A Primer for Management Consulting Exits

Chapter 1: Ready to leave?

Think back to your first day as a consultant. Do you remember the nervous energy, and the excitement that you felt? Since that day, you’ve worked really hard to get to where you are today. You’ve had to fight nail and tooth for promotions. You’ve met some of your best friends on projects. You’ve bonded with team mates while working late at night on client deliverables. You consider your case team your family. Being a consultant is an intricate part of your identity. It’s how you introduce yourself at parties!

Are you ready to give all that up and start a new adventure? Let’s think this through. While the prospect of a new challenge is certainly exciting, lets ensure you understand what it entails. This is especially important for those of us who don’t know any other professional life except consulting.

Regardless of what company you end up joining, to some degree you will be starting over. You’ll still have to manage your own career inside the company. You’ll need to build your internal network from the ground up. You’ll need to find new mentors. Lastly, you’ll have to learn the skills necessary to be good at your new job. This is all assuming that you find the right job. That’s a pretty big list!

I don’t intend to discourage you from taking this path but I do want to ensure that you understand that the road ahead is not easy.

Some other key differences between an industry job and consulting include:

  • Slower career progression – promotions are few and far apart. Sure not all of us move up the ladder at the same pace but faster progress is the exception and not the norm. There is no “up or out” policy so you will likely be stuck at every career level for long periods. This also implies that your consulting colleagues may leapfrog you. Some consulting colleagues you started with may make principals/partners at your firm while you get one or maybe two promotions in the same time. Remember your reasons for choosing to leave consulting and understand that you’re voluntarily choosing to leave “the race”. Try to internalize this before you leave your consulting job and you’ll save yourself a ton of heartache down the line.
  • Coworkers that are not family – most industry jobs end at 5 or 6 PM. Your coworkers will likely be professional, courteous and collaborative. However, you will rarely get to spend extended time with them after work hours. This may not seem like the biggest issue but it does impact the depth of your work relationships.
  • Slower learning and growth – you will likely be working less hours every week. By proxy this implies slower learning and growth at your job.
  • More ambiguity – while us consultants like to think that we’re good at managing ambiguous situations, the truth is that most consulting projects come neatly packaged with a scope. Anything outside of that is not your problem. However, industry projects can be very ambiguous and fraught with political challenges. You will need to master the art of handling ambiguity.

There are also many benefits to an industry job including:

  • Work life balance – the biggest benefit and likely the top reason for consulting attrition is work life balance. Once you are at a certain stage of life, traveling every week and spending extended time away from your loved ones is not an option. Most industry jobs bring good work life balance and help you focus on your family life. At my first job after consulting, I was relived to be able to make doctor’s appointments for weekdays during regular business hours. This is a luxury usually reserved for Fridays for consultants. Getting your weeknights back is a big boon too; not to mention all the time you save not being on an airplane
  • Ability to specialize – Consultants often get thrown on client assignments that are outside of their interest areas. With an industry job, you can choose to go deep in one function or industry. If you’re at a large company, you may still have the flexibility to try out different jobs/functional areas before settling down.
  • Stability – An industry job is typically more stable than consulting jobs. You won’t be changing clients, cities, assignments and other aspects every few months. This may not seem like a major benefit but there’s something to be said for the predictability and the mental calmness this offers. To be honest, I had nightmares about being cubicle bound before starting my first industry job. Going to the same office day after day seemed to mundane compared to parachuting in to a new client. The fears were unfounded though and the stability and predictability of daily office life grows on you.

So before we proceed, weigh in all of these factors and make sure you want to get aboard this exit train.

Before we wrap up initial thoughts, heres some advice for those that are still unsure about leaving consulting. Everyone’s reasons for wanting to get away are different. Some seek work life balance, others want to build deeper skills. However, you want to avoid leaving consulting due to a temporary problem that is easily fixable. It is natural to burn-out after working long hours for years. However, if you truly love your work perhaps consider taking a leave of absence to get some rest. You may be dinged for low utilization for that one year but you’ll be able to make up lost time with the reinforced energy. Just be honest about your plan with your counsellors and leadership. Perhaps your last project wasn’t to your liking and has left you with PTSD. Think of all the other clients and projects that you worked on prior to your last one though. One bad experience doesn’t make a pattern. Try to find a role within your comfort zone to get rejuvenated before deciding whether you want to take this step.

Some consultants want to leave because they feel constrained by the structure of a consulting firm and yearn to do something more entrepreneurial. If you are in this category, you’re likely not thinking of getting another job but potentially starting your own company or joining a smaller startup. If your mind is not made up, I’d advise you to look at your consulting firm through an entrepreneurial lens. If you can dream up a new practice or service, you can potentially sell these to existing or new clients of your firm. In talking with some ex-consulting colleagues of mine, this is one of the biggest things they miss about consulting. Successful consultants seem to understand that you can act like an owner within the bounds of a consulting firm. After all, it’s an entire organization built around the practice of selling services. Why not use this to your advantage as an entrepreneur?

Lastly, you may have had some external constraints such as work permits, sign-on bonus repayment that have kept you at your firm. Now the shackles are off and you’re excited to explore other opportunities. Before you make the leap, do give staying at your job a second thought. You were drawn to it for good reasons in the first place.

Epilogue:

This chapter is the introductory chapter from my book about management consulting exits. If you’d like to read more, please leave a comment here as a word of encouragement to get the book finished. Any feedback about the content is very welcome as well. Lastly, feel free to share your personal journey here as a path for others!