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Who's who in a consulting firm
‘But isn’t everyone who works in consulting called a consultant?’
From graduate recruits through to partners, the consulting hierarchy is largely consistent across firms. Confusion arises when an analyst role at at one firm is titled an associate at another. To help you get up to speed, here’s a run-down of ‘who’s who’ in a consulting firm.
Graduate & entry-level roles
Analyst, research analyst and associate are the most common titles for graduate recruits in Australia. Entry-level employees are not expected to have a wealth of industry experience (phew!), but have instead been selected for promising qualities including an inquisitive mind, business sense and problem solving potential.
What do they do?
Analysts are assigned projects where they work as part of a team under the supervision of a more experienced consultant. They will usually be given a specific part of the project to take ownership of, and contribute to the overall problem solving of the case.
Entry-level recruits spend their time researching and analysing data, often engaging with other project stakeholders or industry specialists to gather information. Analysts will complete the groundwork in order to put together presentations for the client. If you were hoping to present these findings to the client yourself, you’ll usually have to wait a few more years as this is typically the responsibility of a partner or more experienced consultant.
Research analysts are expected to have a bachelor's degree (at least), but it is generally understood that most training will occur on the job. Some firms, particularly the larger global firms, offer formal training which is often held off site soon after recruits join (two weeks in Hong Kong, anyone?). More commonly, senior mentors are allocated to new recruits to oversee on the job training and development. Mentors will aim to provide feedback, support, and constructive criticism, and assign projects that continually stretch an analyst’s capacity.
Entry-level recruits typically spend 2-3 years in their first role and gain experience in a number of industries. After 2-3 years, it’s time to either move ‘up or out’.
If both the employee and firm are happy, the associate/research analyst will move up to a mid-level position. Not all analysts are deemed suitable (by the firm) to continue to mid-level positions. As a natural transition point in the career, many analysts use their newly acquired skills to move across to a career ‘in-house’. Long-term relationships are key in this profession, so firms will usually go the extra mile to help place outgoing analysts in a suitable role (often ‘in-house’ with a client!). All going to plan, these former employees go on to become a senior manager and come back to the firm one day as a client!
At this level, most professionals will be referred to as consultants, junior consultants or sometimes even associates. In some instances consultants will be sponsored by the firm to complete an MBA or postgraduate studies, but this is more common in the US than it is in Australia.
What do they do?
Moving from entry-level to mid-level roles, there’s often not a huge difference in day-to-day tasks. Instead, the difference is in the increasing responsibility. Consultants at this level are expected to tackle more significant parts of a project, manage their work with less guidance and take on a mentorship role with junior employees. They will also increasingly take on roles where they are managing relationships with the client.
Consultants will usually occupy this role for 2-5 years, gaining greater responsibility with time. Some firms progress individuals from junior consultant to consultant, while others will hold the consultant title for the entirety of this time.
Again, this stage is a natural transition point where employees will either move to other fields (voluntarily or otherwise) or progress within the firm. To progress, they must demonstrate both managerial skills and areas of strength/specialisation which will shape their career path.
Those in management roles are commonly referred to as project leaders, managers or executives. These roles largely consist of overseeing project work.
What do they do?
Project leaders manage a team of analysts and consultants, directing ‘who does what’ on a project. They are a step removed from the day to day case work and will manage staff, resolve issues and liaise with the client. Their aim is to build a strong relationship with the client while reporting on progress and presenting findings. They also keep the partner up to speed.
Progressing from project leader, a manager/executive is given multiple projects to manage at the same time. As they begin to work directly with the firm’s high-end clients, the complexity of work increases as does their level of responsibility.
Managers network and build relationships with existing and prospective clients. Not only should this bring in more work for the firm, but it can also be vital for progressing to the partnership level. Firms have been known to seek the opinion of top-tier clients on whether a manager should be offered a partner position. How’s that for incentive!
At this point there is no ‘standard’ timeframe, but 10+ years in a management role would usually be expected. Only around 1 in 5 managers at this level will progress to the partnership. For those who do progress, it is really up to the individual’s performance and the firm’s discretion as to when. Let’s just say you might be pushing it if you wanted to make partner by 40!
Partners and Directors
We’re finally at the top. Partners, principals and directors are the titles you’ll see at the top of a consulting firm. It’s time to dream big.
What do they do?
A partner/principal focuses on the big picture and long term strategy; how to bring in more work, attract the best consulting talent, and grow the intellectual capital of the firm. They will decide how to allocate the firm’s resources to deliver results and draw on their extensive experience to direct teams on how to tackle the client’s most pressing problems. Partners demonstrate elite managerial skills and are ruthless and creative in their approach to solving their client’s problems and advancing the firm.
The majority of consulting firms are partnerships. This is managed in various ways, including partners having both equity in, and receiving dividends from, the firm.
There is huge financial gain that comes from becoming a partner or principal, which compensates for the equally huge responsibility and stress the role typically brings. It isn’t uncommon for a firm to link a partner’s salary to how much they sell, which both acts as an incentive to the partner, and decreases the risk to the firm of the partner underperforming.
Some professionals at this level are not interested in the added baggage (and perks!) that being partner brings. Instead they opt for the position of director. While not all firms have this role, a director supports partners by providing expertise in a specialised area. A director’s salary does not match that of a partner, in line with the position’s lower levels of stress and responsibility.
How long can you handle it?
As directors and partners cannot progress within the firm, they will stay in this role until they exit the firm or retire.
Wait... so does every firm follow this career progression?
There are always exceptions! Larger firms will tend to follow a structured approach to career progression and job roles. Smaller boutiques can be more adaptable, and can sometimes allow consultants to shape their career with more flexibility.