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What management consultants at McKinsey, BCG and Bain actually do

Are you tired of hearing “every day is different” when you ask strategy consultants what they do? If you want a more detailed answer, you’re in the right place. Here we outline how consultants at top management consulting firms work on projects, collaborate with clients and spend their time.

Consultants help clients solve their most pressing and challenging problems

At its heart, the job of a management consultant is to solve clients’ most critical and complex problems. Organizations hire management consulting firms to help them tackle their highest-impact challenges, where hundreds of millions – or even billions – of dollars are on the line.

Given the high-stakes nature of these problems – and the correspondingly high fees that firms charge – the organizations that typically seek the support of management consulting firms are large corporations, governments and some of the world’s largest non-profits.

The problems that clients need to solve can be varied and far-reaching. They’re often rooted in classical areas like business strategy, profit improvements (e.g. revenue growth, cost reduction, turnarounds, operations), opportunity assessments (e.g. due diligence for an acquisition, market entry, product launch) and re-organizations.

However, a large share of strategic consulting today is in addressing other items at the top of a CEO’s agenda, which are often heavily influenced by the economic, geopolitical and technological landscape. These more contemporary objectives might include:

  • achieving net zero
  • transforming a business through digitization
  • harnessing data science
  • responding to a crisis (e.g. disruptions to the supply chain, the continuing fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic)
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Consultants work on projects in teams

Serving one client at a time, consultants tackle these problems in the form of projects. While each project can last anywhere from two weeks to six months, the average duration is eight to 12 weeks.

During this time, consultants work on the project in a dedicated consulting team that typically consists of two to six people, including a Project Manager and a number of Associates or Analysts. Several Partners are usually involved in each project, and consulting teams are often supported by expert consultants who are specialists in the relevant industry or function.

Consulting work is incredibly varied

Throughout the course of the project, consultants undertake a wide variety of tasks that help them build their final recommendation and, ultimately, solve the client’s problem. This work includes:

  • collecting data and analyzing it in Excel
  • completing desktop research
  • performing interviews with clients and industry experts
  • conducting problem-solving sessions to review interim findings and determine next steps with the project team

Strategy consultants also spend a great deal of time communicating their approach and recommendations, both to the project team and the wider client organization. Traditionally, they use PowerPoint slides or ‘decks’ to do this, and it isn’t uncommon for consultants to produce hundreds of slides in just one project. In some cases, client communications are also delivered through more dynamic tools, such as Tableau and Power BI, which enable greater levels of interactivity in the presentation of information.

The diversity of tasks means that the work of a management consultant is always varied. A ‘typical’ day might involve working on an Excel spreadsheet, fine-tuning an Alteryx model, running back-to-back interviews or developing slides for a big client meeting.

Consultants work hand-in-hand with clients

Consulting project teams don’t operate independently. They work hand-in-hand with multiple people at different levels of the client’s organization to craft recommendations collaboratively.

Clients are most often embedded in consulting project teams. This ensures that the client has a strong sense of buy-in to the project and ownership of its outcome. In fact, it is often the client who presents the final recommendations of the project team to the organization. This paves the way for a successful implementation of the solution once the project comes to an end.

The Partners in the project team – and the Senior Partners who cover the client – usually own and manage a relationship with the CEO to ensure alignment and satisfaction with the team’s work. Partners also build close relationships with the other stakeholders in the client’s management team who are connected to the project.

Being on site at a client’s office allows this close degree of collaboration between the consulting project team and the client. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, teams typically worked from the client’s site between Monday and Thursday and then from the office on Friday. Sometimes this required travel on Mondays and a return on Thursdays. Nowadays, consultants tend to work in a hybrid model, spending one to three days a week at the client’s site and the rest of the week working from either home or the office.

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 add some fun to the mix. Consultants might contribute to developing the firm’s research and intellectual property, play a role in recruitment efforts or take part in other initiatives for the firm. These extra activities allow consultants to pursue their additional interests and work with an even wider variety of stakeholders.

If a career in management consulting sounds like it might be right for you, you can learn more in our complete guide to the management consulting industry. And if you’re 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 into great shape.

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