Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work at prestigious consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, Bain, or even the Big Four accounting firms? Well, you’ve come to the right place!
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll give you an inside look at what life is like as a management consultant at these top firms. You’ll learn all about the different roles, the skills needed to succeed, career paths, and more. Consider this your crash course on all things MBB and Big 4 consulting!
Overview of the Major Players
First, let’s level-set on the key consulting firms that dominate the industry. The heavy hitters are known as the “Big Three” or “MBB” – McKinsey & Company, The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Bain & Company. These firms are viewed as the most prestigious due to their rigorous hiring standards and exclusive clientele of Fortune 500 companies.
In addition, the “Big Four” professional services firms are also major players in consulting – Deloitte Consulting, Ernst & Young (EY), KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). While not as prestigious as MBB, they have the scale, breadth, and deep professional expertise to tackle complex business challenges.
Boutiques vs MBB vs Big 4
Beyond the major firms, there are also smaller “boutique” consulting firms that offer services in specific industries like healthcare, finance, media, etc.
So what’s the difference between working at a boutique, MBB, or Big 4? Here’s a quick rundown:
Boutiques tend to be more specialized, entrepreneurial, and offer greater responsibility early on. But the brand name on your resume won’t be as shiny.
MBB firms attract the top talent and offer immense prestige. The tradeoff is that the work is more generalist in nature and hours can be grueling.
Big 4 firms can provide opportunities to work across service lines beyond consulting like tax, audit, risk. This exposure provides unique exit opportunities later on.
Now that you know the lay of the land, let’s dig into the different consulting roles and opportunities available.
Consulting Roles and Hiring
There are primarily three ways to get your foot in the door – as an experienced hire, campus hire, or intern. Let’s break it down.
Experienced hires have prior full-time work experience and are often recruited from investment banks, private equity, Fortune 500 roles, and the military. They go through a rigorous recruiting process including case interviews, but enter at a higher level than campus hires.
The main advantages are higher pay ($150K-$250K salary to start), larger signing bonuses, and more responsibilities early on. The tradeoff is you skip the intensive 2-year training program so you have to hit the ground running.
Overall, experienced hires bring in-demand skills and can progress to manager/principal roles faster. But the hours are still long and you have to adapt quickly to the consulting environment.
If you’re earning your MBA from a top business school or undergrad program, landing a spot as a campus hire at MBB or Big 4 is highly coveted. It’s extremely competitive with <5% acceptance rates, but opens the door to being groomed as a leader from day one.
As an analyst or associate, you’ll be staffed on high-impact projects across different industries to gain broad experience quickly. The pay starts modest ($90K-$110K) but with rapid growth to $200K+ within 5 years if you can survive the “up or out” promotion model.
In exchange for the brand name on your resume, be prepared to travel frequently and put in 80 hour work weeks during intensive project cycles!
Other Entry Points
Beyond the two main paths above, there are a few other ways to get your foot in the door:
Internships are a common way students try out consulting for a summer. Most intern classes convert to full-time job offers.
Parallel hires are mid-career professionals that join as a more senior consultant but don’t go through the partner track progression.
Staff augmentation provides consultants on an as-needed basis for strategy or technology projects. They bill hourly rates similar to contractors.
Okay, so now you know how to start. But what does the job actually entail on a daily basis?
The Consulting Value Chain From End-to-End
The client work itself follows a typical lifecycle or value chain – from sales to analysis to implementation. Let’s walk through what consultants actually do day-to-day:
Business Development – Landing New Clients
The first step is business development – connecting with prospects and converting them into new clients. This requires networking, industry expertise, referrals, and mastering the art of the sales pitch.
Seasoned partners at firms spend 20-30% of their time landing new work by leveraging existing client relationships. They target executives and sellers that value outside perspectives from prestigious firms.
Scoping and Staffing Projects
Once a new client is signed, the next step is planning the engagement. This involves clarifying objectives, scoping the work, assembling a skilled team with relevant experience, and finalizing budgets and timelines.
The staffing mix aims to provide quality results to the client cost effectively. Partners manage the client C-suite, principals and managers oversee the teams doing analysis, senior associates support scheduling and quality control, while analysts crunch data and put in long hours!
