In my story, I explain why I chose a consulting path I hadn’t traveled before. My goal? To help someone looking to make a similar career choice.
Choice: It’s a seemingly simple English language word, but one that we often dread, especially when presented with a plethora of options and asked to choose the one that best suits our needs.
In December 2014, as I was graduating with my masters, I had a difficult choice to make. A choice that would determine the course of my career for many years to come. This choice, which I had to make without any experience whatsoever in one of the two available options, was one I knew I couldn’t afford to mess up!
With so much on the line, how do you make that choice? How do you know if you are making the right choice? And how do you make sure you choose a path you won’t regret three-to-five years down the line?
Making My Choice
So, without spending any more time building the suspense (in case you haven’t been able to tell so far), those two options were: To work for one of the big four consulting firms or at a relatively smaller consulting firm that I hadn’t heard of at that time.
Before embarking on my masters, I had worked as a full-time consultant for two-and-a-half years at one of the big four consulting firms. Prior to that, during my internship period, I also had an opportunity to work for another big consulting firm. So, I had relatively good knowledge and experience of the culture, environment and support system that bigger firms offer.
What I didn’t have was a firsthand experience of working at small-to-mid-size consulting firms. Regardless, I took a decision that day, unsure if it was the right decision. Two-and-a-half years later, here I am – happier than ever with the option I chose! But it would have been nice to have more insight on this path.
Differences in Consulting Firms
So, for those of you facing a similar dilemma, I would like to shed some light on the biggest differences between the bigger and smaller consulting firms (the points I list here are not absolute, they are my thoughts based on my experience):
#1 – Roles and Responsibilities:
Bigger firms usually have huge backend support systems with teams to support their consultants who directly interact with clients. These teams range from marketing research, data analysis to even a dedicated team for ‘beautifying’ your presentation material (seen mostly in strategy firms). The sole purpose of such teams is to make the job of their consultants more productive, so consultants can concentrate on building those invaluable client relationships.
But consultants working for small to mid-size firms don’t always have those options at disposal. They have to do most of these activities themselves. They get to don multiple hats at the same time, which in my personal opinion is a great way to learn about everything that goes into being a consultant and diversify your expertise.
#2 – Choice of Work:
Right out of the college, when I was hired for my first job with a big consulting firm, my career path was more or less sealed. You see, bigger firms by nature of their size and resources can afford to hire multiple candidates at the same time.
Once hired, they are more often than not allocated to a common training pool. And if you are fresh out of school, like I was at that time, you are trained in a batch with others on some skill set, technology or service offering. Once trained, employees become a part of a talent pool, which is accessible to hiring managers across projects and geographies.
On the other hand, when you are hired by a small or mid-size firm, you get picked for a very specific role based on your skillset and end up performing a similar function. But irrespective of the size of the firm, these decisions are driven by demand for a certain skill, and if there is no demand for your skill set you could be asked to cross-train in some other in-demand skill or, in a worst-case scenario, asked to leave.
#3 – Client Exposure:
When clients engage bigger consulting firms, they usually get a team consisting of a partner (with a full-time or part-time allocation), an engagement manager, senior and junior consultants. Although not a norm, work allocated to junior consultants is what we mostly term as ‘grunt work’ – supporting work for senior consultants and managers who in turn work directly with their client partners. Because of the nature of this hierarchy, junior consultants have very little to zero direct exposure with their clients (of course, this can vary from project to project too).
Things may not be drastically different in this sphere for junior consultants in small to mid-size firms, but more often than not, there aren’t as many layers. Those of you who aim to work directly with clients and make an impact by wooing them away with your skills, have a better chance of achieving that if you start with a small or mid-size firm.
#4 – Training Resources:
The consulting firm I started my career with had direct collaboration with MIT and some other top technical and business schools for imparting training to its employees. Usually, the bigger firms have more resources and facilities to engage their employees in world-class training and certification programs. Many big consulting firms have tuition reimbursement programs to reimburse their employees either fully or partially for top programs.
Now, I know most of the mid-size or small firms also have training programs to keep their employees updated with the latest skills and technologies, but their budgets may not be as generous as those of bigger firms. I also believe keeping yourself updated with the latest skills is something every consultant should do, and in this day and age when there are so many options, including free online courses available to choose from, one should not shy away just because of budgeting.
#5 – Culture:
Employees are any consulting firm’s biggest asset – and they make the culture of the organization. Bigger consulting firms will have numerous employees across geographic locations, so they aren’t really conducive breeding grounds for a single type of culture. In fact, there is more tendency for the localized offices of such firms to behave like a small firm in itself with their own cultural preferences.
Although, this may also be partly true for mid-size and small firms with multiple offices, but more often than not smaller firms are more like a close-knit family unit. Most, if not all employees, tend to be on a first-name basis. And, from my personal experience, they will stand by you in time of need just like your own family does.
In the end, it brings us back to our conversation about choices. In the field of consulting, there is no right or wrong choice, it’s totally a matter of personal choice and preferences. I have friends who are extremely happy working at big brand names and are happy with all the perks they get being a part of such firms.
Then there are others who started their careers with mid-size or small consulting firms and they can’t even fathom working anywhere else because they consider themselves a part of their work family.