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What is management consulting?

I recently spent three weeks barn storming throughout India, teaching VRM(TM) awareness classes to our newest recruits. (VRM(TM), stands for Value Realization Method, and it is a proprietary set of tools and techniques, based on Free Cash Flow, that we use in conjunction with our Impact(TM) Framework to realize massive business value in large scale transformation programs.)  The number one question that I received during this training project, other than how VRM(TM) differs from other technical frameworks we use, was; "What is management consulting?" 


I recently spent three weeks barn storming throughout India, teaching VRM(TM) awareness classes to our newest recruits. (VRM(TM), stands for Value Realization Method, and it is a proprietary set of tools and techniques, based on Free Cash Flow, that we use in conjunction with our Impact(TM) Framework to realize massive business value in large scale transformation programs.)  The number one question that I received during this training project, other than how VRM(TM) differs from other technical frameworks we use, was; "What is management consulting?" 

At first, I gave short answers re-framing the word as if I were a walking dictionary; (i.e.,"giving advice to the leaders of the client"), but I quickly changed my tactic and asked; "Why do you ask?; What is it that you do not understand?"  After all, unlike other companies in our space, a large amount of our revenue comes from consulting, as we operate well up the value chain and invest in our clients' success.  What I heard back was eye opening.

It appears that the key reason that our young college graduates want to get into consulting is that they think they will be involved in the highest level of corporate strategy.  In effect, they want to "start at the top".

To me, as a management consultant professional, strategy is just one of the areas where consultants can make impact, and a very highly specialized one at that.  Even when I was a VP of Strategy, I would often hire consultants for all types of projects where my staff did not have a current or advanced skill set.  I always thought it was better to contract the best specialty consultant than hire a full time staff person for a part time need.

I'd like to hear where you come down on this.  What would you tell students hoping to get into the field?  What is the value of process consulting?  User experience design? What is the value of knowing what other companies are doing?  What is the value of a proprietary set of proven methods for managing change?  What does it mean to be a management consultant in 2012?"

Please weigh in!  I promise I will pass your ideas along!


I think you've hit the nail on the head! "I always thought it was better to contract the best specialty consultant than hire a full-time staff person for a part-time need."

The question you have raised is something that I too have come across when I have met students at business schools. I am not sure if we have the 'right' answer for this. Let me put in some thoughts on capabilities for management consultants:
a) An ability to help provide direction to a problem/issue, with logical steps of planning for the same or ability to trouble shoot an issue and guide towards a conclusion
b) While doing this, the consultant brings in experiential perspectives along with standard methodologies
c) One thing I always tell people is that no one is born a consultant; they have to learn to be one. Maturing as a good consultant comes with some level of experience of having seen hands on experience and problem solving - one does not become a consultant by talking some smart phrases. People see through that very fast.
d) It does help to have worked with some methodologies and tools also.
e) Being a management consultant/consultant requires some very hard work. You have to learn the client industry very quickly, understand the client business and issues, and provide solutions - sometimes all in very short time.
Having put in the all the above, one thing I tell new consultants is that there are 'wrong' or 'right' answers. What you validate the 'right' or 'wrong' with, is the main differentiator.

Management Consulting is one of those careers that brings a vision of strategic thinker, problem solver and corporate guru. I think that at some level that is true. However, after having spent many years in "consulting" and working at a wide variety of companies & industries, my perspective has evolved.

It often involves solving a specific issue or implementing a specific technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the business. There are countless hours working in the weeds of the organization talking with people and reading documentation. Not exciting but necessary.

Often company employees are so focused on their existing processes that they have little time to look at the broad picture. In essence they can get myopic in their view of the operations. This is where consultants can provide value. They have the benefit of working with other companies either in the client industry or others. They have seen what has worked well and what has not worked very well. Bringing these experiences to clients provides value beyond reading case studies. The teams have lived through different experiences and can make recommendations to improve the likelihood of organizational success.

Management consulting is as much of an art as it is science. Understanding organizations (structure, politics, people & personalities) is as important to being successful as being intellectually capable.

It is not all glamorous but the continuous learning and dedication to self development required of the position enable people to develop skills and experiences that transcend industries, remain relevant and provide career satisfaction beyond the paycheck.

