How to successfully start your career as a management consultant

I recently worked on a project with a few new hires and they asked me what I thought were things they could do to start their time at the firm in the right direction. It’s a great question, and I spent some time thinking and writing down some thoughts because of the importance of this topic. (For the sake of this article, this is meant primarily for those starting at big consulting firms)

I’m inclined to believe that you wouldn’t enter the consulting industry if you didn’t know anything about it or if it didn’t interest you. But you need to understand first and foremost at the core of the value proposition and structure of a consulting firm. Consulting firms (generally speaking) do not own any assets — their assets are their people. So while tech companies pour R&D dollars into potential new products, Consulting firms pour dollars into investing in their people. So here is what you can do to start investing in yourself:

  • Understand the Firm: The very first thing you can do is to make sense of the firm, the people and how things generally operate. Learning this institutional knowledge is simple on paper but due to the size and complexity can sometimes be very difficult. This isn’t meant to be a plug to brainwash you, but to help you gain an asset that will pay dividends down the road. The more you can understand and articulate how the firm works, the better you can understand how to use it to your advantage.
  • Learn how to Learn: To stay relevant and trusted in a fast-moving industry you need to continuously build new skills so you can stay ahead of the curve. “Learning how to learn” is critical for being able to understand new concepts, skills, industries and capabilities in a short amount of time. Start by taking time to find the resources that will help you learn and build skills quickly. It can be anything from finding information sources (ex: websites, Twitter, etc) or to more advanced and formal learning such as online or in-person courses. Over the course of your consulting career, you’ll be constantly asked to learn new skills. The quicker you can get good at this and develop methods and tools to do this, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
  • Read Frequently: As a consultant, you will be constantly asked about your opinion and you’ll have to frequently share that with others. One of the best ways to have an informed opinion and to develop opinions and perspectives is to read and to read frequently. Read things that are directly related to the issue that your client is trying to solve. Read what’s going on in your client’s industry. Read things that are not directly related to either of those but are of interest as sometimes there are opportunities to spot connections from the related and unrelated. Most importantly, develop some sort of system that works for you which has a combination of resources that you continuously read and go to for information and insights.
  • Think ahead: In addition to solving the challenge your client has put in front of you, a good consultant also needs to be one step ahead of where their client might go next. You never know what your client might need, but if you can anticipate their challenges and gain the knowledge or insight on how to help them think through the challenge you will become an incredible asset to your client and potentially identify further opportunities for yourself and the firm. Reading frequently will help you think ahead, and serve as a great mechanism for helping your client spot problems and opportunities before they come to you for them.
  • Develop your Brand: Identifying the topics and capabilities you want to develop expertise in and building those capabilities is what will help build your reputation in the firm. If you need help figuring out your brand, answer this: If someone in the firm were to email you asking for help, what would you want to be known for? You may know the answer to that question yet, and that is okay. Start with thinking about your past skills and experiences along with what is in front of you for your current project and role and do your best to “own” those topics. You may not be known as an expert immediately, but that will change over time as you grow your knowledge and experiences. And that brand will evolve over time, as you learn and grow yourself.
  • Be resourceful: As important as it is to be knowledgeable and insightful, it’s impossible to know everything. That’s where knowing how to find the right answer or knowing the people who can find the right answer becomes critical to consulting. Taking the time to build true relationships with the people you meet when you work at the firm and then cultivating those relationships through digital and in-person means will be incredibly helpful over the time of your career here. There will be lots of times when you will need to call upon help from others and having those relationships will help you find the right people at the right time. Additionally, the tools and mechanisms you use to build these relationships will help you throughout the rest of your life, personally and professionally.

Consulting is a knowledge and serviced based business. Your value as a consultant is equivalent to the sum of your knowledge and your experiences. What you do to develop both knowledge and experience starts with you.