Insights on Consulting

By Jejhar Singh

The Discovery+ Series is a series of events, delivered through online digital solutions, that give students the chance to speak directly with working professionals, and learn about careers they aspire to enter. Given the developments in the COVID-19 situation, Advisory is keen to provide support to the many students who are experiencing woes in this time of disruptions, by digitalising professional mentorship. 

On 28 April 2020, Advisory organised our third Discovery+ online panel: Discover+: Consulting. On our panel, we were privileged to have with us Lee Jee Soo, Associate from the Boston Consulting Group; Jonathan Ang, Associate from Ernst & Young; Melanie Tan, Innovation Consultant from Deloitte; and Regine Chan, Business Analyst from McKinsey & Company.

Our registered participants comprised students from various education levels and institutions with a common curiosity in the prospects of a career in the consultancy industry, what they could do to best prepare themselves for just such a career, and how to stay up-to-date in this fast paced industry.

There are many people from different academic backgrounds in the consulting industry. However, relevant work experience; or participation in case competitions; or membership and involvement in entrepreneurial, consulting, or case societies and clubs, do improve your chances of landing the job. Relevant experience is not so specific that it must be from working or interning at a consulting firm or in a consulting role. Internships such as working at a government agency, dealing with policy changes or data analytics; or working for a public relations firm, could also be relevant. This is because these could also help you to develop interpersonal skills for collaborative problem-solving, and technical expertise in solutioning, through such approaches as data analytics, problem structuring, or policy work. All of these would greatly benefit those seeking a career in consulting. In a nutshell then, what you study in university or another education institution does not matter as much as building up your experience in work which is relevant to the consulting industry.

Do not overlook your résumé as it is a crucial part of your application. It is an opportunity for you to showcase choice work you had previously undertaken; and to contextualise your skills, the scope and scale of your previous responsibilities, and your impact in those capacities. Most recruiters do not spend more than 2 minutes on any given résumé, so you will have to be succinct and impactful in curating your work experiences for the job to which you are applying. You should be able to demonstrate mastery of the critical skills required for the role you desire in the first five words of each sentence or bullet point in your résumé. Doing so ensures that the recruiter can see immediately what skills you have in any given line they read. A well-crafted résumé goes a long way to persuade its reader that it describes the more—even the most—desirable candidate. 

Case interviews usually follow applications. Preparing for your case interview(s) is an equally essential skill you need to become competent at, should you hope to increase your likelihood of securing the job you want. Cases evaluate how quickly and proficiently you are able to structure problems and communicate your ideas, providing the interviewer with a demonstrable sense of your mastery of the skills needed on a daily basis as a management consultant. You can prepare for case interviews by reading up on sample cases; viewing demonstrations to pick up on positive aspects you can learn from and red flags to avoid; rehearsing and working on your delivery; peer learning and testing, preparing for these with someone else in the process; or even modelling after a mentor who may offer you a mock interview or case interview simulation. 

You should approach individuals with at least a few years’ experience. LinkedIn is a good platform for doing so, and you should state your intentions plainly and concisely. This is called cold-calling, which could occur over messaging or email. Do not be afraid to ask for help or guidance politely, however abrupt this may seem. Despite the low response rates—which only means you should do many more of these to better your odds for a favourable response—cold-calling shows your eagerness to learn and demonstrates your initiative. The conversations and connections that result may also eventually lead to recommendations or interviews for you, if you are wise about it..

Other avenues for approaching potential mentors include approaching consultants who are invited as guests to events organised by case competitions or clubs. Signing up for other consultancy events will provide you the opportunity to speak directly with consultants who may have been panellists, after the event as well. In these cases, even if those you approach do not take you on as a mentee, they might be happy to put you in touch with someone else who may be able to do so.. Elsewhere, there might be mentorship programmes designed specifically to connect you with senior consultants in the field, whose years of experience suitably position them to be potential mentors. Try to reach out to as many people as possible: you miss 100% of the shots you do not take.

Days usually start at about 9 AM at the client’s site or office. Most of the day is spent problem-solving with the team and interacting with clients. Often, meals can be charged to the client as company expenses. In these cases, there is also the tendency to eat out with our clients in order to get to know them and fellow teammates better, which in turn both builds team spirit and helps consultants to better understand our clients’ concerns, through the more relaxed setting. Back at the office, time is spent analysing data, problem-solving, and identifying key areas to focus on: looking into such areas as the average amount spent by the client’s customers; the payment methods preferred by the client’s customers; and the demographics of the client’s customer base. Through the use of such data, consultants engineer solutions, for example, to help clients better market their products. Days can end around 9 PM — or even after midnight. After that, consultants finally get to  head home; or head to company- or client-arranged accommodations, if based overseas.

Consultancy can be an overwhelming job for anyone—not just introverts—especially if the day is packed and you are constantly rushing between appointments. To cope, it is good to spend some downtime in the evenings or on the weekends taking stock of the day’s or week’s happenings to regain your bearings. It is also a good idea to set aside dedicated time for friends and family, and for you to focus on learning new things or work on your other passions and hobbies. Work-life balance is essential, and one should not base their entire identity on their consulting career!

Increasingly, consultancy firms have been moving away from solely conducting strategy towards implementation as well. This means that where consultants previously worked alongside clients to co-create solutions to meet clients’ needs, consultants now also play a part in operationalising these solutions. This is so because of a growing awareness that—more often than not—it is the client’s first time dealing with an external consulting firm, and merely providing the solution may not be enough. Providing the additional help to implement the solution thus adds value to problem-solving consultancy services and to clients’ experience with external consultants. Of course there are trade-offs for this. Strategy projects which previously ran for an average of 1 to 2 months could now last 6 to 8 months, when factoring in the process of implementation.

Some consultancy firms are also beginning to become more specialised in areas such as Artificial Intelligence and digital integration. This is so that consultants can capitalise on broader trends in the workplace, so as to cater to a more varied range of clients—from start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises, which previously were not really part of the consultancy clientele base, all the way to multinational corporations. Another trend in consulting is the growing number of non-consultancy firms seeking to develop their own “in-house” consultancy capabilities. This means firms that might have formed the consultancy clientele base before now hire their own company’s consultants, instead of outsourcing or tendering this work to consulting firms external to the company. As such, there has been a departure from the traditional model of client-consultant interactions. Some non-consultancy firms believe that having an organic team of in-house consultants improves communication and allows for more tailored solutions, given that the consultants in this case are integral to the structure, function, and employee payroll of the firm. This should mean that in-house consultants are already familiar with the firm’s specific needs and their coworkers in that firm, removing the impedimentary barrier that may exist between external consultants and their clients, who do not necessarily know each other well from the onset of working together.