Melike, an aspiring consultant, is about to have interviews with BCG Istanbul and McKinsey Boston. She emailed Firmsconsulting for advice. 

“Dear Michael,

Thank you for the wonderful discussion about management consulting in Turkey.

If you recall, I am very likely to have case interviews with BCG Istanbul & McKinsey Boston. I worked for another major consulting firm in Dubai prior to pursuing my MBA. While I like my current firm and it is highly regarded, I am keen to go back to Turkey and join a larger firm.

It would be great if you could offer me any advice in making this decision.

Melike*”

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***

Dear Melike,

Thank you for the email. I met many people from Istanbul but I do recall you and the discussion we had, very well. I recall that at the time you were set on Boston. Something must have changed your mind, so I will be happy to elaborate on management consulting in Turkey.

As you know, even though I worked my way up from business analyst to principal, I am most fortunate to have built my career in the major emerging economies. So, any questions on Russia, Eastern Europe, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and South-East Asia are perfect for me. That said, I did spend the latter part of my career in London, New York and Toronto so I can address topics on these major regions as well. This cross-comparison knowledge will be useful for making comparisons, without which, any advice will naturally be one-sided and misleading.

I will draw heavily on my own experience of working in Turkey.

1 – The fact that we spoke earlier and extensively gives me some confidence in ensuring I address the points important to you. I recall a degree from Stanford, now Ivy League MBA, and 3 years in management consulting along with some start-up experience. I do recall your concern about which location will best allow you to leverage your skills 5 to 10 years down the line. I also remember you want to move into corporate roles at some point in your career. You mentioned the specific role you sought but I cannot recall immediately recall this without my notebook.

2 – In providing this answer, we need to make some assumptions or at the very least look at some important considerations. The first consideration is your background, followed by what you want to achieve by working in a consulting firm or corporate environment, followed by when you want to achieve these milestones and finally where you intend for all this to happen. None of them can be looked at in isolation and please do not simply read forums for advice. Each person is unique and most forums are usually written by consultants who, with all due respect since I once was one, could never provide much perspective beyond their own experience.

Exit opportunities differ at all levels and I do find management consultants are unrealistic about them. Yes, you will get better opportunities after working at McKinsey or BCG, but there are only so many plum internal strategy roles at banks, insurance companies and Fortune 500 firms.

3 – We spoke about your background already so let’s talk about what you want to achieve. When you say corporate role I vaguely recall us discussing a move into business after reaching at least the associate principal level. Exit opportunities differ at all levels and I do find management consultants are unrealistic about them. Yes, you will get better opportunities after working at McKinsey or BCG, but there are only so many plum internal strategy roles at banks, insurance companies and Fortune 500 firms.

Leaving as a consultant/associate, after spending just 2 years at McKinsey is only advisable if you just wanted to pick up the skills to break down a problem. You need to work at least as a more experienced engagement manager level to learn how to put together the broken pieces of the problem to develop a strategy. Terance discusses this extensively in his which you can search upon here or read the lengthy preview of this book under our “Books” section. A strategist is not just a data jockey who can do fancy analyses. Putting it all together, the hard part, is a skill which comes with much more experience and mostly having worked at the higher levels of a consulting firm. So in your case, you do want to make the push for engagement manager at the very least.

Here things get a bit dicey.

If you leave as an engagement manager the likely role you will get is head of strategy or strategy manager. A larger firm like GE or Citigroup is obviously going to bring a full partner in for that role, which is what they did with many BCG alums. So let’s assume you left as a manager and get the strategy manager title at a larger firm, or strategy director role at a smaller firm. You will have to prove yourself again, because you are still a strategy person who is now in an operating company. That is, a completely different skill set must be developed to thrive in this environment. The title may sound great, but in a corporation you really want access and control to a P&L, and unless you get it, being Manager of Strategy is not really influential or glamorous. Even being EVP of Strategy for GE is not that glamorous. Most strategy directors tend to do M&A/Business development work and McKinsey/Bain/BCG will almost always get called in for the major strategy projects.

You will have to prove yourself again, because you are still a strategy person who is now in an operating company. That is, a completely different skill set must be developed to thrive in this environment.

So, what this means is you need to exit at a level which dramatically increase your chances of being given a P&L, or takes you as close to a P&L as possible. Again, the assumption is made you want success in a corporate role, and to be successful in a corporate role, you need to control and build a business. Principal/Partner or Director is where you want to exit. Especially in Turkey where is not a shortage of talent for the roles you want, and only the best will get the plum roles. My advice is stick to it until at least this senior level, then transition to control a P&L. As much as you can, avoid internal strategy roles unless you can absolutely see a bridge to a P&L.

