How To Climb the Consulting Career Ladder and Stay On Top
You need to know how to climb the consulting career ladder, but if you want to stay on top, you need more than just industry experience.
Consulting is an extremely rewarding career - one that enables you to climb the career ladder rather quickly. To benefit from this rewarding career path, however, it is important to have a solid career plan in place. You must be aware of what is required of you to succeed in consulting and to continue moving forward in your career.
Consider that just more than 10 percent of consultants make it to partner. Some exits occur due to more attractive offers, but many people leave the field because they underperform. Consultants are highly accomplished overachievers, and competition can be fierce. The evaluation process is challenging, and to succeed, you must put in consistent effort to prepare yourself for each stage of your career. It’s possible to reach the top, but not without appropriate preparation and a commitment to your craft.
How To Climb the Consulting Career Ladder: Key Facts To Consider
Consulting companies serve a wide range of clients across various industries, and the industry you choose to work in will shape how you need to develop your skills over the course of your career. Industries differ significantly based on their characteristics, culture, travel requirements, and technicality levels, so it’s important to take these into consideration as you prepare.
Let's look at the recommended actions for Jessica, who wants to build a career in a specific industry and business function. Suppose Jessica just joined BCG as an associate and wants to build a career in retail pricing. By choosing to work on projects in retail, a very concentrated industry with few large retailers in each country, it’s very likely she will be required to travel regularly. On the other hand, if she were to choose banking and is based in a financial center in the country, she would spend most of her time in that city. This is an important consideration and one to factor into career decisions early on.
Just like the teams, project types vary based on their requirements. Your firm will be supporting a variety of business functions that vary based on the clients. You need to focus on the competencies required for the function you choose to pursue. For example, some functions are highly technical such as retail, while others can be contextual, such as organization. As you begin your career, it’s important to factor in function and the key competencies you want to improve. If highly technical functions are less enjoyable for you, retail may not be the best fit. Pursue functions that allow you to thrive and continue growing in your strongest areas of interest.
In consulting, all projects are done in teams. Once a project is completed, the team’s majority is retained and staffed for the next project. This staffing decision is created by the partners and other senior managers. Each team may have different ways of working, and you will need to be able to adapt your strategy to perform well on projects. In some cases, you may also be able to choose your teams so that you can maximize your performance.
Let’s use Jessica as an example again. Jessica believes she can improve faster in a team culture where people give more direct feedback and feels teams who communicate in this way are the best fit for her. If that’s the case, she can actively seek out teams who operate in that way. On the other hand, if she prefers a less hierarchical and informal team setup, she can look for teams that provide a less formal structure and working environment. Knowing her strengths and preferences will help her to succeed and grow in her career by choosing teams that are the best fit.
Career Path Planning: Action Recommendation
Once you determine your desired career path in the firm based on the industry, the function, and the team you want to engage with, you can define your exact requirements. Now, it's time to improve your own skills to meet those requirements. In doing so, try to assess your skills and career requirements in both the short and long term.
Let's have a look at the recommended actions for Jessica again. To address the requirements she is looking for, there are several things she can do. You can apply these same steps to your own consulting career in the early stages.
Leverage all additional training opportunities
There are two types of training in consulting firms, mandatory training attended by all consultants, and application-based training sessions for consultants who want to grow muscle in specific areas. If Jessica participates in analytics, retail, and pricing workshops, she can develop a particular skill set. This would allow her to explore all potential aspects of her niche while continuing her regular project work.
In addition, Jessica can leverage the online training offered by her firm. Most consulting companies host detailed practice materials on each large industry and business functions on their intranet. Jessica can easily find training material on both the strategic and technical details of retail pricing. These materials may look trivial or time-consuming at first glance. However, if Jessica dedicates a small amount of time to this training each week, she will accumulate extensive knowledge that will differentiate her long-term.
One of the best ways to build thought leadership within the project team and client engagements is to browse through publications and project summaries to continue gaining knowledge in your industry and function of interest. Jessica can find retail pricing publications and project summaries on her company portal and then analyze reports to acquire more domain expertise.
Learn from your clients
Consultants are hired to provide guidance, especially at junior levels, but consultants can learn from their clients as well. In her first projects, Jessica can observe how her clients deal with problems and learn the technical details of implementing different solutions. Once she starts a new project, she will be more knowledgeable about the topic and how clients can practice that know-how in real life.
Build proposal documents
This is one of the best ways to research and drive thinking on a particular topic without significant time pressure. Jessica will probably face strict deadlines in a retail pricing project where it’s necessary to run a diagnostic, find a solution, and lay out the implementation roadmap in three months. On the other hand, while preparing a proposal in three weeks, she can do high-level research to learn about the retail business in general. She can also use that time to learn how pricing is applied in retail compared with other industries. This additional effort will grant her a broader perspective without much-added pressure.
Seek out mentors in the field
Whether formal or informal, mentoring relationships are key to career success. Try to schedule regular calls or coffee chats to learn more from mentors you hope to emulate or those who can clearly share valuable knowledge and their own experiences with you. Their availability might be limited, but perseverance is key to getting some guidance and building a long-lasting relationship. In Jessica’s case, she can reach out to senior profiles in the retail practice to have such conversations regularly.
Teach your topic to the others at the office
As you grow in your career, don’t forget to help others who are stepping into the same positions you were once in as a junior consultant. This helps you build leadership skills and credibility while strengthening the skills of junior consultants. Later in her career, Jessica can arrange workshops to train other consultants at the office. It is a good way to position herself as the go-to person for a specific area and push her learning further.
If you want to succeed in consulting and continue to climb the career ladder, you must take your strengths and interests into consideration early on. As you grow in your career, it’s important to continue surveying all opportunities for you to gain new skills, build relationships, and emerge as a leader. Having this strategy and specific steps in place will set you up for success as a new consultant.