The Dark Side of Consulting

Every top MBA program places a significant number of graduates in the consulting function. The high salaries, variety of projects, and fast-paced work environment all encourage MBAs to propel themselves onto this career path. And while these benefits would be enticing to any professional, every career path has its dark side. During my three years as a management consultant, these were the aspects I liked the least and have made it very unlikely for me to return.

(Please note that my comments apply primarily to the larger management and strategy consulting firms, made up of the Big Three (McKinsey, Bain, BCG), the current Big Four (PWC, E&Y, KPMG, Deloitte), and the various spinoffs from the original Big Five (Accenture, IBM, Bearing Point, Cap Gemini). A lot of smaller boutiques have actually built their consulting firms around directly addressing the points below)

Work Life Balance

In nearly all recruiting presentations by consulting firms, there will be a lengthy section about work life balance. Some of the ones I saw showcased an extremely busy partner, who had an overwhelming work schedule, but managed to spend time with his family and had a great relationship with his kids. Strange how most other career tracks don’t make such a hard sell…

If the pre-emptive sales pitch wasn’t a giveaway, let me put it very simply: your work life balance will likely suck. You’ll work longer hours and endure more stressful deadlines than your industry peers. During my tenure as a consultant, I spent about 70% of my time in city away from home. I knew the all of the quickest routes through SeaTac airport and some flight attendants knew me by name. I lost count of the number of inconvenient times I’d receive calls from friends asking me to hang out. My response if it wasn’t the weekend? “Sorry, I’m kind of in Florida right now…”

Despite what the sales pitch may tell you, I know from what I’ve personally witnessed that a consulting career can ruin your personal relationships. For many people this isn’t a dealbreaker, because they’re willing to forfeit their social lives for career advancement. But as you get older, the sacrifice you make undoubtedly becomes greater.

Travel

My most lavish travel experience had me staying at the Ritz Carlton and the W Hotel in the Bay Area. We played golf during a team outing and had amazing dinners at restaurants I would never get into by myself. The bill for our team dinners was usually higher than my monthly rent. On the flip side, I also had a project where I stayed at a Motel 6 for five weeks. My most lavish dinner was provided by the hotel vending machine.

The likelihood of getting staffed in a great location with great venues is just as good as being staffed in the middle of nowhere. I consider myself lucky to have wined and dined in New York and San Francisco as many consultants never get to experience the “good-life” of consulting travel.

Another thing to note is that just becoming a consultant doesn’t automatically give you first class service on airlines and hotels. You have to pay your dues first. You’ll spend numerous hours dealing with delayed flights, lost luggage, and loud, family travelers before United finally gives you a free cheese plate during your flight. (The perks aren’t what they used to be) And after you start counting all those hours spent in airports, cabs, and hotels, you’ll realize that they would’ve been better spent at home. Suffice it to say, the perks and the miles never make up for the time you surrender.

The Staffing Process

One of the things that surprised me about consulting was how little control you have over which projects you get staffed on. The staffing process, which had been sold to me as “endless variety,” seemed to be better characterized as “unfair randomness.” Hoping to get on that sexy, channel marketing strategy project and utilize your marketing degree? Well, if your partners are only selling Oracle implementations, that’s what you’ll be staffed on. The consulting world is driven by the demand from clients, not by the expertise of consulting personnel.

Also, while the idea of getting a variety of projects may seem appealing at first, the scenario can quickly wear out its welcome. It’s extremely stressful to get staffed on a project, in an area where you have no expertise, if you’re already billing hundreds of dollars for each hour of your time. Yes, ramping up in an entirely different industry and entirely different function is a good skill to learn. But you shouldn’t be doing it your entire career.

So who gets the cool projects? Many times, it’ll depend on who you know, not what you know. When politics come into play with the staffing process, it only makes things worse. That dream project you’re perfectly qualified for, the one that you know you’ll knock out of the ballpark, can easily slip away simply because the project partner doesn’t know you. Each staffing decision has the potential to make you feel like you’re going through the recruiting process all over again.

Think Long-Term

Despite everything I’ve mentioned above, I know I benefited from the time I spent in management consulting. I developed a great problem solving capability and a strong tolerance for ambiguity. In my opinion, those skills alone make consulting a great career investment. The problem is that consulting isn’t a great long-term career destination.

The stats show that most consultants don’t last beyond three years, with very few ever being considered for partner. Eventually the travel, the politics, and the workload all catch up to you. If you do decide to make the leap into consulting, it’ll look great on your resume and you’ll build skills that you wouldn’t attain elsewhere. But make sure you develop an exit strategy. If you focus on building your expertise early on and plan your departure well, you’ll likely springboard yourself onto an even better career path.

