While there are many reasons to pursue a career in management consulting, there is no doubt that it’s a challenging profession. Between regular performance reviews and the additional pressure of an ‘up or out’ policy, consultants at top firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain are constantly under the microscope. Their performance is measured against specific skills, with the firms’ expectations increasing steadily in line with consultants’ tenure and career progression.
It’s therefore vital for anyone who is considering a career in management consulting to understand the skills and characteristics required for success before embarking on the journey of joining a top consulting firm.
The skills required for junior consultants
Up to and including the Manager level on the consulting career path, McKinsey, BCG and Bain evaluate the performance of consultants in the following areas:
At its heart, the job of a management consultant is to solve clients’ most critical and complex problems within a limited period of time. Consultants therefore need to be able to structure their work effectively in order to solve the problem in the time available. This involves breaking the problem down into small pieces of work that can be executed and managed independently.
A hypothesis-driven approach to solving problems is essential in consulting. This is because there is simply not enough time for consultants to look at a problem from every angle. Instead of ‘boiling the ocean’ by pursuing every possible line of enquiry, consultants must devise a hypothesis to evaluate with an ‘80:20’ mindset (doing 20% of the work to reach 80% of the answer) and the aim of being ‘directionally’ correct. A significant difference between two numbers is often enough to support or refute an initial hypothesis; the precise numbers are not usually required.
Analytical and numerical skills
Consultants conduct analyses to help solve challenging and complex problems for some of the world’s biggest organizations, sometimes as part of multi-billion dollar initiatives. Strong analytical skills and the ability to work confidently and efficiently with numbers are therefore vital in consulting.
Consulting is also a client-facing role, for which presence and clarity in communication are both essential. Consultants must interact with clients and influence stakeholders from the shop floor to the boardroom on a daily basis. In practice this means communicating in a variety of ways, from having one-on-one conversations and leading meetings to interviewing experts and writing PowerPoint presentations and delivering presentations.
To convey complex insights, data and recommendations in a convincing and understandable way for clients, consultants must learn to craft compelling stories. Through storytelling, they can build a sense of purpose and urgency to deliver real impact by encouraging clients to act on their recommendation.
Client relationship management
To solve a client’s problem successfully, consultants must first understand their situation and needs. What are the client’s goals and what is the context they’re operating in? Only with a firm understanding of the big picture can consultants direct their work in a way that’s genuinely helpful.
Strong relationship management skills are essential for achieving this understanding from the outset of a project. These skills are also required for maintaining a good relationship with clients through the ups and downs of the project, even when there are difficult updates to give or tricky scenarios to navigate.
Consultants must also foster good relationships with those who are on the ground in the client’s organization. These individuals may not necessarily be pleased to see a consultant come into their workplace, as they might be worried about something undesirable being discovered or unwelcome changes being made. One of the roles of a consultant is to be a trusted advisor, so even in the face of this kind of resistance or skepticism, they must be able to use their relationship building skills to get these individuals on board and win their trust.
Consultants are expected to be able to hone and progress their work reasonably independently. They must be reliable, productive and able to plan and deliver good-quality output without requiring step-by-step instructions from their manager. This means that they must be proactive in seeking clarity on the goal of a project or task before they begin.
Another important aspect of working autonomously in consulting is being able to organize work around complicated processes that have many different elements, such as client meetings, internal discussions and surveys. Consultants must be able to navigate these multifaceted processes and ensure that they source the right input at the right time.
A tolerance to ambiguity is also essential. Projects move at rapid speed, and all the required guidance and information is not always available. Consultants must be able to work independently to solve problems, no matter how ambiguous the circumstances.
Honing the technical skills for consulting
In addition to these core competencies, consultants are required to demonstrate a number of technical skills. One of these is developing models, particularly in Excel, in order to organize, manipulate and analyze vast sets of data efficiently. Modeling also allows consultants to identify valuable insights, forecast future scenarios and evaluate various strategic options.
Skills with presentation technology, especially PowerPoint, are also vital. Consultants use slides or ‘decks’ frequently in their client communications and presentations. It’s not uncommon for hundreds of slides to be produced for a single project. In some cases, consultants are also expected to deliver client communications through more dynamic tools, such as Tableau and Power BI.
Skills required for senior consultants
As consultants become more senior (i.e. Manager level and above), top consulting firms place more emphasis on the following additional skills:
- Leading a team
- Developing clients from a commercial standpoint
- Developing their own expertise, either in a sector or a function
Broadly speaking, these are the skills of a Partner, and an individual’s performance is likely to determine their long-term future with a top firm like McKinsey, BCG or Bain. One of the common reasons why some consultants don’t make Partner is a failure to meet expectations in these areas.
What kind of people make successful management consultants?
Consulting isn’t simply about mastering a set of skills; it’s also important for individuals to have the right attitude, characteristics and qualities. Successful management consultants tend to be:
People who are highly driven
Driven people set big goals, push hard to achieve them and rarely give up. It’s this level of tenacity, ambition and commitment to excellence that top consulting firms look for in candidates and require of consultants.
Clients pay large sums of money to engage the services of top consulting firms and naturally expect consultants to deliver work of the highest standard. To this end, consultants receive constant feedback and are expected to progress rapidly. The desire to improve and the drive to do well in this kind of environment are therefore essential.
People who are curious
Variety is one of the hallmarks of a consulting career. Consultants move from project to project, working with different organizations – often in new industries – in order to tackle unique problems. As new project teams form, consultants must develop relationships with an ever-changing group of team members, managers and other stakeholders within their firm. Individuals who relish the prospect of such a frequent rate of change in their working environment – perhaps because they are naturally curious or would otherwise become bored – tend to thrive in consulting.
People who care about their work – and enjoy it!
Management consulting is a demanding career that requires a significant amount of effort and commitment. Consultants work long hours in an intense and highly pressured environment. Without caring about the work or finding enjoyment in it, consultants would gain very little satisfaction from the challenges of the role. They would also find it difficult to summon the necessary motivation to put in the hours of analysis, research and discussion required for every project.
An interest in the business world is also essential, as the majority of the work in consulting relates to helping large corporations improve their performance.
Interested in starting a career in management consulting?
If you have the skills, qualities and characteristics required for success in management consulting, you can learn more about how to apply to a top firm like McKinsey, BCG and Bain in our article on how to join a top consulting firm. You can also learn more about a career in consulting in our complete guide to the management consulting industry.
If you’re already preparing to apply to a top consulting firm, the resume and cover letter templates and specialized advice in our Free Resume Course will help you get your application in great shape.