The Things They Don’t Teach About Consulting
Presentation whizz, Excel whisperer, caffeine junkie. You know the type—or, maybe you are one. Welcome to the world of students with dreams of blitzing into the consulting industry, armed to the teeth with colourful jargon-schmargons and an uncanny ability to turn any water cooler chat into an impromptu case interview. Whether you’re in it for the flexible working environment, the glitz and glamour of a travelling lifestyle, or the pure intellectual challenges provided by the client’s challenges, none can deny that the consulting industry demands a certain level of ambition and motivation. A mistake, however, that students can make during their hot pursuit of a consulting career is focusing solely on their technical expertise and problem-solving abilities. Andy Wang, a Strategy Consultant at Monitor Deloitte, spoke about some of the hidden pitfalls that may become a thorn in an aspiring consultant’s side.
Error 404; Communication skills not found
The reality of consulting is that collaboration—whether it be with other consultants or the clients—becomes a necessary step in successfully completing a project; to the surprise of exactly zero people. What may be not as obvious, however, is that the social skills required for such collaborative endeavours are not quite what you might expect from the get-go. “Until you graduate…you’re within the same cohort of people. In high school, you hang out with your peers. In primary school, you hang out with other kids. Even in uni, you can hang out with a few postgrad students but we’re all around the same age.” Andy mentioned while recounting the difficulties he encountered when starting as a recent graduate. “There’s a need to mingle with people who are much more mature than you…not only of different seniorities but, at the same time, the age group can be quite different.”
The struggle with communicating with someone with much greater experience and maturity level comes with balancing the ability to speak frankly about certain things whilst navigating around the age difference. “You need to get your point across, but in a way that is received well.” As Andy points out, the first twenty to twenty-one years of most student’s lives are spent within a structured educational environment where the overwhelming majority of your social interactions would likely be between peers, making the transition to the new way of navigating the social space quite difficult without having the experience you get through exposure.
The solution then, comes down to how you approach this gap. According to Andy, getting comfortable with the idea that you’re a fresh person in a new environment that is here to learn is what enables mutual respect to form between your new co-workers. Pretension is the bane of any new consultants. “The more you are trying to be self-aware and trying to portray yourself differently, the harder it is to communicate with [people more mature than you].” Once you accept that there is a lot of learning to be done, that is when you realise that your older peers were in the same boat as you and the barrier formed by intimidation or inexperience becomes lowered enough to enable comfort and trust in communication.
You know nothing, Jon Snow
An unwelcome reminder of Game of Thrones aside, you’d be surprised at how relevant that phrase is to students who want to pursue consulting. After a few years of consulting subjects, case competitions, and extracurricular activities, it can be quite easy for new graduates to get caught up in trying to prove their technical skills and industry insights. Reality is different, as it so often proves to be. “When you come in as a grad…you know nothing. There’s no expectation for you to know anything, which is totally fine. But, you have to be a sponge in order to understand what is going on with these multi-million dollar corporations, with problems that are worth millions of dollars. And you come in, you’re the most junior member, you have barely any experience in this industry, and the clients are paying a lot of money for a day of your time. What is expected of you?” In the place of industry knowledge possessed by the likes of partners and directors, you need to be able to ask good questions and be absorbent to all the expertise and experience that surrounds you.
What sets people up for success in the consulting industry is not about what technical skills or insights you managed to pack into your brain while preparing for your job as a student. Your seniors are probably light years ahead of you in that regard anyway. Instead, the ability to stay curious and ask questions to fill the gaps in your understanding and build a contextual understanding of the challenges posed by the client is what enables new consultants to do the good work necessary to succeed in the consulting industry. “If you don’t feel like you’re curious enough, or if you don’t ask the right questions, it’s really going to hinder [your performance] in the consulting industry.”
The good news is that if you’re already interested in pursuing a career in consulting, you probably already have a certain level of natural curiosity. It's well-known just how dynamic consulting work can be--afterall, transitioning between multiple projects and diverse industries is what attracts so many would-be consultants to the job. "I’m sure those opportunities entice people because those people [who want to work in the consulting industry] are the types of people who want to be part of an environment that is fast-paced, changes often, and—most importantly—give you an opportunity to grow across a variety of skills and industries.” If you find that you struggle with staying curious, this is probably the first thing to address before pursuing the consulting dream.
Lower Your Expectations -Bo Burnham
A rather grim statement, but hear me out. Think about the top five reasons as to why you would want to be a consultant. Chances are, you probably thought of something along the lines of industry exposure, network development, learning transferable skills, or flexible work projects. There’s one other aspect to consulting that you might think quite highly of. It might not be your top priority, but it is something that tends to get romanticised by students. Travelling. You’ve probably heard or read about the travelling opportunities afforded by the consulting industry, but if you get into your consulting career expecting to travel from the start, you might be in for a rude awakening.
“People think we fly overseas a lot. But I don’t know if that’s common…What incentive do they have to bring you all the way across the world when they have an office literally a few hundred meters away? It doesn’t make a lot of sense from a business perspective.” Whilst your mileage may vary depending on the firm that you get into, more likely than not, you won’t be flying nearly as often as some might make it out to be. "Maybe at the senior level, I can see some of the directors and partners potentially living that lifestyle. But you have to understand that you’re coming into the lowest level.” Perhaps a bit of a bubble-buster, but it rings true--the value you provide to the clients comes before fancy hotels and travelling delight.
Expectations often colour in the journey ahead. When your expectations about a career path aren't met by reality, burnout and resentment are very likely scenarios. Instead, aspiring consultants would do well to focus on the genuine gems of this profession—the invaluable industry exposure, the networking opportunities, and the acquisition of versatile skills.
Success hinges on understanding that the journey is more nuanced than we might initially think. The road from a university student to a consultant’s lifestyle may be fraught with hectic case competitions and a curious obsession with coffee, but it is equally as important to consider what the industry demands from us to set us up for success. Many, including myself, are initially drawn to consulting because of its prestigious reputation. However, it's essential to recognize that reputation alone won't sustain you in this field. "...[consulting] is a fairly prestigious and competitive job, but at the same time, you need to have a better reason than prestige to work in this career [to back it up]. Otherwise, you won’t last very long.”