4 – If you want to make the push into corporate in less than 6 years after your MBA, then clearly pushing for partnership is going to be possible but tough, and you may need to enter corporate as a manager. 6 years to partnership is fast. If you are considering a corporate role earlier than six years, then you will most likely have to assume a role as manager of strategy somewhere, prove yourself and take up a P&L role in time. There are many exit points here, you can join an established corporate, smaller firm, start-up and then get acquired. My guess is you will either, if you go to BCG Istanbul and leave after a few years, join a bank or family owned business. In Turkey, they could very well be the same.

In a bank, power lies with the P&L leader and strategy teams have close to zero traction.

Working in internal strategy in a bank is a less than attractive option. In a bank, power lies with the P&L leader and strategy teams have close to zero traction. There will always be exceptions but we are looking at the general experiences. That said, consulting firms tend to like candidates who serve in internal banking consulting roles. So my advice to Melike applies if you are going in the other direction from consulting to banking, and not from banking to consulting. So I would think carefully about this. Of the people we have placed in Turkey who have now exited into family-owned conglomerates the reaction has been mixed. The bottom-line is that they feel they are glorified analysts and not influencing the organizational direction in any way.

That said, the managing partner of BCG Istanbul went through this route – senior team leader to EVP Strategy to Partner at BCG. He spent 5 years at the bank as EVP Strategy and did not obtain a P&L role, though he was clearly exceptionally talented and capable. Burak, the partner, was not pleased with this. The culture is also one of having to prove one-self and unfortunately someone with just a few years at McKinsey will need to prove themselves over time. In other words, you have to earn respect either at McKinsey, by leaving as a partner, or in corporate over time – but you have to do it somewhere at some time.

Exit opportunities in Boston are not all that great: same problems, limitations and frustrations. That said, if you want to be an executive, you should pursue the partnership route. I find that the coaching, development, mentoring and skills development I learned as a principal set me up to one day work for a listed company as an executive officer. That is almost impossible to speedily replicate in a corporate environment.

In other words, you have to earn respect either at McKinsey, by leaving as a partner, or in corporate over time – but you have to do it somewhere at some time.

5 – Let’s talk about the “where.” BCG Istanbul and McKinsey Boston will be completely different experiences. Though, likely not for the reasons you would have expected. Moreover, Istanbul and Ankara will be dramatically different experiences as you well know.

Turkey is a relatively rapidly growing economy which is stable, and with sufficient development needs to ensure both large government expenditure and infrastructure spending. However, the Turkish economy is noted for several usual and unusual concentrations. For one, the number of family owned businesses is very high. Given the size of the economy, the number may be too high. This raises some problems. In my work in Turkey I have advised both the holding companies for families and the individual businesses owned by the holding company. Most of my work was in retail and commercial banking.

Here, I found that while Turkish executives were highly trained, open to new ideas and did not hesitate to call for help, this group is a minority and the level below tends to not like external help. Moreover, there was a definite struggle to gain traction as a foreign partner. I noticed that local consultants on the team were treated differently unless they had foreign degrees and/or experience. So there is definitely this pull for foreign talent. While there are many large businesses to cater to, as a proportion of the economy there are not nearly enough. So government work plays a very large role outside of banking, holding companies and textiles. If you do not like public sector work, you would need to think carefully about this.

There is another reason to consider Turkey as well. Women have an unusually high representation in all levels of the consulting structure. This has always surprised me about this country.

Moreover, most public sector work is in Ankara which is vastly more conservative than Istanbul. I found that it was much easier to work in Istanbul than Ankara. Though relatively conservative, Turkey is doing some very innovative work in public sector strategy. In particular, the government strategy to identify and support leading local businesses is very forward thinking, especially the way it is being implemented, and this has served as blueprint in other emerging economies. If you want to do work for banks, holding companies, textiles and the government, then Turkey is a good choice.

There is another reason to consider Turkey as well. Women have an unusually high representation in all levels of the consulting structure. This has always surprised me about this country. While gender discrimination is undoubtedly a problem in parts of the country, I believe that Turkey has more senior women in management consulting than most other countries in which I have worked, including the west. Therein, is another anomaly. I noticed a lot of female partners, very few female senior managers/associate partners and then many more female consultants and analysts, than male peers. So it is a strange mix, but bodes well if you have the drive to succeed.

