Why all consulting companies are not created equal

You are planning your consulting applications. Probably you are dreaming about McKinsey of BCG, but then you hear someone advising you to apply to smaller consultancies or international consultancies that recently created a new strategy division. It’s the consulting experience after all, they say. Plus you get more exposure in a smaller consultancy and the environment is friendlier. Probably you are still fascinated by the allure of McKinsey, but all in all it doesn’t sound like such a bad deal. Unfortunately it is, for at least three reasons.

A different life inside the Firm

If there’s something that top consultancies are definitely very good at doing is recruiting and retaining the best talents. They do this through incentives and benefits. Some of them are pretty useless, but others definitely make your life easier. Not having a cap on taxis makes travelling less hectic. An high dinner allowance means that you’ll be able to pamper yourself a bit after a very long day. In top tier consultancies they want to make everything which is not your job simple and hassle free, so that you don’t have to think about it. This comes at a cost for them, but they can afford it, for two reasons: they charge sky high fees to clients and everyone is treated in the same way. Firms hate discrimination between divisions, as it undermines cohesion in the company. If you have in the same company an audit division and a strategy division, they will not send the strategy guys to the 5 stars and the audit people to a 4 star hotel. They will send everyone to the 4 stars hotel, even if the four stars hotels usually do not serve hot meals after 11 pm. After a few nights when you come back at midnight you’ll feel the difference.  

A different life with client

A typical conversation in a big corporate usually goes on like this:

“Do we really need consultants? Why?”

There are two main types of answers: 

  1. “The project is too important for us to handle it on our own”
  2. “Hiring someone to do it would be too time consuming, it’s quicker to get consultants”.

When the answer is closer to the first you tend to hire the best in the market, regardless of the price. Would you save on the doctor when it’s a matter of life and death? Obviously clients expect a lot from you, even if you might be 20 years younger than them. Similarly they will be willing to talk to you as a trusted advisor and to build long term relationships with you. If instead, you are working on a transactional project, you will be most likely interacting with the lower ranks of the organization and your ability to produce slides quickly will be more valued than your problem solving skills. 

A different network 

The consultancy you worked at is a brand that stays with you for life. No consultancy brand is bad, but only some of them provide access to elite networks of professionals. Other networks, like the ones of diversified professional services firms, are very different: they may be bigger, but they are less closely knit together since alumni tend to be in completely different sectors and positions. Your experience in a top tier consultancy will always stay with you, even when you are 65 people will ask you about it. It is a club, but unfortunately a very elitist one. Being part of it from the very beginning is going to provide you with invaluable opportunities for your whole life.

SO WHAT?

Getting into top consultancies is not only about being sharp and quick. It is also an art that you can master. Usually if you are good enough to get near the top, you have the potential to make it to the top. Consulting candidates are usually overachievers with impressive track records as students. However this time, possibly for the first time, they are competing with people exactly like them. The stakes are much higher and there is not a second chance. Coaching can help the best candidates pinpoint their development points and turn them into strengths. Risking is not worth. No consultancy is bad, but working 15 hours a day in the top firm or in the 4th best is very different. And your career afterwards changes as well.