Insights on Consulting

By Kagen Lim and Muhammad Dhafer

The Discovery+ Series is a series of events, delivered through online digital solutions, which 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 20 April 2021, Advisory organised a Discovery+ online panel: Discovery+: Consulting. On our panel that evening, we were privileged to have experienced professionals from various corporations. The panel consisted of Mr Jia Yong Goh, Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young; Mr Abhineet Kaul, Head, Public Sector & Government Consulting (Asia-Pacific), Frost & Sullivan; Mr Hans Canggadibrata, Principal, Boston Consulting Group; Mr Jiawen Chia, Director, Group Strategy, Singtel; and Mr Justin Halim, Vice President, APAC Digital Marketing and E-Commerce Practice Head, Bain & Company. Our registered participants comprised students from various education levels and institutions with a common curiosity in consulting, and what they can do to better stead themselves in entering and staying relevant.

What motivated you to join the consulting industry?

As a profession, consulting entails making sense of industry and the corporate world as a whole. One can be drawn to the ability to gain a deeper understanding of the industry and the stakeholders involved. This makes a career in consulting an opportunity to learn many things in a short period of time. The work in the field involves adding value to companies and aiding them in optimising their processes. Hence, consulting is a very dynamic career as the entire portfolio changes from project to project, making it a vigorous and exciting experience. As such, there is also great breadth in the different markets and resources that one will have to research in the field. Panelists mentioned that if one is a curious person, they would be a good fit for the industry as it is necessary to have the drive to learn new things and seek further knowledge. Although some people may get an MBA to enter consulting, it is not a necessary prerequisite. 

What are some myths about the consulting industry, and what is working in the industry really like?

While consulting has a reputation for long working hours, it is actually the case that any role in various industries would have long hours as employees start their careers. It is ultimately dependent on the individual’s ability to manage time and other factors that they can control to ensure a work-life balance. After a few years, the working hours do get better with career progression. In addition, there are lull periods, where there may be shorter hours. Even during peak periods, these experiences are shared with your colleagues and you will not have to go through it alone. 

In the case that working hours get longer, some active steps are taken within a project to deal with it. Companies also have satisfaction surveys on a regular basis, sometimes weekly to check in on employees’ well-being. These are checked with case leaders so that changes can be made if there are any issues with the intensity of work. In a good team, one may find that members look out for each other, even during the thick of a project.

What makes a good consultant?

A good consultant would have a high tolerance for ambiguity. The information provided to a consultant may not be very detailed and can be as simple as ‘I need to increase revenue’. The flexibility to adapt to the client’s demands and different situations is essential for consultants. If you would like to get a sense of the work required, you may look up the book, Case Interview Preparation by Victor Cheng. If you enjoy the exercises in the book, consulting may be a good fit for you. 

In addition, a good consultant is not afraid of making mistakes and is willing to explore and go the extra mile to learn more about the project. Being resourceful and having data skills is helpful in helping consultants do the groundwork on the information in the project. There is no point in discussing with limited information, so taking the first step to ask for more details is pertinent. 

Relationship management is also key to ensure cooperation with the client. There are two acid tests that recruiters may look for in interviewing an employee would be their potential to rise within the firm and whether they are able to maintain relationships. It is also crucial to have structured thinking and business skills to succeed in the consulting industry. In particular, if one is able to think long term, this can prevent future problems. As with any other industry, there is occasionally unglamorous work that needs to be done. Team players who are willing to do this and bring up team morale while doing so are highly sought for.

There is some criticism of consulting as not adding value, what are your views on this?

Consulting definitely adds value, especially in its role in advising the biggest companies in the world. Consultants have a wealth of experience due to the diversity of fields that they work in. For instance, they have expertise in government regulations that companies may not have. They also have a greater quantity of experiences, such as having seen more mergers and acquisitions than clients may have experienced due to their role working with different companies. 

There has also been a shift in the work done by the consulting industry. For some projects with an operational component, this involves nailing the execution of projects, not just providing great ideas. There must also be a value-add to what clients already have within their companies.

What skills are necessary for work in the consulting industry?

With regards to formal education, having a background in finance, accounting or economics is quite important. Having said that, having structured thinking would be more valuable to companies. Possessing general and industrial knowledge would also be crucial to consulting. Soft skills, such as staying curious are also useful for this line of work. On the topic of hard skills, having digital skills such as advanced analytics and digital marketing may be useful. If one can learn such skills more quickly, then one can focus on consulting-specific skills more when one eventually gets into the job.

What are current trends in the consulting industry?

Current trends in consulting currently lean more towards implementation. All of the money in consulting comes from almost year-long projects for long projects on digital transformation. Advanced analytics have also been growing in relevance. Statistics on Excel may no longer be enough, as learning some form of scripting language may be helpful. Due to its increasing importance, having knowledge in sustainability is also crucial.

How do more senior or junior professionals break into consulting, at a later stage of their career?

Experienced professionals are very helpful for solving problems that continually come up for clients. These problems could be general ones, that may require some form of skill or industry-specific, which may need more defined expertise. In fact, consultants themselves are encouraged to go out and explore other roles, especially since there are very strong alumni networks for firms. 

At any level, articulating your value is important, even for junior professionals. More junior professionals might be involved in more grunt work like financial modelling or working on slides. At more senior levels, one would be less likely to work on the nitty-gritty. However, specialisations may come in more specific horizontals like digital technology, which is becoming more common.

What are some tips for deciding on what to do within the field of consulting? Are internships necessary?

There are external consultants (dedicated agencies) or internal consultants (consultants hired for strategy within a company). It may be good to start off with being an external consultant in one’s career, although this is not a hard and fast rule. Internal consultants tend to be rotated out after a few years. Prior experience or knowledge in industries also helps.

In interviews, you can take the opportunity to talk about cases that you have worked on. Having the kind of broad perspective you would get from an MBA may help too, especially in getting the business language nailed down. To prepare to enter the industry, asking good questions about the firm and job would be important. During case interviews, you can read up on public case studies. Having good knowledge of sectors by doing cases is useful too. However, one can never be fully prepared by what sector comes out in an interview. Having some knowledge or frameworks on how to approach cases can help.