If you are ambitious and want to build a strong international name, working on important research pieces and publications is something you will have to consider. Up until possibly 2010, BCG Istanbul was never a “content export” office. That is a term I used as a principal to describe offices which have matured intellectually. When an office is young, it is focused mainly on building relationships and serving clients. It does not really have the time, resources or track record to generate significant new ideas for the global firm. As an office matures, it starts producing great ideas and reports. Istanbul has started to get to that point. This is good, because consultants involved in producing these ideas tend to be recognized much faster as experts, and this creates a huge demand for their skills.

Banking, textiles, holding companies and family businesses are not the dominant sectors in the US. So the concern you will rightly have is how portable is this knowledge. If you rose to partner in Turkey, I think your concern will be unfounded for several reasons.

First, you can easily transfer to another office if you have a skill which is in demand. Banking in the US is not all on Wall Street. Commercial banking in the US can learn a lot from their emerging markets peers and there is a massive effort to get this knowledge across. I recall doing several strategy engagements helping banks cater to low-income clients, and most of the best-practices came from Latin American banks.

The US has more family owned businesses than just about any other major economy. As a percentage of all businesses, it is smaller, but in terms of absolute numbers it is significant. So this skill is transferable, but these are not “crown jewel” clients. I think you also need to consider where the world will be 10 years from now. Turkey will continue to be a major economy and only continue growing. A long time ago, Boston and New York were the de facto head offices of a consulting firm. Today, the head office is where ever the managing partner sits, and that may very well be somewhere in Europe or Asia in the next few years.

If you are successful and capable, the firm will also move you around to provide development opportunities. So when people talk about location, I always caution them to consider short-term and long-term locations. In the short term, you will be roughly fixed to the broader region. In the case of Istanbul, that means serving the surrounding regions of Azerbaijan and other parts of Central Asia. To me, that is a very large region and interesting enough to keep anyone occupied for at least a few years. In other words, do not focus on the perceived limited opportunities of just working in Istanbul. The region is large and you will get lots of international exposure.

In the medium to long-term, assuming you reach partnership, the direction you set and regions you cover really come down to you. For example, I was an emerging markets specialist and did most of my work in energy, resources and banking over an 11 year period. I covered the odd engagement in pharmaceuticals, retail and so on but they are not my primary focus areas – strange combinations but it happened. In fact, for one glorious 18 month stretch of my consultant career, all 5 of my banking clients were on a 22 kilometer stretch of road and I lived at the end of the road. So, I had no travel at all and could be home in 40 minutes in peak traffic. That was a great time. This was when I was an associate though. I did not have any control on my projects and was just lucky.

When I became principal things changed. I was not content to just do work in the same sectors or regions. And this is the best part. At this level the firm completely encourages you to move around and build new ideas. I had more than one meeting with the senior partner and discussed my interest about doing more work in new regions. I found Chile, Dubai and Turkey appealing since the issues in the region could directly play off my past experience. I moved across to Chile for a few months and worked with the Santiago office to meet clients, discuss issues and eventually build strong enough client relationships to grow the office. This despite the fact I spoke no Spanish at all and did not really understand the culture. I completely enjoyed working in Santiago, drinking pisco sour and eating ceviche. Thereafter, I did the same thing in other offices. I moved across to Istanbul for a few months and repeated the process. The bottom-line is that if you build deep expertise in Istanbul, it can be leveraged to many other economies. It all comes down to how you can find the opportunities and leverage them.

I should now sum up all of this. Your background implies you could be successful anywhere in the world, but you have a direct link and experience in the broader Middle Eastern region. If we assume you want a senior corporate role with P&L responsibility I would strongly encourage pursuing a partnership route in Istanbul, since corporations are more likely to hire you if have this regional experience. You may be hired from Boston into Istanbul, but that is tougher to accomplish. I think timing is largely outside your control so you just need to progress as fast as you can, and all other things being equal, consulting firms are meritocracies and you will progress faster in this environment. You want to be in Istanbul, and frankly, that makes the most sense.

Finally, the “market” for assessing performance is efficient, so the best are quickly identified and groomed. I recall sitting in many update meetings with younger consultants and listening to their analyses of issues. In less than a minute I can fairly accurately see who is on top of things and who is not. If you do well, you will be noticed and the firm will develop you. That is guaranteed. So do not stress about the “perceived” advantages of Boston over Istanbul. There are none.

The question is not whether BCG Istanbul is better than McKinsey Boston.

The question is whether or not Istanbul is a good fit for your plans, and based on what I know, I would say yes.

Michael

If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in reading other articles on BCG and careers at BCG.

* – name altered

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