Working in consultancy

A career in consultancy is commonly praised for: the strong challenging environments it represents, projects with high impact, working in teams, a steep learning curve on the different sectors and service areas and competitive financial advantages. Yet, working in consultancy also comes with disadvantages such as high demands by partners and stakeholders, long hours from time to time, a high volume of (international) travel and a strongly competitive ‘in or out’ culture.

For graduates or professionals aspiring for a career in the consulting industry, presents an overview of several areas that shape the life of a consultant: 

Activities and duties

What does a day in the life of a consultant look like? What main activities are there to deal with? In essence, a consultant works in two areas: client activities (e.g. projects) and internal activities (e.g. contributing to internal goals). As consultants climb the ladder, the nature of their activities changes. From a client’s perspective the focus shifts from delivery to project management, while from an internal perspective the focus shifts from client acquisition to internal management. Refer to ‘What does a consultant do?’ for more details. 

Client engagement 

As mentioned above, consultants spend the larger portion of their time on working for clients. At the junior level, working for a client takes up between 70% to 85% of their available time, and at more senior levels the time spent on clients drops to less than 40%. The nature of client projects, also known as engagements, can differ significantly, depending on the type of project (advising versus implementation), the type of offering, the role of the consultant team and the agreement made with the client (e.g. due date delivery to client teams).

Balance between work and private life 

The consultancy profession has built a notorious track record over the past years for having the longest working hours. In practice, some truth harbours in this story in the sense that consultancy is not a typical 9 to 5 job. However, the exact working hours differ per consulting segment, project type and role.

Salaries and benefits

A job in management consulting pays well. The average annual salary for a consultant in South Africa is approximately R400,000 per year. The secondary benefits are known to be competitive and non-financial stimulations are integrated more often in the total reward package that firms offer. Refer to the section ‘Secondary benefits’ for more detailed information.

Personal development

Working in consultancy, in comparison to other industries, offers great possibilities for personal development. First of all, consultants work in an intellectually challenging environment due to the range of projects (industry/service offerings) and the fact a (very) high percentage of colleagues and clients are highly educated. Second, consultancy offers an attractive learning curve (also from the perspective of people management skills): consultants work in teams and with a large group of stakeholders, which in the case of clients often changes. Consultants, therefore, learn to work with people and deal with sensitive situations that results in them building a comprehensive soft-skill set.

Another aspect of personal development lies in the training possibilities. Primarily in the lower ranks, consulting firms develop extensive training schemes to build the skills and capacities of their consultants. The top firms in the market offer their consultants the possibility of, after 3-5 years, following an MBA at a leading business school. Owing to the importance of knowledge within consultancy, personal development always remains a crucial element to professional development plans throughout the career of a consultant. 

Future career opportunities

Various studies conducted in the past years have shown that a career in consultancy has a positive effect on future career opportunities. According to the research, this can be attributed to the fact that consultants develop certain management and functional knowledge, together with valuable experience in the area of personal skills. Eight areas frequently emerge as being typical consultancy skills:

Functional knowledge 

  • Analytic and structured thinking 
  • Knowledge of diverse fields/disciplines
  • Knowledge of different industries and markets
  • Up-to-date/best in class knowledge

Personal skills

  • Management skills
  • Working in (big) fields
  • Cultural awareness and experience
  • Dealing with pressure and uncertainty

To what extent a consultant builds these skills depends on several variables but, generally speaking, consultants who have worked in the field long enough have distinguished themselves in these areas. A consequence of having this mix of functional and personal skills is that consultants are generally seen as attractive employees by both private as well as public sector organisations. Experienced consultants who leave the consulting industry often reach management positions, while ‘high-flyers’ usually reach senior management or even an executive role after consultancy.

For example, McKinsey & Company alone has more than 150 alumni currently serving as a CEO of company with a turnover of over $1 billion. Even if reaching the position of CEO is not a realistic goal for all consultants, successful experiences in the consultancy industry can undoubtedly bring advantages to someone’s future career path.