Preparing for a Career in Strategy Consulting

By Jiaqi Wang
Last semester (2013 Fall), our office held a career event on management and strategy consulting, where panelists from McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and IBM talked with our students about their job experience in the consulting world, the required professional skills, and their transition from academia to industry. Many students attended and actively participated in the whole session, so we have written a blog detailing this career path for those who could not make it to the event but would like to know more about strategy consulting.

There will be two blogs under the topic of careers in strategy consulting. The first one, which you are reading right now, is regarding the preparation process, and the second one, titled Job Hunting in Strategy Consulting, concerns the job hunting process. As the names imply, the two blogs flow chronologically, so students at different phases of education and career preparation can adjust their focus accordingly.

Step one: Get to know this career path

Have you ever heard your friends or even yourself complain about how difficult math can be? Students from many fields are challenged by course requirements in probability and statistics. Ask yourself, upon presenting the word math in your mind, what are the concepts you immediately generate in association with it? Is nerdiness one of them? This is an interesting test revealing how the culture you have been immersed in shapes your thinking pattern. A second thought on the first question shows that this math-phobia may well stem from the fact that you have never really set our mind on it. The truth is sometimes we get intimidated or inspired so easily by the “folklore” in the culture that we are blinded and kept away from the truth.

The same pattern of behavior will surface when we prepare for a brand new career. Ask yourself, if I aspire to be a management consultant, am I comfortable with math and numbers? Have I ever read and liked The Economist or The Wall Street Journal? Has there ever been a week when I worked 60 hours or more? If the answers are not affirmative, then you should get to know more about this career before making any substantive efforts in preparing for it.

An informational interview is highly recommended at this stage. For reasons mentioned above, you really want to leave behind the first concepts that pop out in your mind when thinking about a consulting job, and discover its true picture. To do this, ask around and see whether you have a friend or friend’s friend who is a consultant. Buy him or her a coffee and talk! Since this person is personal contact as opposed to a prospective colleague that you find through networking, you can feel free to ask more informal questions seeking basic information regarding, for instance, (a) what is consulting?, (b) what is the common workload and working style?, (c) what set of skills are required. Assuming the answers that you get are comfortable with you in the sense that the skill set is achievable and the working style is amenable to your expectation, then you are ready to dig deep into the technical details of the career.

In strategy consulting, a good place to seek technical details is where you can find information concerning (a) companies in the consulting field; (b) what practice areas do they have (pay attention to those that can best fit your skill set), e.g., IT, retail, human resource, etc.; (3) and the relevant rankings and reviews. Another highly recommended website is where you can find employee reviews and salary range. After narrowing down the consulting firms that interest you the most, check out their official websites, and find out what kind of projects they are working on and also get a sense of the company culture. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook, keep yourself posted on their latest news.

Step two: Building the required skill sets

After making sure that your goal of seeking a job in the consulting world is not a decision due to a “cultural affection” (opposite of the cultural phobia for math), you are in a good state of mind to make long-term preparatory plans. Building a skill set that is required by most consulting firms is one of the two plans we will discuss in this blog.

A list of the expected professional skills can be very long or short, depending on your preparation. A sample set is listed below:

1.    Interpersonal and communication skills

A consultant must be gregarious and personable, feeling comfortable working either within a team or with clients. Also, a consultant must have the ability to deliver a clear and accurate business proposition that they have developed for their clients. An aspiring consultant must be comfortable with standard business etiquette (tips from Columbia’s Center for Career Education) and the idea of wearing formal business attire on a regular basis (tips for women and tips for men from NYU’s Wasserman Career Center).  You must be very comfortable with the idea of working in corporate settings in America and all over the world.

2.    Business acumen and judgment

This is a tricky part. One panelist at our event last semester explicitly mentioned that he did not know anything about business when entering the consulting profession. Similarly, you may have heard that many consulting firms, especially the big three – McKinsey, BCG, and Bain – care more about the diversity of their employees so they hire many people with a non-business background and will offer significant on the job training to employees that often taken on the form of mini-MBA workshops. With this information in mind, you might have a false impression that you do not really need to know about business. An informational interview that you had with your consultant friends, however, may have given you a somewhat different picture. They might have told you that you did not have to have a business degree but you needed to have business acumen. What does this really mean? To most people, it sounds like you do not need to know a particular discipline but you must be smart. The fuzziness of this term, although fairly accurate, will not buy you much. A good interpretation of this term that I encountered at recently may help you out. Just like you do not need to go to a culinary school to be a good cook, all you need to develop your business acumen is a practice field where you get your hands dirty. If your relatives have a small business or some of your friends are working on a start-up, you may want to volunteer and help them with their business plan. A working knowledge of the business world is always favored by employers because it clearly demonstrates that you CAN work as opposed to a hunch of your interviewers that you have the potential to work. Therefore, you should find opportunities to get your hands dirty and learn from doing.

3.    Strong analytic and problem solving skills

Luckily, every PhD student will develop these two skills along with their education. You may have a better understanding of them, so I will not get wordy here.

Step three: Networking

Networking is the second long-term preparatory plan you should make, so we will briefly discuss it here. (The following list is by no means exhaustive. You can always stick to your own way of networking assuming it works well for you.)

1.    LinkedIn

If you do not have a LinkedIn account yet, set up one today! It is a website widely used by professionals who network with likeminded people. On LinkedIn, you can find tons of groups comprising (prospective) consultants. Find one that interests you the most and join it today!

2.   Consulting clubs

With more and more people aspiring to work in the consulting world, chances are that you can find related clubs, a face-to-face version of LinkedIn groups, near you. It is fairly helpful to join a good club where members can do mock interviews and case studies together.  If you can’t find a formal club, pull together a few interested friends and get started on cases. Some consulting firms, such as McKinsey and BCG, have practices cases on their websites.  Otherwise, sharing a resource such as David Ohrvall’s Crack the Case system between friends is a good starting point.

– Jiaqi Wang