This post is adapted from Random Wok, a blog written by Mark Wong from Silicon Valley. You can read all of his posts at Random Wok.

Selected posts by Wong at PoetsandQuants:

Why I Want an MBA

Climbing the GMAT Mountain: 630 to 710 on a Practice Test

Do Consultants Have An Unfair Edge Over Other Applicants?

Falling Behind & Stressed Out

My New Critical Reasoning Strategy

Figuring Out My Odds of Getting Into Harvard, Stanford, Wharton

With My GMAT Classes Over, It’s Now Just Me and the Test

Making a GMAT Test Taker Feel Like A Complete Pansy

With a Month to Go Before His GMAT Test, It’s Time to Focus

Is The GMAT Really Designed To Break You?

I Took the GMAT Today and Rocked It!

Charting All My GMAT Scores Over Time With Lessons

After Scoring My 750, It’s Now All About Applying

MBA Applications Wisdom from Muhammad Ali

Facing A Gauntlet of Round Two Deadlines

Should Everyone Apply to Harvard Business School?

The Final Click Is The Hardest Click: Sending In My Application

A Punch to the Gut: Bad Reviews On His Draft Essays

MBA Essay Writing: Draining the Life Out of Me

Beginning to Realize You Can Never Write The Perfect MBA Essay

With Wharton and UCLA Apps Done, He Feels Like a Zombie

Taking Back His Life After Sacrificing Health, Time & Sanity

Slammed with Business School Spam Thanks to GMAC

Getting an Invite for An Interview from Berkeley’s Haas School

UCLA’s Anderson School Asks Our Blogger To Interview

A Ding From Harvard Business School

After a Harvard Ding, Good News in a Cryptic Email from Wharton

Another Ding: First Harvard, Now Berkeley’s Haas School Says No

Surviving the Wait Game

Why I’m Going to Get an MBA

Attending UCLA’s Admit Weekend

Navigating the Realities of the Wait List

Dumping His GMAT Books On Amazon

Waitlisted Again At Wharton

How to Save $5,000 On Your MBA Tuition

Separating from Work

  • Naj

    Fantastic post! I am a consultant myself with one of the “spin-offs” (Accenture). To say that I do not relate to every aspect of your post would be a white lie 🙂

    However, it’s my passion to solve issues that led me to this career path. Yes, the dangers and the pitfalls are all true, but at the end, i derive a sense of deep satisfaction when I see a problem getting solved & clients reaping the benefits of my services. And I think people who want to be in this field must have this inherent personality trait to be able to overcome the fatigue and social discord which is part of the package.

    Great post 🙂

  • I couldn’t help notice the parallels between consulting and the military and why I’m leaving to pursue an MBA (for the record, I’m interested in marketing and have made peace with a lower salary to enjoy the important things in life: friends and family).

    Work-Life Balance:
    “Despite what the sales pitch may tell you, I know from what I’ve personally witnessed that a consulting career can ruin your personal relationships. For many people this isn’t a dealbreaker, because they’re willing to forfeit their social lives for career advancement. But as you get older, the sacrifice you make undoubtedly becomes greater.”

    You could replace consulting career here with military career. The deployments and moving every couple of years take a huge toll on your personal relationships, and I echo that the impact is greater as you get older…that’s what I’m experiencing right now.

    Staffing
    “One of the things that surprised me about consulting was how little control you have over which projects you get staffed on. The staffing process, which had been sold to me as “endless variety,” seemed to be better characterized as “unfair randomness.” Hoping to get on that sexy, channel marketing strategy project and utilize your marketing degree? Well, if your partners are only selling Oracle implementations, that’s what you’ll be staffed on. The consulting world is driven by the demand from clients, not by the expertise of consulting personnel.”

    This sounds a lot like the military too. Often they’re not concerned about putting the right person in the right job, rather the convenient person in that job. At the end of the day its all about plugging people of a certain rank to make sure the “critical” jobs are filled. The process is about as predictable as throwing a fistful of darts at a dartboard.

    Great post.

  • Inthebigfive

    Mark,

    I agree with most of your points. But one thing that you didn’t consider is the exposure you have with the clients you work with, So your exit strategy is easier than you think it is. Other point is the money you receive in 5 to 6 years is enough to provide you a economic stabilization that can facilitate your decision to change career. Its important to say too that you can aim to be a partner. I don’t think its that difficult. What do you think?
    Sorry for the bad English.