Dear Mentor:

What is the lifestyle of the management consultant?

I found your information on Case Interviews rather helpful. I am sure that I am only one of many B-School students who appreciated your advice. I do however have a follow up question. I know that the Management Consulting profession is both glamorous and lucrative, but the stories of extra-ordinary personal sacrifices abound. Can you please comment on the lifestyle of a management consultant, in view of personal sacrifices, and professional and monetary rewards? This would be helpful to not only my own decision-making, but also to many of my cohorts. Thank you.

Curious about Consulting, Boston, MA, USA

Dear Curious about Consulting:

We sincerely thank you for your kind remarks.

Some would say that the management consulting profession isn't what it is cracked up to be, but others would argue that it is more than what it is cracked up to be. Thus, the beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder (or the consultant or consultant-to-be).

Let us look at the reward side of the equation first. The money part of it is easy. Management consulting continues to be one of the highest-paying and most sought-after professions for new MBAs. Only investment banking offers as much money for MBAs straight out of school.

The learning and professional growth aspects of the profession are quite extra-ordinary. It is often said, which some would dispute, that consultant years are like dog years -- that is, one year of consulting offers 4 years of learning and growth for every year of learning in a "traditional" business environment. No doubt, you are exposed to the most challenging business problems (or else why would any business hire consultants?), which must be solved within extremely demanding time-frames (which the client could not solve satisfactorily for, sometimes, years). Through all this, you must produce results that are not just adequate but impress the most demanding of business executives. Since your engagements are of limited duration, you would be exposed to a wide variety of different companies and business problems. Until you specialize in a particular industry, you can be exposed to different industries as well. Some consulting firms have the requirement that you must be exposed to at least two industries as a consultant, before you can even be considered for promotion to the next level, beyond the entry level. In all likelihood, a "traditional" business simply can not offer such a rich and challenging learning and growth environment.

If this were not enough, you are also expected to contribute to the learning of other consultants in the firm -- a valuable experience, no matter what you end up doing later in your life.

Through the management consulting experience, you are liable to become a demanding, no-nonsense, goals and objectives-driven, go-getter kind of a business manager. Your knowledge and experience would be highly valued, well beyond the consulting industry. After a couple of years in the management consulting profession, you would be disappointed if you did not get at least one call every month from a head hunter trying to convince you to take on a new professional challenge, with, of course, attractive remuneration.

Many consulting firms now offer the concierge service, where you can have someone run your errands at nominal cost to you. These errands could be anywhere from getting your laundry done, to buying a gift for your significant other, to finding a plumber to fix a leaky tap.

If we stopped here, you would say what's all this fuss about: hands down, management consulting is it! And, you would be right. But wait, there is more coming.

Let's now turn to the challenges of the management consulting profession. The shear physical effort, in terms of number of hours, is quite demanding. You are liable to consider a 60-hour work week as the norm, if not a light work week. You will encounter 80-hour work weeks -- not rarely, not always, but frequently. As the joke goes, if you can remember the name of your dog at the end of the week, you must not have worked hard enough or concentrated enough. True, this statement is hyperbole, but it is intended to convey the demands of the profession. This is the flip side of the consultant-dog analogy.

There is also sometimes an ugly side of the profession -- the macho factor. We have experienced many situations and come across many consultants who like to brag about going to sleep at 3 am and then getting back to work at 7 am. At times, it may be necessary to meet the demands of a particular consulting engagement, but not always. And, bragging about it is something beyond what we can fathom. But it does happen.

Management consulting is liable to take a toll on your personal and social life. Most firms would try to match the best available talent to relevant consulting engagements that need staffing. But staffing is a standard load-balancing problem. The larger the firm, with a larger number of offices and a larger number of projects, the more likely it will be able to offer you consulting engagements that do not require out-of-town travel.

But let us walk through it a bit more carefully. You would be putting in demanding hours. Local travel may still be one-hour commutes each way. Given this, you still may not be able to leave for work when your kids are up, or return home before they go to sleep. In all likelihood, you will not be able to make any evening commitments, outside of work, with your family or friends. And if you do, they better be forewarned that your plans could change in a hurry. Even your significant other may have to adjust to the fact that you won't always show up as promised, due to immediate demands of work. We have heard many consultants comment that they prefer out-of-town travel, because then they are better able to manage the expectations of their family and friends.

As a management consultant, you are least expected to travel up to 5 days a week, depending on the firm's needs. If you have an out-of-town engagement, you would likely travel every week. Any promises by the firm to the contrary are simply not tenable.

Someone once characterized the challenges of the management consulting profession as this: As a management consultant, you don't have a job that pays a lot, you have two jobs, each one of which pays little.

It is not our desire to scare you away from the profession. On the contrary, we would like you to know that founders of iMahal have been consultants. They have found the profession rewarding. But it is our intent to offer you a truthful portrait of the consulting profession. The choice is yours, and you are more likely to make better choices with facts in hand.

In an earlier Dear Mentor: column (Should I work for a startup or for a public company?), we commented on how to make job-related decisions. You may wish to read that column as well.

We wish you extra-ordinary success in your chosen profession.

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