What McKinsey, Bain and BCG Consultants Actually Do

Are you tired of hearing “every day is different” when you ask consultants what they actually do? If you want a proper answer then you’re in the right place. Here we share the actual activities consultants do and why they do them.

Consultants solve big, hairy problems

To be a great consultant you have to love solving problems. Clients hire consultants to solve their most pressing problems and as a consultant, you’ll be asked to solve a wide variety of challenging issues. These can range from “how can we increase the financial inclusion of women across the world using data?” to “how can a consumer goods company reduce its production wastage?”  

The type of clients that consultants work with are also varied, ranging from big corporations to governments, investors, and nonprofits. However, top consulting firms rarely work with startups and small companies. Rather than entrusting their staff to work on their most complex and interesting problems, big companies outsource these questions to a top consulting firm. So as a consultant you only do this type of complex and important work!

To solve these big, hairy problems, the problem must first be understood and properly defined. This in itself can involve a fair amount of analysis and discussion. Second, consultants must collect data such as survey results, case studies, and firm-owned or client data. The challenge here is that the data quality might be inadequate, so consultants often gather as much information as possible.

The gathered data then needs to be analysed to develop an initial hypothesis or answer. This initial answer will then be debated by the team, tested with clients and subjected to further analysis until a final recommendation can be drawn that is supported by both clients and consultants.

Consultants do a variety of activities

Consultants engage in a variety of tasks including problem-solving sessions, crunching data in Excel, making slides to communicate findings, completing desktop research, and performing interviews with clients and industry experts. The goal for each of these activities is to contribute to building the final recommendation and solve the client problem. The diversity of tasks means that a typical day for a consultant is always varied. You might spend 12 hours staring at an Excel spreadsheet, running back to back interviews, or developing slides for a big client meeting.

All work is communicated in PowerPoint slides, also known as “decks”. Decks are the key vehicle for how all information is recorded. It is the means by which teams conduct their problem solving and it is the medium for communicating results. It’s not uncommon to produce hundreds of slides in just one project and consultants become absolute wizards with PowerPoint.

Consultants make contributions outside of client work

In addition to client work, consultants are often involved in other activities that support the development of the firm or simply to add some more fun into the mix. Consultants might contribute to developing research and intellectual property for the firm, playing a role in recruitment efforts or take part in other “extra-curricular clubs” such as performing arts, volunteering or sports within the firm. These extra activities mean consultants get to pursue their additional interests and work with an even wider variety of people.

Consultants travel and work in teams

Consultants usually work in team sizes of two to seven, depending on the number of work streams or pieces there are to the problem. The team will consist of a Project Manager and a number of Associates or Analysts. The team will also have a Junior Partner engaging with the team and client a couple of days a week. A consulting team serves only one client at a time and will often work from the client site Monday to Thursday, and then from the office on Friday. Depending on the client’s location, this can mean consultants travel by plane, train, or taxi early on a Monday morning and late on a Thursday.

Consulting is a client-facing job and the client’s success always comes first, so being on-site at a client’s office allows consultants to solve the problem with the client in close collaboration.

In a typical week, a consultant will do analysis, create charts on slides, discuss the slides, and then go back and repeat. Add in regular client meetings, extra-curricular contributions, team meals, and the occasional bit of travel and you get a pretty good picture of what consultants actually do.

For a more in depth look at what it’s like working at McKinsey, BCG, or Bain check out our in depth profiles.

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