In this post we will show you how we would assess this candidate’s chances of transitioning from the boutique firm to McKinsey, BCG or Bain. 

Candidate’s boutique firm experience

“My first consulting job was with a small boutique firm of performance specialists. Their engagements were geared toward performance improvements. They did not perform any strategy work and guaranteed their performance results.

Analyses were a two week ’blitz’. It was a combination of day in the life studies as well as manager and supervisory behavioral observations. The projects were geared toward coaching managers and supervisors to increase hourly output and then reducing headcount (savings) due to lack of work. Due to the guarantee there was great pressure to achieve results.

The boutique firm was very heavy-handed with staff and turnover was very high (up or out was very much a part of the culture). If you stuck around past 3 years you were pretty good. The boutique firm did not have any formal training and most of what was learned was obtained on field projects (on-the-job-training).

This approach made it difficult for many employees to survive past 10 months. It was very much a sink-or-swim environment. New staff learned how to identify issues (using gap analyses) and then coached supervisors to resolve these issues. However, learning how to ‘human-engineer’ clients to resolve these issues required a skill many individuals didn’t have and struggled to execute. Yet, for understanding management at the “floor level” it was a great way to get started.

I currently work at another boutique firm, a small turnaround specialist consulting firm. They deal with small firms with approximately >$1M<$5M in sales. The challenge is most of the clients need a turnaround specialist, so it’s difficult to sustain an engagement for more than a few weeks as many of these firms have major cash flow problems. Sustained solutions tend to take longer to ‘mature’ and the “quick hits” don’t always generate enough cash to even pay the fees.

It can be fun to work with these types of businesses but you have to “show value” quickly if you expect to come back the next week. In this environment we look at a company’s financial data (sales, operations and finance) and then try to sort out the cash flow issues early so we ‘stop the bleeding’. It is very hard not to feel the weight of the world on your shoulders when you work with these types of clients – sometimes the help they require comes in just too late. In total, I spent 5.5 years at both boutique firms.

Given the above, do consultants from boutique firms have a reasonable chance of moving up to McKinsey, Bain or the BCG? If so, what does it take?”


Boutique firm to McKinsey- is it feasible?

Step One: Resume check. Let’s look at the cold hard facts that are important to consulting firms

• Does she have a degree? Did she do well, as in getting an 80% average or more?

• Where did she study? Is it a good or great school? Do not read into the hype too much. Tier-1 firms do not just hire from Harvard and Wharton. Great grades from a good school will get you in.

• Was the degree full-time or part-time? Part-time degrees will not count for much.

• Do any of the consulting firms recruit from this school? This is not a decider, but it does influence the decision.

• Does she have a post-graduate degree or MBA?

• How old is she? A 25-30 year old candidate without an MBA or post-graduate degree is okay. There is still time to get an MBA or post-graduate degree. Moreover, the older you are, the more bad habits are ingrained and the less willing and capable you are to work the long hours and learn the management consulting approach.

If you are 35 and above, and do not have an MBA or advanced degree, then the question would be what did you do during all this time? Realistically, the earliest you could get into an MBA program would be at the age of 36, graduating at the age of 37. That’s too late.

• What is her experience? The tier-1 firms do not think much of the training of the other firms, especially if it is a boutique firm. So we do not think this candidate’s experience will count for much unless it was at a top boutique firm. The wrong kind of experience in consulting will count against you while the right kind of experience in industry will count in your favor.

The worst mistake candidates make is assuming they are doing McKinsey, BCG or Bain a favor by bringing this experience to the table and refusing to be re-taught. She must understand that she needs to go out of her way to explain why she stayed at the boutique firm if it was not ideal, why she understands she needs to learn the correct problem solving skills and, most importantly, that she actually can learn the right skills.

• Any blue-chip experience? It would be great if this candidate served some time at a blue-chip like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle or GE.

• What kind of leadership activities has she been involved in? The more time you spend out of school, the more this becomes important.

So let’s look at some scenarios.

Scenario 1: Let’s assume the candidate is 28. Same background as described above. Has a degree from a good school and graduated with a high GPA (greater than 85% average). She has a track record of being successful, shown leadership and is willing to unlearn all the bad habits picked up, and relearn the case method to get in. In this case, she has an okay chance.

Scenario 2: If the scenario was the same but she had a master’s degree, her chances become good.

Scenario 3: Same as scenario 1 but she is 36 years old. Her chances would be very slim.

Scenario 4: Same as scenario 1, she is 36 years old but has a doctorate. This is still tough. Age is a big factor here. It will come down to the candidate’s determination, school and her success in her career. Yet, it is still slim.

