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The career paths available to consultants  are diverse. You can go into (a relevant) industry for a few years before going back to your consulting firm in a more senior position. You can stay at your current firm and keep moving up the ranks. You can move to a different consulting firm, if that improves your prospects. And you can also move into industry for good. The important thing to remember is to choose the best option for personal goals and career plans – for example, if you are planning to leave for a lighter workload, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that industry will automatically provide that. You might actually find a different consulting firm more flexible.

So, you’ve graduated, spent a few years with a tier 1 consulting firm, progressed nicely and you’re starting to think about a change. But what are the career paths available to those who have trained with a leading player?

Well, as with most questions to do with consulting the answer is, “it depends”.

It depends on what you want out of your next role, (we’ve previously written an article on popular post-consulting industries) where you want it to lead you. There are many paths open to you at this stage: Do you want to be a Partner? Do you want to end up at board level within FTSE 100? Is more study important to you? Is there an industry sector or functional speciality you wish to dedicate yourself to? Do you want to get to a certain level to maximise your earnings and then look for a better work/life balance? Would you like to freelance or even start you own consulting business?

Many top firms encourage their consultants to spend a few years in industry before coming back into consulting. This experience often makes them better consultants as they have seen both sides of the fence and find it easier to empathise with clients. The key with this model is not to stay out of consulting for too long; 2-5 years is ideal. It can be difficult to go back into a consultancy knowing that those you left behind have progressed more quickly than you in the meantime, even if the experiences you have gained may be more valuable in the longer term. This is coupled with some consultancies’ perception that you have been out of consulting for too long and are now of a different mindset.

One option is to stay where you are. If you are happy with the leadership of the firm, feel that you are progressing well and that it is in their interests to develop you, then although the grass may look greener elsewhere, it may be sensible to stay put. Keep an ear to the ground, but concentrate on your own firm and wait until there is a significant push or pull factor before exploring the market. That way, you are in a good position to start planning your next move well in advance. Most reputable headhunters are always happy to speak to good candidates even if it’s just to establish a connection or to learn about the market. Look for people who have been working in the sector for a long time and understand the landscape well.

Another option is to move to another consultancy firm. Reasons for this may be because you are unhappy with something at your own firm, for example, the lifestyle (long hours or too much travel) or the lack of progression – not because of your own ability but because of a bottleneck in the organisational structure. It may be that you feel the firm is becoming too technology-focused and you want to be more operationally focused, maybe you’re working with a small firm/brand and want to experience a bigger one or vice versa or because you want to work in one sector rather than be a generalist. It may be because you feel undervalued (or underpaid). Either way, a move to another consultancy can kick-start your career, although you do need to do your due diligence. Is the person who interviews you the person you will end up working for? Is leaving your old internal network behind and having to build a new one going to be easy? Will your external network follow you? Who owns the firm and what are their motives?

Moving into industry can have huge benefits in augmenting your profile and improving your work/life balance. Again it is important to find out who pays for an internal strategy consultant. Is it a self-financing profit centre or has it been created on the whim of a Director who may not be there in 18 months time? Are the amount of change and need for internal consultants a finite period and if so, are there further landing points within the company when this comes to an end? What is career progression like? If you want to move back into consulting is this the right industry to be in? Is it a growing or declining sector? These are all questions you must ask yourself before taking a role. Many people fall into the trap of taking a nice pay raise or bonus and a cushy job only to find three years later they are stuck.

When moving back into an external consulting role you may have to take a step back to take two steps forward. This is because progression within a professional services firm often relies on the ability to develop work. Although you may have been working at a senior level within an end user, without the ability to grow revenue it is difficult to get a senior role within a consulting firm unless it is as a subject matter expert. Sometimes a high salary can be a barrier to moving to a better role and hence better long term progression.

Alongside this, there can sometimes be the notion that by moving from a strategy firm to a Big 4 or industry role that the workload will lighten, consultants in these positions also tend to be paid more. This again can be a misconception. If a Big 4 are paying you as a Senior Manager and expecting you to progress, then the hours will be equally demanding, you just tend to work a little further down the value chain although the prize of becoming a Big 4 Partner in terms of scale and hence remuneration is normally far in excess of a similar role within a strategy firm. If someone is paying you what they perceive to be a lot of money they expect their pound of flesh in return. 

Another option is to go freelance. This can be very lucrative in the short term and a good way to gain experience of running your own business if you decide to form a limited company to do so. One issue I see time and time again is that it is difficult to progress if you are a contractor as your employer is much more likely to invest or promote permanent employees, so after a few years of doing the same thing over and over again for the same money it can become boring and depending on what is happening in your personal life. You may miss the security of a regular monthly salary and the benefits that go along with that (Paid holiday, sick/compassionate leave, health insurance, life cover, training etc.). Key issues I face when trying to get someone into a permanent role after freelancing for a while is pay, as often there is an initial hit to get back on the career ladder. Long-term freelancers can become labelled as ‘contractors’ who are only taking a permanent role because their pipeline has dried up, so the prospective employer may think you’ll take off when the offer of a few hundred pounds a day extra come along in the form of a freelance contract.

Some decide that further study will aid their career aims. Be careful with this. I’ve seen many people spend a small fortune on an MBA thinking it will be some kind of magic solution to a faltering career only to find that they still can’t get a job in their chosen field. Make sure you are doing further study for the right reasons. Many Partners in many firms don’t have postgraduate qualifications although many strat firms do favour them. In a booming job market a good MBA can open many doors, but depending at what stage of your career you are at, what experience and qualifications you already hold and what your expectations and motivations for undertaking further study are, how much value it adds can be questionable.

As you progress in your career the long-term objectives become more important than the shorter term ones, and the value of network and reputation increase. It is worth investing time on thinking about your career plan before embarking on a new job hunt especially if it’s a knee-jerk response to a bad day or a falling out with your manager, or not getting the bonus you were promised.

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