"they think they will be involved in the highest level of corporate strategy. In effect, they want to "start at the top"."

One day the students might indeed be involved in the highest level of corporate strategy. But, this will come after years of experience.

Keep in mind that the C-level folks want answers from consultants that they consider experienced or experts in their particular industry.

Mr. O'Dillion-

The use of specialized service providers in lieu of hiring makes good economic sense. Likewise, the use of a global workforce can be cost efficient.

Another dimension, however, presents itself when a company (we call them clients) is not able to execute a project on their own, either because they do not have current experience or they have never undertaken a project of such large (and technical) proportions.

If you review Mr. Royer's comments below, he makes the point that management consulting is not as glamorous as some young entrants into the field expect. In fact they may spend years doing testing, requirements gathering and process maps before they ever conduct a strategic analysis. This can be very frustrating. I am trying to explore the spectrum of management consulting and its expected evolution.

I think that many clients choose to use outside consultants because they want a "guarantee" that things will be done right, and this can be true for any mission critical project in which failure is not an option.

What do you and others think?

Mr. Panda-

Your comments are very insightful. It appears that you agree with me that there is no way to “start at the top”, regardless of the “buzz” words you may have learned in business school.

What intrigues me is your statement that, “What you validate the 'right' or 'wrong' with, is the main differentiator.”

I assume that you are talking about accelerators and consulting tools created by senior consultants and proven in successful engagements. If this is the case, I agree with you. Many of the problems we solve are somewhat counter intuitive and defy simple analysis. We try to reduce as many subjective factors as possible into metrics that we can test in multiple sensitivity analyses.

A quick way for a new management consultant to get up to speed is to use a tool (intellectual property) that has been refined by multiple teams over the years and apply it to a current business (or transformation) problem which they face.
This is part of “group intelligence” and requires a considerable investment on the part of the consulting company. Essentially, we stand on the shoulders of all of those that have come before. Identifying a “wrong” answer that was universally consider “right” is a defining moment for a young consultant.

I would like to hear from some younger generation consultants. Is it possible to “start at the top”? What are the keys to getting to the top sooner?

Please weigh in!

Mr Royer-

Like you, I get significant satisfaction "beyond the paycheck" from being a management consultant.

There is a certain energy level required. When many of the client employees are heading home at the end of the day, the consultants job is just beginning. A 10 hour day is normal, and it often goes well beyond that. Stamina is one area where I have been impressed with many of my collegues. Sometimes when I am hitting the wall, they are still heads down and humming along. Some people seem to prefer this pace, as it fits their metabolism

Question: Is there a management consulting "personality type"?

I'd like hear what you and others think.


There is a certain irony in using Management Consultants; as the benefits outweigh the costs. I call this 'ironic' as the industry is often regaled as an expensive luxury, used to tell companies what they already know.
But this is the crux of the matter. With enough time, staff, resources, experience, methodology, structure, focus, knowledge, and money; any company could readily find the answer to some of the key challenges they face. Management Consulting allows all of these factors to be contracted and targeted on a particular problem or initiative at a fraction of the cost. This makes the consultants themselves a crucial tool, as they can bring all of the necessary background capabilities, and can be targeted in an efficient way, exactly where the Client may require. This makes the use of Consultants a Value Lever in their own right; the value they bring, and the value they deliver.
To a new entrant to this Consulting community, the benefits of instant access to Clients, and experience they gain of resolving complex business problems and initiatives makes this a fascinating and challenging career. Each engagement is different, even when focused upon the same scope as the Client and particular objective will vary. New recruits get to network at the highest level, involve themselves within complex scenarios and business logic, all the while building their experience in a way that few roles in the wider industry could provide.
For me, this dynamic is the most rewarding aspect of Consulting. A Management Consultant is challenged on each engagement to bring the best of their experience to resolve the particular issues and successfully close the engagement. The Client is able to immediately tap a wealth of expertise and focus on their particular business problem or opportunity. Both sides are involved in, and exchanging their respective units of, Value, and in equal parts, profiting in the process!

