How to choose the right consulting firm

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Brianne Turk
Brianne Turk
Team GradAustralia
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From size to structure to specialty, every consulting firm is different. Each factor can have a huge impact on a graduate’s professional development, future career path, and of course, their happiness. That’s why we urge graduates to consider all the factors before deciding which firms are a good fit for them.

When researching where you’d like to apply, the first question you should be asking yourself is ‘What type of consulting am I interested in?’. Is it tech consulting? Strategic consulting?

We’ve discussed the five main types of consulting here. If you haven’t had a look at this yet, you should definitely give it a read before continuing further. It’s the first step in determining a shortlist of firms that suit you.

Once you know what type of work you’re interested in, it’s time to think about the type of firm you’d like to work for.

Consulting firms are structured in three main ways, as generalist management consulting firms, boutique or ‘specialised’ consulting firms, and as internal consulting divisions within companies. Each should be carefully considered for the differences they offer in travel, wage, projects, firm size and culture.

Generalist management consulting firms

Generalist management consulting firms provide consultancy on a wide range of projects spanning different markets and industries. They are a one-stop-shop for clients to seek management advice covering the financial, operational, strategic, marketing and technological aspects of their business (and more!). They will be up to date with the latest business trends and draw on their broad experience across various industries to tackle the most pressing problems that their clients face.

Generalist management firms are often the biggest consulting firms, and can have offices in cities all around the world. Notable firms include Bain, Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Company.

Some graduates know exactly what type of consulting they are interested in. Good for them! If this isn’t you, a generalist management firm could be a great place to start. While working on projects for numerous clients in different sectors, graduates get a feel for where their skills and interests lie. This breadth of experience is a great launch pad for their career. Generalist management consulting firms suit those who like diversity and change, and have an interest in all things business related.  

Pros:     

  • Working across multiple industries, sectors and projects with clients of varying sizes
  • Provides opportunities to search for areas of interest
  • Projects are always changing, keeping employees interested
  • Provides opportunities for travel, both in short-term project work and potential transfers to interstate or international offices.  
  • Larger firms are likely to provide thorough training

Cons:    

  • Working on projects outside areas of interest
  • Larger firms may offer less individual responsibility and recognition
  • Larger firms often have less camaraderie
  • Travel
  • Constant change doesn’t suit everyone

Boutique consulting firms

Boutique consulting firms provide expertise in a specialised area.

There is a common misconception that boutique firms are small firms, but the size has no bearing on whether it is classed in this category. While these firms are generally smaller than generalist management firms, they could house thousands of employees all the way down to one or two consultants.  

The area of specialisation within these firms can be quite broad or very narrow. Some will specialise in industries including technology and mining, while others specialise in types of consulting such as strategic consulting or human resources consulting. A very narrow specialisation may be a firm that focuses only on mergers and acquisitions.

Graduates need to consider that narrow consulting experience at the start of their career (such as mergers and acquisitions), could inhibit their employment options later on, if they then choose to move outside this area of specialty. However it could also fast track the career of a graduate who already knows which specialty they wish to work in.

Generally speaking, boutique consulting firms are a great choice for those who are passionate about, or have skills and experience in, a certain area/industry. It also suits those who prefer smaller firms. These consultants are still likely to have the opportunity to work with big name clients, as large companies are increasingly using boutiques over generalist management firms due to their extensive knowledge and experience in their specialty.

Boutique firms include NERA Economic Consulting, Accenture and Partners in Performance.

Pros:     

  • Opportunities to work and develop skills in an area of interest
  • Smaller firms often have stronger culture and camaraderie
  • Smaller teams allow for greater individual responsibility and recognition
  • Opportunities for fast-tracked career progression

Cons:    

  • The work is not as diverse therefore can become boring
  • May limit future employment possibilities if consulting experience is narrow
  • Income could be linked to the firm’s success (mostly in smaller firms)

Internal Consulting Divisions

Rather than paying for external consultants, some companies have created their own in-house departments known as internal consulting divisions. The main difference in this situation is that consultants work directly for the company rather than for a consulting firm who works for the company (client).

This set-up came about for a number of reasons. Firstly, the advice of an external consulting firm comes with a hefty price! Companies were wise to save money by creating these positions in-house. Secondly, the company benefits greatly by having a team of consultants who are dedicated to staying up to date with their products, market and industry. And thirdly, the convenience of an internal division means that companies have access to consultants at any time.

Despite being part of the company themselves, these consultants must have the skill to separate themselves and see projects objectively, just as external consultants do. Typically, they won’t be required to work the long hours associated with the profession and will also travel less frequently.

Unfortunately for graduates, many companies will transition existing employees into internal consulting roles or hand-pick experienced consultants from other firms. But that’s not to say graduate positions in this space don’t exist. If you are drawn to consulting but prioritise work/life balance over career progression, or are juggling family life, this type of role might be the right fit for you. You won’t be given as much exposure to different projects, industries and decision makers as those in a consulting firm, but you will have consistency within projects and your work schedule.

Companies that house internal consulting divisions are American Express, Johnson & Johnson, Vodafone Group and Disney.

Pro’s

  • Less working hours, offering greater work/life balance
  • Less travel, which could be good for families
  • In-depth understanding of the company and its products
  • Consistency

Con’s

  • Lower rate of pay
  • Less diversity in projects
  • Fewer travel opportunities
  • Experience can be narrow (depending on the company) which may impact future employment options

What else should I consider?

We know it can be a lengthy process, but once you’ve taken the time to consider which type of consulting firm you’re interested in, there’s still a whole host of factors to look at before deciding where to submit an application. While these suggestions won’t apply to everyone, you could also consider a firm’s:

  • Flexibility: Do they offer flexible working hours or work-from-home arrangements?
  • Training: How do they train graduates? Does this seem adequate?
  • Benefits: What are they? Well-being packages, leave etc.
  • Diversity & Inclusion: Will you feel respected in terms of your culture, religion & abilities?
  • Innovation: How innovative is the firm? Latest technology, new products/services etc.
  • Culture: Does the ‘vibe’ suit you? How formal or relaxed is the firm?

How do I find this out?

Luckily for you, Gradaustralia offers a wealth of inside information on our website. Check out our employer profiles, graduate reviews and graduate stories found through the Browse Employers and Top 100 pages. You will also find relevant articles in our Career Advice section, some of which will include photos and videos inside office spaces.  

Of course, consulting firms also provide a great deal of information on their websites, especially if they include employee interviews. You may have to do a bit of digging, but it’s worthwhile having a look at their various social media accounts too.

To get answers to specific questions, your best bet is to head along to careers fairs and open days to chat with firm representatives directly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and do your research, you can never be too prepared!

What if I’m still stuck?

We get it. There are many factors to weigh up when forming a shortlist of where you’d like to apply. If you become confused or overwhelmed, our best advice is to prioritise.  

If a small firm and individual responsibility are your top two priorities, look at boutique firms. From there you can consider factors you deem as less important.

If great training, diversity of projects and flexible working arrangements are all equally important, your first task is to sift through generalist management firms to find which ones offer greatest flexibility.

Taking the time to determine which firms are the right fit for you gives you the best chance of landing employment which satisfies you on all levels.

So off you go. Get that list of priorities in order.