Professional services is a broad term used to describe any organisation whose core business is to serve and support other businesses. These services can range from accounting and audit, advertising, investment banking, strategy consulting to tax advisory. Organisations that provide these services can be anything from large multinationals to one-person businesses offering specialist advice. This article is the second in a two-part series, highlighting the ins and outs of choosing to work in-house or in professional services.
What is common across all professional services organisations is the need for talent. These organisations are typically on the lookout for smart graduates who are analytical, able to think critically and explore solutions to complex problems.
For the purposes of this overview, we have grouped professional services into three key categories: 1) accounting and advisory services; 2) consultancies and 3) banks and financial services. Below is a brief description of each:
These organisations provide accounting and auditing services, as well as advice on areas such as tax, risk, insolvency and restructuring. Organisations may offer the full suite of these services, such as the Big Four accounting firms, or specialise in one or two of these areas. For example, there are many smaller accounting firms or freelancers, which focus primarily on assisting individuals and businesses with their accounting needs.
The word consulting is often bandied about and as a result, it can be quite confusing as to what it really means – or what a person actually does when they say they consult! In this context, we refer to consultancies as management consultancies that offer either strategy advice or specialise in operations, process and technology. Some of the best-known consultancies include global operators such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) or Bain & Co, as well as boutique firms including Port Jackson Partners, which all specialise in strategy consulting. Alternatively, organisations such as Partners in Performance and Accenture, as well as some accounting firms, focus on operations, process and technology.
Commercial banks such as the Big Four banks and other smaller or regional banks such as the Bank of Queensland, offer banking services to businesses and larger corporations or institutions such as the government. Investment banks offer services including helping organisations to list on the stock exchange or merge or acquire other organisations. Financial service organisations may also include management funds and hedge funds.
Most high-profile professional services organisations run competitive graduate recruitment programs. The application process for these programs is rigorous and highly competitive. For example, at McKinsey – perhaps the world’s best-known consultancy firm – applicants who make it past the initial CV evaluations are expected to complete up to six fifty-minute interviews, during some of which they will be required to solve hypothetical business problems on the spot. They are also given a multiple-choice problem-solving test. If candidates are unsuccessful, they must wait for up to eighteen months before applying again.
Many professional services organisations require graduates to apply within a certain period after finishing their undergraduate degree. Otherwise, it’s not unusual for them to expect candidates to have evidence of impressive professional experience or a second degree.
Professional services employees serve two bosses: first, there is the company that employs them (for example, BCG or Accenture); and then there is the ‘client’, an external organisation that comes to the professional services organisation because it has some sort of problem that needs to be solved.
The type of work you will be expected to do will depend on your area of specialisation. For example, if you’re working in strategy consulting, you’ll be required to address a range of challenges, from navigating a complex merger to providing strategic advice on how best to launch a new product. It’s not unusual for employees dealing with such challenges to go on secondment, or in other words, be based at the headquarters of their client, rather than their primary employer. At the very least, travel is usually a requirement. A typical consultant’s week, for example, may see Mondays to Thursdays on site and Fridays back in the office. As you will often need to work with a range of stakeholders to complete projects, it’s important you are able to create productive professional relationships with confidence and skill.
Working at a professional services organisation definitely has its perks. The more prestigious providers aim to attract and retain standout graduates by offering lucrative salaries, bonuses and appealing conditions including support for further postgraduate study such as an overseas MBA.
Working in professional services can be exciting – no project is ever exactly the same, you work with a variety of clients and have the opportunity to travel interstate and even overseas to work directly with companies. If variety is your spice of life, professional services definitely has you covered.
A career in professional services however does have some drawbacks. The travel can be relentless, especially when working for large national or multinational firms. As you’re in the business of serving organisations, you’re expected to be available even if that means working long hours and sometimes into the weekend to meet deadlines or client expectations. Furthermore, the culture can be intense. Several professional services firms take an ‘up or out’ approach to employee development – that is, one is either promoted or asked to leave.
The most prominent professional services organisations are global entities that employ thousands of employees across the globe. They are also hierarchical, which means that your career trajectory within a given firm is usually quite clear. For example, at Deloitte, graduates usually spend their first year as an associate, become a ‘senior’ in their third year, a manager in their fifth or sixth year, a senior manager in their ninth year, and finally, a director or partner in their twelfth year.
Professional services offer an unparalleled opportunity to network, which is great if you decide to pursue a range of subsequent careers, for example, moving in-house with a client or changing careers entirely. Furthermore, working at a prestigious organisation can help give you a stamp of approval for future endeavours. It is widely assumed that having worked at a top-tier investment bank or management consultancy, you have the smarts and work ethic required for other roles.
Choose this if you:
To find out about starting your graduate career in-house instead of in professional services, read part one in this series.