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Management consulting career: 10 insights for your 1st study

So you decided that a management consulting career is for you, have joined an elite management consulting firm and were staffed on your first engagement. You feel apprehensive and exited, wondering what should you focus on to ensure you meet and exceed your team’s expectations.

You may not know anyone on the team or even within the firm. You may not know much about the subject matter of the engagement either. In fact, the subject matter may be something as “mind blowing” as assisting a client in streamlining IT systems or in navigating changes in the market. Something you know next to nothing about.

What should you do?

First, remember that it is a good thing that you are staffed on an engagement. In consulting there is some competition involved in getting picked for an engagement. Everyone wants to have high utilization since it is taken into account when bonuses and overall performance are determined. In fact, ensuring high utilization is vital for enhancing your management consulting career.

When you are not on an engagement, it is not that much different from being between jobs. You go and search for your next engagement because you don’t want to be “on the beach” for too long. When you search for a job your savings level goes down and when you search for an engagement your “credit within the firm” goes down.

People have a belief at the back of their minds that if someone is good, everyone will be trying to staff such individual on an engagement.

Below are a couple of points that I found effective in building a “bullet proof reputation” which is so vital for a successful management consulting career.

So here it goes, the 10 insights of what should you focus on to make the first engagement in your new consulting firm a success and hopefully build a strong foundation for a prosperous career at the firm.

1. Become an expert.

Learn everything you can about the subject matter, regardless of how foreign or “mind blowing”, meaning boring, it is. Know more about the subject matter related to the engagement than anyone else on the team. Speak with industry experts, watch videos about the industry or topic and read relevant publications, reports and even books.

Go beyond the basic understanding that is expected of you on the engagement. Remember that other members of the team may be more familiar with the subject matter. They may have done similar engagements before or they may have acquired relevant or useful knowledge in other ways.

Don’t let this bring you down.

However, remember that you will need to invest a lot more time and effort than the rest of the team if you are starting from the lower base and want to be a person on the team who understands the subject matter better than anyone else on the team.

This could be context subject matter or even something as basic as developing hypotheses.

I remember once being on the engagement with an industry expert and about 6 weeks into the engagement I knew things about the industry that he did not know and I could articulate this knowledge intelligently in meetings.

How is this possible?


He became complacent and relied on the knowledge accumulated over many, many years. I had knowledge about most recent developments in the industry by reading extensively during evenings and weekends, and having conversations with industry experts.

Such extensive research allowed me to build enough background knowledge on the industry to hold intelligent conversations and take advantage of the up-to-date information I acquired.

You may think that this may be sound advice, but what if you don’t know any industry experts. If this will make you feel better, I also did not know any industry experts at the start of the engagement in question. I researched who will be good people to engage and just called them.

If you reach out to 5 people, at least one of them most likely will find the time to share with you at least some useful information. Going this extra mile will be vital in accelerating your management consulting career, as you will be seen as a person who exhibits qualities of a high flyer and should be developed.

2. Know what good looks like.

Get your hands on previous deliverables for similar engagements done by your firm. See what was done on this subject by rival strategy consulting firms or other relevant organizations. Look at exceptional quality deliverables done on related topics.

The main point of doing this is to know what good looks like.

However, there is also a bonus advantage. If you have examples of previous deliverables, you often may be able to use it as a base for deliverables on your current engagement. Having access to previous deliverables (power point presentations, word documents or even excel models) may often save you time when you put together deliverables.

For example, it is always takes significantly less time if you use exceptional slides from other engagements as a base and adopt it to your specific purpose. Here I am referring specifically to design of the slides and not to the content.

Never ever copy content since you are actually stealing from a client in such a case. They are paying you for work you have not done and it is a betrayal of trust.

Time is very limited and there is no reason to build slides from scratch when you can use something as a base.

Beyond that, not everyone has good sense of style and design. You may know what good looks like but may not have a skill or even sufficient talent to replicate it from scratch. This is when previous deliverables used as a base become very handy.

Also, looking at other people’s work will spring up your imagination and allow you to put together better presentations in terms of the content. By looking at other deliverables you can also ensure you have not missed any important content tips.

3. Guidance will accelerate your management consulting career progression.

Talk to senior people within the firm but outside of your engagement team. Senior people will less likely see you as competition, especially if you are more than one level down. They are more likely to give you honest and helpful advice on how to succeed within this firm and on this specific engagement.

They may share some intelligence on people on your team as well. This can be very useful in finding the way to productively work with your engagement team.

For example, your engagement manager may be known for being excessively focused on face time. He or she may watch carefully what time study team individuals get to the office in the morning and use it as a benchmark for how hard working and committed someone is. I knew a manager like this.

If this is the case, you can ensure you are the first person to arrive in the morning. It is a low hanging fruit that will help you establish your reputation with an engagement manager. Why not to grab it?

Another engagement manager may not be focused on face time at all but instead have very specific preferences for design and content of power point presentations. I knew a manager like this as well. If this is the case, you can get copies of presentations done on previous engagements led by this manager and use them as a guide.

It may sound as going too far at trying to please someone, but to build a successful management consulting career you need to be shrewd. You need to combine doing outstanding work for the client and the firm with playing the game.

4. No shortcuts.

Do the best job possible. Do things that will contribute to a sustainable career in the long term. What I mean by this is that your work should be excellent. You should not have mistakes in the financial model and your analysis should be well thought out. This may mean triple checking your work, but you have to do it.

