.
- Hierarchy: Does the firm have a more hierarchical approach to delegating project roles or will you have a lot of opportunities to stretch upwards?
- Support: Does the firm seem to really support its employees in developing professionally and care that they maintain a healthy work/life balance?
At the end of the day, culture is a very personal preference, so use these criteria to think through which culture is best for you.
Do really consider work/life balance before joining a firm. Management consulting is known for having a tough (or lacking) work/life balance, but this varies significantly by firm, as well as from project to project. It is valuable to read about specific programs firms have put in place to ensure their employees do not burn out, as well as ask consultants at those firms how their overall experiences have been. Larger firms often have more structured programs and policies in place, while smaller firms may not. However, smaller firms may provide more flexibility for individual needs. A few items worth considering are:
- Industry and capability: As mentioned earlier, these are the two most significant factors that impact project duration, hours, and overall intensity.
- Overall culture: Look to see if work/life balance is explicitly stated as a priority for the firm, and validate this by reading reviews and asking employees about their experiences.
- Formalized programs: Research programs firms have to ensure employee well-being, such as BCG’s PTO model or Bain’s sabbatical program, as well as the extent to which they are actually used by employees.
- Travel v. local projects: Keep in mind that the same “working hours” can feel very different if you are also catching a 7 am flight every Monday and staying at a hotel 3 nights a week.
- Vacation days: Find out if people at the firm typically use all of their vacation days and if they ever have difficulty getting time off approved. Also, be aware that the number of vacation days can vary significantly by firm (less so in the US, but this can be a differentiator in other geographies).
Some firms have dedicated talent management teams, which staff consultants to projects. They ensure there is a fit between professional development and project needs. This also allows consultants to enjoy time “off” (also called “on the beach”) between projects. During this time, you can recharge, as well as work on internal firm initiatives (e.g., support a marketing effort, lead an employee resource group, or organize a firm volunteer event). Other firms require consultants to staff themselves, which requires networking across the firm to find available projects that are (ideally) also of interest to the individual. There are pros and cons to both, but the staffing model has a significant impact on your experience at the firm. In addition, many firms staff a given consultant on one project for its duration. Others, though, may have consultants split time across multiple projects. Networking conversations are a great way to better understand the firm’s approach to staffing.
Promotion timeline...and up or out?
Most consulting firms follow a fairly similar career trajectory (see details on roles and responsibilities here). However, the timeline and expectations for promotion can vary significantly, as well as the support you receive from a firm when you exit. The most significant way this can vary is by whether the firm has an “up or out” policy. An “up or out” policy essentially means that if you are not promoted within a certain timeframe, you will be transitioned out of the firm. This prevents consultants from staying at a certain level indefinitely. Essentially, firms only want to keep consultants that they believe have the potential to continue to progress to partner. Firms with this type of policy often provide plenty of notice and significant support in leaving the firm. For example, BCG will provide consultants a 3-6 month transition period, which essentially serves as protected and supported time to find their next role. In addition, in some firms, it is more accessible to be promoted from Associate (entry-level) to Consultant (typically post-MBA) directly, while at other firms, it is more expected that you leave for graduate school (potentially sponsored by the firm and with an offer to return).
Lastly, keep in mind that specific expectations or policies can vary by office within a given firm, as well as from firm to firm. For example, at most of BCG’s offices, Associates are promoted after 2 years to Senior Associates. They then stay in this role for 1.5 years before moving on to the Consultant role (see details on roles and responsibilities here). However, in certain BCG offices like Germany, the Senior Associate role does not exist, and instead, you are expected to have a Master’s degree to progress to Consultant.
Consider what you want to get out of your consulting experience, and then see what firms offer that may support that. A few items worth exploring are if the firm offers:
- Nearly every firm offers training, but they can vary significantly in how robust and frequent the trainings are, as well as the topics that are covered)
- A mentor provides career guidance specific to your time at the firm but also to your broader career and goals; see if the firm has a formal mentorship program, as well as if the culture supports developing these kinds of relationships overall
- If you think it is likely you want to get an MBA, joining a firm that will sponsor your tuition is a great path. Ask firms/offices how competitive sponsorship is (some offices may only sponsor 1-2 people per year). Also, keep in mind that firms require a commitment to return for a certain number of years if you are sponsored.
- Some firms offer the opportunity to work at one of their industry partners (past or current clients) or social impact partners for a fixed amount of time while holding your consulting position for when you return. This is a great way to gain direct experience outside of consulting while still being able to return to your role.
This may not be relevant to everyone reading this. However, mobility (e.g., the opportunity to work abroad, the ability to move closer to loved ones) can differ by firm. Many global consulting firms offer international placements (though they can be quite competitive to get), whereas a smaller firm may not be able to provide this opportunity. Also, consider how easy it is to transfer between offices if this is important to you. Most firms will require you to stay at the office location you join for at least a year. After this, you can typically request to transfer locations, but doing so is easier at some firms more than others and can also depend on which location you want to transfer to. There are generally two ways that you can “move” offices. The first is a temporary transfer, for which you request to work on a “cross-office” project (but your role, performance evaluation, salary, and benefits remain tied to your home office). There may also be formalized programs specifically geared towards international placements. Temporary transfers typically last the duration of a given project, which can last for weeks up to a year. The second option is permanent transfer, which is a full transfer to another location. You often need to have built relationships in the office you are trying to transfer to, as well as have a compelling reason (e.g., spouse relocated for graduate school) to do so. This can be very easy to do at some firms, but very challenging at others.