Sharp coworkers, diverse and challenging work, the chance to travel, the opportunity to develop highly valued and transferable skills, and a great salary: Who wouldn’t want to be a consultant?
As a college student, it was hard for me to imagine anyone passing up the opportunity. It’s not surprising that roughly 30 percent of MBAs from top schools pursue consulting after graduation; and those are just the people who get offers!
But after making my way into the industry, I was surprised to see so many people leave consulting each year. According to Kennedy Research, turnover at all levels at prestigious consulting firms is roughly 20 percent. While many are hand-picked to work in-house for a client, others couldn’t cut it in the “up or out” industry or decided it wasn’t the right fit for them.
When I reflect on what helped me accelerate my consulting career and what differentiates those who thrive, a number of qualities are constant. Before cracking open Case and Point, take stock and ask yourself, “Is consulting really right for me?”
Here are the top qualities that I believe are most important for any junior to mid-level consultant:
- Willingness to take calculated risks: Even if you think a decision you’re making has limited impact on the outcome of a project, it may threaten to undermine your credibility as an advisor, a client relationship, or the timeline you’re working against. These traps are everywhere in consulting. For example, after thorough analysis, it may be an unarguable fact that a client organization is mismanaging its finances. There’s no inherent risk in the claim itself, if you have the data to back it up. But what if the executive who hired you seems to have caused most of the damage? Determining when, with whom, and how you will deliver this message involves making and sticking to a number of calculated decisions. While no one looks forward to having tough conversations, consultants must be able to quickly and confidently make smart choices about how to navigate challenging situations; often with incomplete information.
- Focus and attention to detail: Picture yourself sitting in a cubical area with 25 other consultants, who are collaborating with one another, hosting conference calls, and stopping by your desk frequently. Now imagine doing this when you have an hour to respond to a new client request that requires reading a 9-page report, doing some calculations, and making an initial recommendation. Spend a few weeks in consulting and this experience will probably become your reality. Being able to carefully conduct analyses, listen closely to a client, or critically review a draft deliverable is essential. Everybody makes mistakes, but being able to focus and produce consistently high- quality results is a must. I will say, being overly focused is not ideal. Being able to brainstorm new ideas and devise creative solutions is part of why they pay consultants the big bucks. As a consultant, knowing that I naturally fall on the “focused” end of the spectrum, I made a conscious effort to be more open to novel information by seeking out input from others and incorporating emerging information throughout projects.
- Comfort with uncertainty: Consultants must strike the balance between making safer and riskier bets. At the senior level, this may be choosing to start working with a client before a contract is officially signed, which could have extreme—positive or negative—implications for the firm. At the junior level, this may be recommending your client invest significantly in a new business that looks profitable but offers no guarantee of success. The best consultants put their analytical horsepower to work and can discern between risks that do and do not offer a reasonable upside. The best advice I received from a Principal at my firm was “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” and I agree it is the #1 job requirement of a consultant.
- Ability to plan, while remaining flexible: Whether working on a strategy or implementation project, consultants must be able to address their clients’ complex problems through a logical set of steps within a distinct timeframe. Charting a course that is both ambitious and realistic, getting client and team buy-in, and then executing well is a classic stumbling block for consultants at all levels. This is especially true when inevitably conditions or constraints change, or new insights emerge, as the project unfolds. If you like to fly by the seat of your pants, you’re likely going to miss deadlines, overlook valuable tasks, and make your manager and client feel like they’re in the dark about how you’re spending your time. But if you hate when plans shift under you, don’t even consider consulting. It happens every week (if not every day), on every project, and while working with every client. Being able to tolerate ambiguity and adjust on the fly is everything. Being able to balance planning with flexibility is where the magic happens.
Liz Dries is an MBA intern at pymetrics and is a first-year student at Columbia Business School. She is a Philadelphia native, who loves to run, volunteer with kids, and travel off the beaten path in her free time.