So as you can see, age, experience, success in career, willingness to learn, degree, grades and school count for a lot.

Step 2: Does resume and reality match?

Let’s assume, we looked at the resume and the candidate fell into scenario 1 or 2. We would then arrange for a discussion to look for the following:

• How does the candidate dress? Is this someone we could imagine in front of a client?

• How does the candidate speak? Is she engaging, articulate and presentable?

• What are the candidate’s values? Is integrity important?

• Is the candidate worldly? Does she know what is happening in the world? Does she have a considered view-point and can debate topics?

• Is she confident? Can she stand her ground and intelligently debate?

• Does she command attention?

• What is her etiquette?

• Is she curious about the world?

If she does not have the right school, then she needs to minimize every other conceivable reason why she should be rejected. That means looking, acting and speaking like a polished consultant. This can be taught.

This is how we rank candidates:

• She has all the attributes.

• She does not have all the attributes but she can be coached and taught.

• She does not have key attributes which cannot be taught.

If you are ranked in the first 2 groups, then its fine and we will likely allow you to join our coaching program. If we think you lack key attributes which cannot be taught, then we would decline, since you would be unlikely to get in even with the best coaching.

We also want candidates who can be brutally honest with themselves. For example, if we tell you that you need to improve your dressing, speaking style and etiquette, some candidates become upset. However, if you are willing to change these things, you have a shot.

To Summarize: Yes, you still have a shot, provided your grades are good and you are in your twenties. However, age is working against you. The more elapsed time since undergraduate studies equals fewer excuses for not getting an MBA, succeeding at your chosen career or notching up more accomplishments.

You also learn bad habits which are hard to unlearn. If we knew more about this candidate, we may even advise her to consider Booz or AT Kearney. These are not tier-1 in terms of strategy, but AT Kearney is tier-1 in terms of operations consulting and Booz is as good as the top firms in some geographies and markets.

Next Steps: Polish your resume and you need to apply as early as possible. However, if your grades are not good, you may want to consider getting an MBA to improve your chances. You need to really prepare for the case interviews, speak to consultants in these firms and also learn the soft skills to impress the interviewer.

The reader also sent in the question:

“When consultants leave the tier 1 firms, how are they able to move into top positions with Fortune-500 companies?”

Every significant headhunter is scouring Bain, BCG and McKinsey for the right candidates. Therefore, it is partly due to having worked or still working at the firm. Remember, these are training grounds for executives.

Second, you will spend 80% of your time in front of clients who are potential employers. If you are good, they will come to you.

Third, these consulting firms exist to groom future business leaders. It is natural most will end up in a corporate role.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

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3 responses to Boutique Firm to McKinsey

  1. Thank you so much, Michael! Great insights! You have addressed all my concerns. I really appreciate it.

  2. Hi Yijin,

    Thanks for the question.

    1) Gaining consulting experience will have little to no bearing on your MBA applications. In fact, it may slow you down a little. The transition is going to take up time, gaining respect/trust in your new firm will take up time. Only then, can you do great work. Focus on doing good work at your current firm, and work on your GMAT and application documents.

    2) In general, you should never build your career around a niche. They come and go in terms of popularity. You are young. Learn general skills first and over time you will naturally gain a specialization in a function and sector. It is too early to do this because you may not even like or be all that good at this field relative to other things you could do.

    3) It will possibly be a negative contribution. First, you will assume you have some advantage and act like you have an advantage which will place you at a disadvantage. Second, when I was a partner I always assessed if a consultant from another firm had different habits we needed to un-teach. Could they be un-taught? This was a major reason I declined so many applicants in the final round.


  3. Hi Michael,

    I will have an interview for an entry level position at a boutique firm in Toronto in 2 days. I’m weighing the pros and cons of this opportunity and hope you can shed some light.

    My current situation: actuarial consulting at a well-known firm in Toronto.
    My ultimate goal: break into MBB in New York City.
    Current opportunity: entry level consultant position at Revenue Management Lab in Toronto (a small consulting firm specialized in Revenue Management, total 6 people including Principles)
    My concerns:
    1. If my plan is to attend a top-tier MBA program in NYC, and make the transition to management consulting. Which of the following two options are better: 1) gain some management consulting related experience in this firm and apply MBA or 2) do great work in my current actuarial consulting role and get fast promotion, then apply MBA
    2. What is your opinion on the specific revenue management niche market? How marketable is it?
    3. All in all, will the experience in the boutique firm make any positive contribution to my ultimate goal of breaking into MBB?


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