Make sure you understand your analysis and recommendation perfectly. Don’t hide behind consulting jargon to cover up your lack of understanding. If you will recommend something or provide analysis and upon questioning you cannot back it up, your credibility will significantly deteriorate.

You need to be able to dig and dig so you can answer any question, explaining and supporting your analysis and recommendation.

5. Plan very well.

Be on top of things. Think about your week, each day and what should be done for each meeting and each deliverable. Plan the day before carefully. You often will need to do urgent and sometimes unexpected work during the day.

Therefore, if something needs to be done and you can do it over the weekend or in the evening, try to get at least part of the work done. Give yourself margin of safety so you are able to juggle all the balls that are thrown at you during the workday.

6. Care.

Care about the client and the firm. Yes your life is bigger than your job, but you still have to care to be exceptional during this step of your career. Also, some clients are rude, disrespectful and dismissive. Regardless of this, you have to remain utterly professional and diplomatic in dealings with any member of the client’s team and always represent your firm in the best way possible.

When dealing with clients, try to have a mindset of a partner. You represent the firm.

7. Do not allow a build-up of negativity around your name.

There should be no negativity around your name within the firm. An example of behaviors that will result in a poor reputation is when people become infamous for repeatedly missing deadlines, consistently providing half-baked deliverables, and asking to be removed from the engagement because the engagement manager is difficult to work with or because the IT productivity work is “beneath them”.

There should be no question mark related to your name. If you took this engagement, you are accountable to deliver on this engagement. No excuses.

This comes back again to the importance of thinking like a partner, an owner of the business. You represent the firm.

8. Go beyond expectations.

Do what is required to do a good job and then do more, much more. Ask your engagement manager, and in some cases the partner in charge, for coffee or, if coffee is difficult or too intimidating to arrange, ask for a short meeting.

Coffee will work better because it is informal and you will likely get better information out of it as well as have an opportunity to start building a relationship with the individual.

During your coffee or meeting, get an understanding of what is required to “exceed their expectations”. This is a vital step to increase your chances to get an excellent rating on an engagement and to help you build solid relationships with senior people.

You need to know what the leadership on your engagement cares about the most so you can ensure you tick those boxes.

I observed that when answering questions “what level of performance will lead to exceeding your expectations on this engagement?” new managers will usually focus on your ability to demonstrate superior technical skills, such as ability to build complex financial models, and more mature managers are more interested in you taking on tasks away from them so they could focus on doing work at the next level.

I also found that, on average, it is easier to work with more mature managers as they are generally further up from you along the management consulting career ladder and more likely to invest in your development.

9. Get to know the lay of the land.

To be productive in a consulting firm you need to know the lay of the land and about the resources you have at your disposal.

How do you schedule calls? What can you expense? How can you print and bind documents for important meetings? What are key administrative tasks that you are required to perform, such as submitting your expense and time reports?

You need to very quickly figure out basic things so when your engagement manager sends you an email out of the blue asking if the team is available for a conference call in 5 minutes, which implies that you have to set up a conference call, you know the exact steps you need to take to set up that call in less than 5 minutes.

Or if you have an important meeting with the client, you need to know where you could print and bind the deck. Consulting firms usually have a printing department that does printing and binding of important decks but you still need to know who to call or email and where to go to pick it up.

10. Lay low at the beginning.

During the first 2-3 weeks, while working very hard, keep a low profile. Observe the dynamics of the engagement team and client office politics. Be polite and professional and be on “good terms” with everyone, especially your client and your engagement manager.

People often decide that they dislike someone and thereafter do not give the person the benefit of the doubt. You need to avoid being on someone’s “list of people I dislike”.

Management consulting career beyond your first project

While you are doing everything outlined above, do not neglect important people in your life. As people often say, no one wishes on the deathbed that they should have spent more time in the office. Your family and your happiness are still significantly more important than your management consulting career or even your career beyond management consulting.

Learn to do things fast and create some boundaries in your life. Obviously if work must be done, you should prioritize it. However, sometimes you also need to take time to take care of the rest of your life.

My final piece of advice will be, if you manage to build a “bullet proof” reputation, try not to leave the firm just to “spice things up” or because “the opportunity looks interesting”. It takes tremendous effort and some luck to rise above the crowd and recreating it elsewhere, especially outside of consulting, may prove difficult.

The reason why it is difficult to be exceptional outside of consulting, even if you are truly exceptional, is because in most jobs you will have only one boss and this person will have an unreasonable amount of power over your reputation and career.

Also, as you get older, while you will have more knowledge and possibly be more capable, you will most likely have less energy and be in poorer health. So it will be much harder to make a huge push to establish your reputation all over again.

Too often as we build our careers we tend to look forlornly at colleagues who went into private equity, hedge funds, banking etc., and think our path, which once looked special, has lost some of it’s glitter.

However, in my experience, if you found a good path for yourself in management consulting, established a great reputation and are happy in pursuing a management consulting career path, try not to leave the firm unless you are absolutely certain that the alternative path is the right path for you.

Best of luck on your first management consulting engagement! The fact that you are searching for how to do an outstanding job already lifts you above the average. With some effort and perseverance you are on your way to build a phenomenal management consulting career.


As Firmsconsulting prepares to launch the major new strategy training library with detailed and real consulting studies, Michael asked me to write an article about my very first study.

I was part of the team that checked and tested the videos and toolkits from the first study in the library, so I am not going to repeat the excellent advice from those videos. I am going to build on them and add my unique insights from my career in management consulting having worked for two of the major firms.

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