Conducting Rigorous Analysis
The meat of most projects involves in-depth analysis of the client’s business issue by deploying frameworks, doing market research and benchmarks, analyzing data, developing business case models and eventual recommendations.
Consultants leverage their structured problem solving toolkits while leaning heavily on Excel and PowerPoint to synthesize insights. The work varies from strategy cases to operational efficiency reviews to technology implementation plans.
Building Consensus and Adoption
Now that the analytical heavy lifting is complete, consultants shift focus to getting stakeholder buy-in, socializing findings across the organization, and building conviction around the final recommendations.
Without support from executives and front-line employees, the strategy will just gather dust on the shelf. Savvy consultants consider change management needs from the start to smooth the path for adoption.
Crafting Compelling Deliverables
At the end of an engagement, the client expects polished deliverables to justify the expensive price tag. This means beautifully formatted PowerPoint decks, professionally written reports, fully financial models, and even videos.
Style and presentation matter just as much as the final recommendations. The delivery showcases the firm’s brand and often leads to follow-on work.
Supporting Implementation and Tracking Results
Ideally, the client doesn’t view the consulting engagement as one-and-done. There are opportunities to support implementing the recommendations, provide tools and templates, train front-line employees, or help track progress against key milestones.
The partner teams continue nurturing the client relationship and remain accountable for delivering the expected return on investment. This leads to enduring strategic partnerships beyond just a single project.
And that’s the full value chain! As you can see consultants get exposure to many facets of business. Now let’s switch gears to talk about skills.
What Can Employee Engagement Consulting Firms Bring to a Short-Term Consulting Hire?
Key Skills and Competencies to Master
Consulting is an intellectually demanding role. Beyond academic credentials, you need a mix of hard and soft skills to tackle complex assignments while building rapport with clients.
Here are the capabilities that allow top consultants to shine:
Financial modeling – Building discounted cash flow models, LBO models, merger consequences models, and more to evaluate strategic business decisions
Advanced data analysis – Leveraging statistical packages and programming languages (SQL, Python, R) to extract insights from big data
Presentation design – Structuring logically-flowing PowerPoint decks (MECE) that clearly communicate recommendations
Business case development – Researching markets and constructing convincing arguments for strategic recommendations
Communication – Summarizing findings, facilitating meetings, liaising between parties, delivering polished presentations
Leadership – Managing teams, navigating politics, organizing workflows, mentoring junior resources
Storytelling – Crafting compelling narratives, positioning recommendations effectively
Executive presence – Posture, gravitas and confidence to advise C-Suite leaders and VPs
Sharpening both areas will serve you extremely well in consulting and set you up for success.
Now that you have a better understanding of consulting, let’s look at career growth.
Career Development and Trajectories
Joining an MBB or Big Four firm opens doors to rapid skill development in your early career. But most don’t remain consultants forever – the average tenure is just 2-5 years.
The rewarding exit opportunities include:
Private equity/venture capital – Leveraging financial modeling and business evaluation skills from consulting
Corporate development/strategy – Internal consulting roles with more work-life balance
General management – Overseeing business units with P&L responsibility
Entrepreneurship – Taking the plunge to launch your own disruptive startups
For those that remain consultants longer-term, the career trajectory across firms looks something like:
Analyst/Associate -> Senior Associate -> Manager -> Senior Manager -> Principal/Director -> Partner
At each stage, responsibilities and client exposure increase. After 8-10 years, making partner is the pinnacle when you start owning equity stakes in the partnership.
Buckle up for hard work, but the skills you’ll gain are immense! Whether you remain a consultant or follow one of the many other career paths, you’ll constantly draw on this experience.
And there you have it! We covered a ton of ground exploring major players like MBB and Big 4, how to land those coveted jobs, day-to-day life in consulting, must-have skills, and career growth opportunities.
Hopefully this guide gave you some clarity on whether pursuing consulting is the right move for you. The hours are long and you need to be comfortable with ambiguity, but the payoff in accelerated learning, landing top exits roles, and leveraging the alumni network are incredible assets early in your career.
The application cycles are starting soon in the summer and fall. So start prepping your resume, practicing cases, and polishing those communication skills if you want to be in consideration at the top firms. Feel free to get in touch if you have any other questions – happy to provide more details from my own experiences in the industry.
Now go ace those interviews!