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Why people leave consulting after only two to four years

The typical length of time for consultants to stay at top firms like McKinsey, BCG or Bain is two to four years. Some statistics indicate that 2.7 years is the average length of time that a consultant works at a top management consulting firm before moving on.

While this period of time might seem short, there are some key drivers at play in the world of consulting that make it far more reasonable than it would in another industry. Here, we examine what those drivers are and how they contribute to the trend of people leaving consulting after working at a top firm for two to four years.

All consultants reach a career crossroads after around two years

Whether consultants join top firms as new graduates, MBA graduates or experienced professionals, there comes a natural point in their careers after around two years when they are faced with the decision to either stay or leave.

Consultants who join top firms as new graduates are usually expected to go to business school to study for an MBA after two to three years, in line with the firm’s offer of paying for further education. Those who choose not to do so often decide to quit consulting at this point. This is usually because they are keen to try something new, having spent the first few years of their career in consulting.

Those who do go to business school might spend time working in other industries through internships as part of their MBA program. In doing so, they may build relationships with companies that result in them leaving consulting at a future stage in order to join one of these organizations.

Consultants who join top firms as experienced professionals or MBA graduates are likely to transition to Manager level after two years on the job. They then have to make a decision about whether they want to attempt to progress to Partner level. As this option doesn’t appeal to everyone and some consultants don’t make Partner, many choose to leave at this stage and pursue other opportunities.

Learning becomes less transferable over time

Very few consultants join top firms to become a Partner; most people are there in order to learn. In the beginning, the learning curve is steep and consultants develop a huge number of transferable skills, including problem-solving, communication and leadership. Through the work that consultants do, they also gain a great deal of exposure to a diverse range of industries and functions.

Once consultants reach Manager level, however, the new skills they learn are those that would help them perform well as a Partner at a consulting firm (e.g. playing the role of a trusted advisor). These skills, while valuable to those who are keen to progress to Partner level, are far less applicable to other careers than the skills that consultants learn earlier in their careers.

People who join top consulting firms are, by nature, high achievers who are driven and ambitious. So once they feel they’ve learned all they can from their time in consulting, they naturally start to look for their next challenge.

New opportunities are too exciting to ignore

Consulting is a strong springboard to many other careers and there are a number of attractive exit opportunities for people who leave consulting. These include:

  • entering the investment management industry (e.g. private equity, venture capital)
  • exploring entrepreneurship (e.g. by founding or joining a startup)
  • joining the strategy team of a technology firm or large corporation
  • pursuing non-commercial roles (e.g. in academia, a non-profit, the civil service or teaching)

As a result of the exposure that consultants gain by solving complex and challenging problems for some of the world’s biggest organizations, they are usually very well placed to join executive teams in senior positions once they quit consulting. Top firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain have earned a reputation of being ‘CEO factories’ and are now taking over top MBAs in training the next generation of business leaders. At any one time, more than 15% of the CEOs of the world’s top global corporations are alumni of McKinsey, BCG or Bain.

Those who leave consulting are faced with an array of new and exciting opportunities that may well appeal more to their specific interests or long-term career plans than their current roles. As a result, remaining in consulting may often seem like the least favorable of all their options.

Many people quit consulting for a more sustainable lifestyle

There’s no denying that the consulting lifestyle can be extremely challenging. Regardless of which firm they work for, management consultants work long hours and are required to travel a great deal in order to work with clients in person.

There is also a great deal of pressure for consultants to contend with. Firms have extremely high expectations and consultants are given feedback on their work at regular intervals. The objectives of the client are expected to always come first and the goal is nothing less than perfection, even if a project becomes over-scoped, the data proves to be unreliable or the client keeps changing their mind.

While there are some opportunities for consultants to recharge by doing lower-intensity work at the office in between projects and even taking planned leaves of absence away from the firm altogether, the consulting lifestyle can take its toll. The combination of long hours, travel, high working intensity and stress can affect consultants’ physical and mental health, as well as their relationships and family life. As a result, many choose to quit consulting in search of a better work-life balance.

Many consultants prefer ‘doing’ to ‘advising’

It’s said that there are three types of roles in the economy: workers, managers and advisors. Consulting is a role that falls firmly in the ‘advising’ category, which doesn’t suit everyone on a long-term basis. Eventually, many consultants get the urge to ‘decide’ and ‘do’ more in order to see the impact of their work, and choose to join managers and workers on the side of implementation.

Consultants with an entrepreneurial spirit are likely to want to create and implement their ideas, rather than hand them over to others to bring to life. Some leave the profession when they get the itch to ’do stuff’ operationally, rather than simply ’advise’. And, after a few years in consulting, they are certainly in a position to do ‘big stuff’ in the roles they move on to.

Some leave consulting through their firm’s ‘up or out’ policy

It’s important to acknowledge that not all consulting career exits are by choice; some consultants are asked to leave under their firms’ ‘up or out’ policy.

Top consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain expect consultants to progress quickly, and the firms typically conduct performance reviews every six months. As a result of this process, consultants are assigned to a performance category (e.g. ‘underperforming’, ‘performing as expected’, ‘exceeding expectations’). Those whose performance is deemed to be in the bottom category may be asked to leave the firm if they show no sign that they can turn the situation around.

In reality, this outcome only happens to a few people at a time, and many are aware that it’s a possibility because they are simply not enjoying the work of being a consultant. They may already be planning to quit consulting and their next move could even be in their sights.

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 shape.

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