When a consulting firm is hired, they agree to provide a specific team to execute the work. A team typically includes a Partner and/or Principal (which spend only a portion of their time on a given project), Project Leader, and a mix of Consultants and Associates. The exact time size and composition will vary depending on the needs of the project. The consulting team works very closely throughout the client engagement from kick-off to delivery. Many firms have their teams work at the client site Monday through Thursday so that they can really embed themselves in the organization. Meanwhile, other firms only have their teams travel to the client as needed or staff their teams on local projects (so “travel” would be a cab ride rather than a flight). This can also vary within firms by project.
Roles are titled differently depending on the firm, but generally have the same responsibilities, expectations, and promotion cadence. We’ve used BCG’s position titles below with McKinsey’s in parentheses.
Associate (Business Analyst):
Typically hired directly from university, Associates do the bulk of the analysis and slide-building under the supervision of a Project Leader. More junior Associates are given discrete analyses to complete and slides to build. They may also work directly with more junior clients to request data, conduct interviews, or answer basic questions. As Associates get more senior (people are typically in the Associate role for 1.5-2 years), they may own work streams and partner with more senior-level clients.
Typically hired after graduate school or promoted internally from the Associate level, Consultants are often tasked with larger sets of work and given more autonomy than Associates. This gives Consultants a chance to further develop their analytical and communication skills while also having more accountability within the project. In addition, Consultants who are approaching promotion as often given acting Project Leader roles to demonstrate their readiness to advance.
Project Leader (Engagement Manager):
As the title suggests, Project Leaders are responsible for developing a project plan, assigning ownership and supporting the team in executing the work, and managing the client relationship. They are the day-to-day manager for the Associates and Consultants on the team, as well as the main point of contact for the client.
Principal (Associate Partner):
Up until this level, consultants are typically tied to a single project (sometimes two, depending on the firm’s staffing model). Meanwhile, as a Principal, you oversee a set of projects and have a significant focus on business development and firm leadership. Principals often check in regularly with their teams but are not in the weeds (a term you’ll often hear in consulting) with executing work. Rather, they work with the Project Leader to kick off the engagement, provide guidance along the way, and then manage senior client interactions. They are responsible for project delivery, but also for selling new work and building a successful firm. That being said, sometimes the Principal will assume day-to-day management of more complex projects.
This is the most senior level within a consulting firm. Managing Directors are responsible for ensuring the success of a set of projects, as well as building relationships and selling work. Therefore, they have limited interaction with each individual project. Directors typically participate in Case Team Meetings ~2 times per month to make sure the work is moving in the right direction, as well as attend senior client meetings. They are also thought leaders within the consulting firm and often have a specific area of expertise. They are responsible for growing the firm’s business and developing talent.