It’s a highly demanding career path, often consisting of 60+ hour weeks filled with meetings, presentations, and a lot of number crunching.
It’s also a hugely rewarding sector to work in, offering lucrative consultant salaries, bonuses, and the chance to travel and work on projects with some of the world’s leading companies.
Success in the industry requires a unique set of skills. To find out just what’s required, we spoke with insiders at four leading management consulting firms: McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Strategy&—the consulting arm of big four accounting and professional services firm, PwC.
Here are seven key management consultant skills they identified.
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1. Problem solving
Problem solving is at the heart of everything you do as a management consultant. Work revolves around completing projects for clients, each project poses a unique problem the client needs solving in order to benefit the business.
After completing a project, consultants typically move on quickly to the next one, often with a new client operating in a different industry. Shifting between projects means you’re constantly required to find new ways to solve unique, complex issues.
“We look for people who have the curiosity to solve problems. Are they comfortable with ambiguity and looking at different points of view, seeking new ways of learning, and thinking?” says Amber Grewal, global head of recruiting at BCG.
“There's no way to really box someone, but we look for people who are passionate, curious learners, problem solvers.”
2. Analytical thinking
Early stages of a project involve research. Typically this means speaking with clients, employees, and other stakeholders, while also digging into the numbers and compiling data.
The next step is analyzing this information to find patterns and problems: “On a hard skills level, I think you need to be analytical and structured,” says Kseniia Kastusik, senior associate at Strategy&.
Strong analytical skills allow you to efficiently sift through information, finding out why a client is facing an issue and how it can be resolved. Experience in analytical work is therefore highly desirable among consultant recruiters.
“We're looking for people who have demonstrated analytic experience. We're looking for people that can get down the learning curve very quickly,” says Keith Bevans, global head of consultant recruiting at Bain.
3. Fast learning
To ensure they’re bringing value to the projects they work on, consultants must quickly become experts on a new client when beginning a new project. They have to learn the intricacies of a company, its practices, and the industry it operates in.
Foundational business knowledge is essential. That’s why MBA graduates are so popular with top consulting firms, as they have a broad business acumen and skills that are transferable across projects.
But equally important is an ability to learn at a rapid pace: “Your ability to learn quickly, what they often call speed of mind, I think is one thing that is very helpful,” says Sarah Schilling, project leader at BCG.
4. Tech skills
Consultants at top firms work for a wide variety of clients. Whether they’re legacy companies or newer tech-oriented firms, projects often involve solving an issue that’s related to a company’s digital proficiency.
Digital and tech-related skills are therefore an important part of the value that management consultants offer to clients. As technology has grown to become a key driver of business in recent decades, that importance, too, has grown.
“Digitization is changing the consulting industry, and therefore technology and digital skills are more necessary at McKinsey and with our clients,” explains Sydney Streets, senior manager of recruiting at the firm.
“Not everyone is a tech-focused consultant, of course, but we see more candidates who have coding, programming and other tech skills,”
5. Impact-led thinking
Providing solutions for clients means consultants can have a large influence on the companies they work with and their performance. A desire to make an impact is therefore at the heart of client work, and one of the key management consultant skills.
Successful consultants care about their clients and strive to help their performance, feels Sarah from BCG.
“A certain degree of empathy and wanting to work with clients is very helpful. Especially once you come towards more client-facing roles.”
Working with multinational companies—Fortune 500 companies regularly hire top consultants to work on projects—means the impact of working with one of the larger consulting firms extends beyond the client. Often your work can affect entire industries, recognition of this impact is something Keith looks for in new hires at Bain.
“We think our value proposition is unique because we do focus on these things. It's not just about doing work to keep people utilised, it's not just about doing work to keep people busy, it's about doing work we're really proud to do.”
Soft skills are an essential component of working with clients on demanding projects. None more so than communication: management consultants hold meetings, present strategies, and interact with clients on a regular basis. Being able to communicate effectively is key to a successful working relationship.
“You need a lot of soft skills in consulting, because you work with clients, you work with different people, you don't have a fixed team, you have a new team, every project, so you need to be good with people,” says Kseniia from Strategy&.
“You have to be to be able to read the room to adapt to a situation, and you need to have confidence.”
Earning lucrative salaries and working with the world’s largest companies makes management consulting a rewarding career path. It also raises the pressure and demands of the job.
Demanding projects can make 60 to 70 hour weeks a common occurrence, making work-life balance a challenge. The pressure to find solutions can also be frustrating when faced with difficult issues.
“You need a degree of resilience, you know, there are some nights where you're working longer hours for sure,” Sarah says.
The recruitment process for top consulting firms is a rigorous and competitive affair, with hiring managers searching for the candidates who can show they are dedicated, hard working, and resilient to setbacks.
“There's three things you need to hit the ground running: you need to be hardworking, you need to be reliable, and you need to be intellectually curious,” says Keith.
For more information on how to launch your career in consulting, including free advice from b-school careers experts, download our BusinessBecause Careers Guide: What's Next After Business School