Graduates of collegiate management programs have no shortage of career options. From tech to financial services, every sector needs leaders with strategy and nuance. With so many possibilities, many graduates turn to management consulting gigs that allow them to apply their talents across a wide range of industries.
Though most management consultants work on only a few projects at a time, these opportunities put young professionals to the test. They take tech chops, but they also require soft skills like confidence, relationship-building, and personal branding.
If you're a management program graduate, you've got your work cut out for you. Here's what you need to keep in mind as you wade into the consulting waters:
1. Find a growth-focused culture.
A career in consulting is a great way to learn quickly, but management consultants can't grow in the wrong environment. Without a strong company culture, young professionals end up stuck in personal squabbles or crushing work schedules. Young consultants should seek companies where leaders invest in the development of their people and help them acquire new skills.
Look for signals that top-level leaders take an interest in entry-level workers' careers. At most companies, executives consider other responsibilities more important. When young team members, such as Lauren Hamilton of Credera, are given early opportunities to gain exposure with client executives, it's a good sign that a company cares about new hires' development.
2. Differentiate through specialization.
Many management consultants start as generalists, but specialists are the ones who tend to stand out. Rather than try to be everything to everyone, use your first few years in consulting to develop niche skills that few early-career consultants possess.
Enjoy finance? Pursue certification in advanced financial modeling. Prefer to work in a certain sector? Use a conference aggregator tool to watch for industry networking opportunities.
3. Learn strategy above all.
Become a specialist, but don't sacrifice your big-picture skills in the process. According to the 2019 High-End Talent Report by Business Talent Group, "strategy" is the most in-demand skill for independent consultants. Independent or employed, every management consultant must be able to predict how their decisions might play out.
Understanding is only half the battle: Senior leaders don't have time to talk through the details, so new consultants should develop their presentation skills.
4. Come prepared.
Management Consulted, which helps ambitious consultants land better jobs, recommends new graduates get into a habit of overpreparation. Don't be the fresh-eyed consultant who gets caught off guard when a VP asks for an update on a risk analysis due next week.
Impress colleagues and clients by familiarizing yourself with marquee partners and projects before the first meeting. Know the names and positions of everyone involved. Look at the competitive landscape so you can give context to every recommendation. And, of course, proofread emails for style and grammatical errors. Clients might ignore such mistakes after relationship-building, but don't expect it as a new consultant.
5. Cultivate a personal brand.
Building a positive personal brand might sound like a back-burner activity for new management consultants, but executives know better. Business leaders consider reputation damage their No. 1 risk concern, according to a Deloitte report. Of those who've faced a risk to their reputation, 41 percent told Deloitte that the greatest consequence was loss of revenue.
New management consultants aren't executives, to be fair, but executives worried about their own reputations won't hire a consultant with a tarnished brand to advise them. Don't let negative behaviors become habitual. Missed deadlines or poor deliverables can do irrevocable damage to a new consultant's career. Be punctual, maintain a professional demeanor and avoid gossip.
6. Never take relationships for granted.
Getting to know influential executives can certainly help your career, but the best opportunities rarely come from the places you expect. Rather than focus solely on connections with the high and mighty, get to know the workers who keep the gears turning. Assistants and planners are as responsible for executives' schedules and contracts as the executives themselves -- if not more so.
That might sound like an awful lot of relationship-building, but the acts people appreciate most are often small yet thoughtful. Author and business consultant Chester Elton points out how much it means to Avis staff members that one manager sends encouraging text messages each morning before work.
Simply saying "thank you" can create opportunities. Early in my consulting career, I was referred to several new clients by one who appreciated my willingness to work hard -- and my gratitude for the opportunity.
The beauty of a career in management consulting lies in its flexibility. Consultants work in a variety of industries, choose their clients and design strategies that lead to real-world changes. Those are great rewards, but they can't be claimed until consultants find the culture, connections, and confidence they need to thrive.