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Career paths in management consulting

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Careers in management consulting follow a general rule of thumb that the more senior you are, the greater your exposure to clients - and to senior clients in particular. There's an expectation that a few years into your consulting career you'll quit to do an MBA - and then come back again. Using McKinsey & Co's job titles as an example, here's how you can expect your consulting career to progress.

1. Business analyst 

If you go to work for a consulting firm straight from a first (bachelor's) degree, you can expect to go in as a business analyst. This mostly means you'll be 'data gathering.' Helping to bring together all the research and data that goes into the making of the 'deck' (or slidedeck) which contains the firm's analysis of the client's problem and its proposed solutions. The deck is central to the work of consultancy firms and its contents will be directed by senior consultants following discussions with clients. However, it is up to business analysts, working with other members of their team, to bring the contents together in a Powerpoint slide that looks interesting and tells a coherent story about how the consulting firm proposes to solve the client's issues. Sometimes business analysts will need to build financial models in Excel to underpin the deck. Sometimes, they'll just need to create a presentation.

2. MBA  

The very best business analysts manage to skip the MBA part of the consulting career path. If a firm really likes you, it will offer you a 'DTA' or 'direct to associate' move. This means that you go straight from being an analyst to being an associate. If you don't get a DTA offer, you'll often be expected to take two years out to do a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) at a top school. This can be expensive - at schools like Harvard, an MBA will cost you $98k once tuition fees and living expenses have been factored in. Some consulting firms will sponsor you to study an MBA - although sponsorship can be restricted to the best business analysts in the class.

3. Associate 

Once you've done an MBA, you can rejoin a consultancy firm as an associate. If will be easiest to rejoin the firm you worked for previously if that firm sponsored you to do the MBA - this is a clear indication that they want you back! As an associate, you'll have more contact with senior clients and will be assigned a portion of a consulting project to work on yourself. Like business analysts, you will also have some responsibility for gathering data.

4. Engagement manager

Successful associates go on to become engagement managers. This is a bit of a misleading term - rather than managing engagement, engagement managers manage the project. It is up to them to coordinate the team's activities and to ensure work is delivered on schedule. Engagement managers liaise with the partners leading the project and with the business analysts and associates working below them to make sure this happens. They also have a role in looking at the problems to be solved by the team, and coming up with creative solutions.

5. Associate partner (or associate principal)

If you make it to associate partner, you are well on your way to the top of the consulting hierarchy. Associate partners are partners in waiting. They are experts in their particular sector and are expected to go out and meet clients with the aim of building strong client relationships and selling the consulting firm's expertise so that it wins more business. They also have a responsibility to help develop staff below them. Associate partnership can be very stressful - you need to prove yourself as a potential partner and you can be expected to travel frequently to meet your clients.

6. Partner

Partner - and ultimately director - are the pinnacle of the consulting career path. If you make partner you will need to have a strong roster of clients who love working with you, a team who think you're great and a track record of generating revenues and delivering excellent solutions.

The career path outlined above is based upon job titles at McKinsey & Co. Progression at other firms is roughly similar - although you may not be expected to do an MBA at firms in Europe or the Asia Pacific region. At Bain & Co., the hierarchy goes from associate consultant, to senior associate consultant, to consultant, case team leader, manager, principal and partner.

Samatha Cory, a senior manager with a financial services regulatory focus in PWC's consulting business, says they have job titles ranging from associate to partner, but the culture isn't hierarchical. "I think our consulting practice is unique in that we promote people when they demonstrate they are ready," she adds. "I joined as a senior associate in 2011 and have been promoted twice since then – I’m now a senior manager."

What if you decide consulting isn't for you? Fortunately, you'll have plenty of opportunity to go and do something else. It's common for former consultants to work for private equity firms, or go off and become a strategist or senior executive within a company in the sector they've been consulting in. McKinsey & Co. boasts, for example, that 450 of its former consultants are currently running ‘billion dollar organizations’ around the world. They include Tidjane Thiam, the new CEO of Credit Suisse and James Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley.  Bain & Co. boasts that after working there you can always move on to private equity, a corporate, a start-up, or a not-for-profit venture. The choice is yours.

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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