Consulting - Industry Overview


So, you want to be a consultant? Or, more likely, you think you'll spend a few years as one and then move on to other things. You're not alone-there are more than 250,000 consultants in the U.S. Consulting firms are traditionally among the largest employers of top MBA and college graduates, and they are an attractive alternative career option for people who've toiled in industry for a number of years.

Consulting is a high-paying, high-profile field that offers you the opportunity to take on a large degree of responsibility right out of school and quickly learn a great deal about the business world. It's also a profession that will send you to the far corners of the country-and leave you there for days and weeks on end while you sort out tough questions for a client that's paying your firm millions of dollars.

In essence, consultants are hired advisors to corporations. They tackle a wide variety of business problems and provide solutions for their clients. Depending on the size and chosen strategy of the firm, these problems can be as straightforward as researching a new market, as technically challenging as designing and coding a large manufacturing control system, as sensitive as providing outplacement services for the HR department, or as sophisticated as totally rethinking the client's organization and strategy.

Management consultants must be skilled at conducting research and analyzing it. Research means collecting raw data from a variety of sources including the client's computers, trade associations in the client's industry, government agencies, and, perhaps most importantly, surveys and market studies that you devise and implement yourself. It also means interviewing people to gather anecdotal information and expert opinion. The interviewees may be anyone, from industry experts to the client's top executives to the client's lowest-level employees. All this data must then be analyzed, using tools from spreadsheets to your own brain. The idea here is to spot behavior patterns, production bottlenecks, market movements and other trends and conditions that affect a client's business.

Your ultimate job is to improve the client's business by effecting changes in response to your analysis. That's the hard part, because it involves convincing the client to accept your recommendations, often in the face of opposition from client executives who resent outsiders upstaging them with the boss or resistance from company employees who have something to lose from change. To succeed you'll need excellent people skills and the ability to put together a persuasive PowerPoint presentation. Finally, you'll need the ability to handle disappointment if your solution fails or the client decides not to even try implementing it

One good thing about the advice business: Companies always seem to want more. As evidence, the consulting industry has been on a sustained growth binge for well more than a decade. One other thing about the consulting business: The product really is the people, and firms compete on the basis of who's the smartest and the hardest working. As a result, each firm wants to hire the best and the brightest. If you're one of them-you probably know if you are-you'll have a good shot at landing one of these competitive jobs.