Mr. Byatt-
You cause me to pause and think deeper. That is an excellent point about the win-win nature of consulting, but you hit on something much more profound when you talk about new consultants; and you may be leading me to the answer of my "big question" (i.e., Can you start at the top?).
If an ambitious college graduate or young professional wants to get to the top of industry, we know that the traditional path within a large corporation will take some time. After proving themselves in one discipline, if they are fortunate, they will be "rotated" to another area and ultimately "spiral" their way to the top. VP at thirty is a considerable accomplishment, forty is probably more realistic. Some of the young professional I’ve met don’t want to wait that long.
The epiphany you have led me to is that Management Consulting may, in fact, be the quickest way to the top! At least it may be the quickest way to see what is happening at the top. Every person on a consulting team gets exposed to senior management and complex problems, people that they would rarely see inside a company, and problems they would not know about for years into their career.
Thank you for your insightful comment. I am still waiting to hear someone who represents the new consulting contingent. Please weigh in!

Jim -
As a recent college grad, I wanted to start my career in business as close as possible to the top. That's why I chose management consulting.

At the time, it also made sense to me why a company would want someone with no work experience. Clients need to own their decisions, so a consultant with no industry experience should be able to walk into any level of the client corporation with surveys, focus groups, and interviews to provide unbiased, data-driven analysis.

Unfortunately, my classes and internships did not prepare me for my first billable role where I was billing the client roughly $175/hour on a change management-focused (complex communications) role I still would struggle with today, after four years of management consulting experience. I remember myself feeling overwhelmed and distinctly aware that I was not meeting expectations or earning my rate. I blamed myself for my lack of experience and poor planning and communication skills, wishing that I was somehow born with sufficient intellect to overcome the fact that i had no real work experience yet.

I stayed with management consulting for a few years even though it seemed like a dead end job for me. I saw peers thrive on difficult projects, get promoted and do even better at the next level, while I was stagnating on the easiest "consulting" roles such as training and testing. I desperately wanted a process consulting role because that's where I saw the most value (especially for someone like me with no technical skills). All the Business Analyst roles were always getting staffed by experienced consultants or the new class of recruits.

At this point, I saw value in the frameworks that my consulting firm utilized, but it was only looking down from an academic, ivory tower viewpoint. It wasn't until I was staffed as a PMO Analyst (Program Management OFfice) at a Oracle Order-To-Cash implementation when I actually started learning consulting skills and appreciating frameworks.

Just by watching how the partners, program leads, and project track leads interacted with their client counterparts (I was lucky enough to be taking notes and/or driving ppt presentations during most important meetings), I realized that the EXPOSURE to management and leadership is the most valuable opportunity for new consultants like myself. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of my consulting experience was witnessing how program management (both from client and consulting) applies the consulting frameworks and how the client leadership (with the right guidance) can be convinced that using a framework can be a valuable and worthwhile endeavor.

So that's my perspective as a younger consultant. I don't view the management consulting role for recent college grads as a way to start at the top as much as a way to view how the top interacts.

Jim, I enjoyed reading your blog, as it raises some interesting aspects of Management Consulting. The outside viewpoint is one of the key ingredients when bringing in a consultant. Many times the company culture leads to some internal stagnation.

Mr D'Souza-

This is exactly the perspective I was looking for. I appreciate your candid and thoughtful remarks.

Management Consulting has evolved over the past few decades and has become a force to revitalize business. I think you are spot on when you say it is a way for a new business graduate to se "what is going on at the top".

I would like to get some perspective on how Management Consulting is evolving and what the next big thing might be. Any insight? Please weigh in!

Mr. Ferrari-

You make a good point about internal stagnation. Is it possible for a Management Consulting firm to also suffer from such stagnation? I'd like to hear everyone's perspective on how a Management Consulting firm can rejuvenate itself and keep evolving to serve its clients better. Please weigh in!

When it comes to growing any organization, hiring outside individuals can often times make a great deal of sense for the bottom line. If an organization needs to keep operations lean, hiring a new employee for a task is not always the right thing to do. it can be more potent to hire a consultant.

