In the world of business, management consultants are jacks-of-all-trades. They advise corporations and other organizations regarding an infinite array of issues related to business strategy-from reengineering to e-commerce, and change management to systems integration. From billion-dollar mergers and acquisitions to corporate reorganizations in which thousands of jobs are at stake, they are the directors behind the scenes of nearly every major event in the marketplace.
Independent contractors also serve under the name of “consultant.” Like management consultants, they advise corporations, small businesses and people on an array of issues related to their businesses, from how to set up computer systems to how to market effectively. Pretty much anybody with a specialty in a field can offer consulting services; However, to keep this profile focused, we will hereby concentrate on management consulting.
Management consultants hold salaried positions at firms that cater to a clientele of mostly large corporations. They are assigned on a project basis to their firm's clients, who are billed by the hour for their services.
Depending on the client's needs and the firm's functional specialty (or core competency, as it's often called), consultants might be engaged in anything from researching a new market to building an e-commerce portal. A consultant at a strategy firm, for instance, might be hired by a regional bank to find ways to boost its positioning in the home-mortgage market. Meanwhile, an e-business consultant might be hired by the same bank to design a portal and a back-end system that would allow it to offer loans over the Internet.
The day-to-day responsibilities of a consultant vary little from firm to firm and from one client to the next. They analyze a business problem from various angles and develop preliminary hypotheses for its cause, study the client's organization, operations, customers or competition to test their hypotheses, and then either recommend a solution and present it to the client or implement it. Regardless of the task at hand, management consultants are always focused on one thing: making a client's business more competitive and efficient.
The management-consulting playing field is populated by firms both large and small, from the "Big Five" behemoth, Accenture, with nearly 25,000 consultants in the United States, to the exclusive Boston Consulting Group, with approximately 500 U.S. consultants.
The largest and most well-known firms have clients across the spectrum of industry, especially Fortune 500 companies. Many of these firms assign their entry-level consultants to an assortment of clients in various industries to cultivate broad-based business knowledge. Boutique firms, by contrast, cater to a specific market sector such as health-care companies or law firms, and their consultants become experts in those industries.
For those who enjoy problem solving and thinking about business strategy, consulting can be a very fulfilling career as well as an excellent platform for a management career or a future as an entrepreneur. On the flip side, frequent travel and long hours can make a consultant's schedule very demanding.
While consulting is great for people who like variety in their work, it is not for those allergic to structure and hierarchy. The large and elite firms tend to have a culture that mirrors that of their corporate clients, complete with a steep career ladder: Only a select few make it to partner level, and that's with an MBA and six to eight years at the firm.