Since they are free of the entrapment of their “regular duties” and “the way we have always done things” from which employed staff is encumbered, consultants can bring fresh perspectives to an organization. However, this fresh perspective is valuable only if it results in practical recommendations, and experience is by far the best teacher of what is and what is not practical in organizations. There is certainly a role for newly minted business professionals in consulting organizations, but their work product must be carefully vetted by senior consultants to assure that it is more than theory. I started my career as a consultant and it was the most incredible learning experience I could possibly have had immediately following college. I was able to contribute much to our projects – at a far lower hourly rate than senior consultants – but I certainly would not have been the right person to choose an organization’s strategic focus.

Consul (mostly) - manage (where needed). Get out - before its too late :)
... and lest I forget: we get paid (hefty rates) to state in simple words what others know better.

It was great reading the blog and each of your comments. I am from the Testing background,and was looking to work as a consultant at some point in my career. I was looking to work as a consultant, because I thought it was necessarily problem solving with applying your experience and knowledge, assisted with specfic tools in project management. But as you guys have mentioned like any other field, people have to go through the hardwork and put in the efforts to become a good management consultant. Which brings me to the next point if an MBA required to become a consultant, or someboy like me who has worked in domains as diverse as healthcare, retail, ERP can be a good consultant with the necessary hardwork ?

Mr. Shukla-

I am not sure I follow your comment completely. I agree that we counsel (consulting is essentially providing counsel). I also agree that we have to manage expectations and outcomes. Where we may diverge is on the topic of pay and who knows the most. I, for one, feel that I am paid exactly what I am worth. Some of our partners bill at a rate twice mine and they are definitely worth it, as they bring so much more to the engagement in the way of experience and insight.

I also think that management consultants often know more about transition topics that some clients because our experience is more recent and more broadly scoped.

The comment that we probably disagree on the most is your comment about "getting out". Once I have worked intimately with client personnel in an engagement, I am virtually part of their team. When they appear in the news, I pay attention. I like to catch up (even over the phone) from time to time to see if the innovations that we installed are still proving their value.

Honest disagreement is an important part of the blogging world and I appreciate your point of view. I contend that I am not over paid, that I often know more about some topics than my clients and I never want to cease being part of a great company that I have worked to make more competitive.

Do you agree? Please weigh in!

Mr. Abid-

Thank you for your comment. You have correctly interpreted the message of the blog, hand work is required! However, an MBA is not.

My MBA, was a turning point in my career. At the time, I was an operational officer in a financial services company and had a lot of responsibility, but very little financial education.

A little financial education comes in handy. For example, the basis of our VRM(TM) method is Free Cash Flow (FCF). Every major company has to compute this measure of net cash inflow / outgo for their public disclosure statements, but few line managers understand how it can impact them. The VRM(TM) method views every department (and every function) as a flow of input and outputs resulting in a measurable relative value of contribution to the firm's overall FCF. It is a powerful financial concept that you do not have to have an MBA to understand, but you do need exposure.

What do others think? Is a formal financial education required or is on the job training (OJT) enough?

I have always thought management consulting was most valuable serving one of three purposes:

First, when a company needed to enter a business domain in which they had no prior experience. Hiring the right consultant, one that has worked in that field and brings not only their own experience, but the experience of other companies, can be invaluable.

Second, when a specific project requires not only staff augmentation, but leadership augmentation. Often the time-bound nature of the need doesn't warrant a full time employee.

And lastly, when a difficult message must be deilivered and the added credibility of an objective expert will help accelerate acceptance and adoption.

The first two reasons don't require credentials as much as knowledge, experience and a proven track record of success. However an MBA or some other "proof" of expertise may help establish credibilty when needed.

There was a time when I viewed management consultants with some cynicism, but I have come to appreciate the value of learning to fish with the benefit of someone that has a deep knowledge of the waters when we're just starting to explore them.


I work with the ITL into regular Operations pillar of Infy3.0 as a Sr Consultant with Commercial banking practice.

In my opinion anyone with 1. a combined sorted thought process to understand a problem
2. Ability to brainstorm the thoughts with an identified set of people

- is a Consultant till this point. Combined these with:

3. Ability to incorporate efficiencies using proven frameworks or tools
4. Present the recommendations which would hence impact the thoughts of decision makers

- is a 'management consultant'

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