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Career Perspectives:

I had the opportunity to work in consulting for McKinsey & Company this summer, and below is a brief description of what that life is like. If you’re interested in learning more, please feel free to contact me directly at hsaleh@mba2005.hbs.edu and I’d be happy to chat.

The Work
It turns out consulting is not just about strategy. In fact, consulting firms develop expertise in a variety of functions and industries. This summer I worked in the insurance industry and I am going to share with you two of my three experiences.

The first was a marketing and distribution case, optimizing the middle market distribution for a big insurance company’s B2B middle market business. I was tackling the targeting part of the problem. That meant interviewing and speaking with a lot of people. I met with salespeople to understand how they do their job and what’s important to them. I interviewed customers to understand where my client was strong or weak, as well as to understand what each customer valued. After all the data gathering was done, I developed a customer segmentation analysis, a scoring model to evaluate the relative attractiveness of the different target segments available, and an implementation plan to get the job done.

My second project was a private equity due diligence, which is a completely different animal. Typically, a PE firm will approach a consulting firm for help during a deal to answer a specific set of questions (often market, industry, or customer related) that they’re unable to answer on their own in the time they have to get the deal done. These deals are often in obscure niches, and in that spirit, my client was looking to acquire a company in the structured settlement factoring space and wanted to know what the current size of the actual and addressable market was, as well our perspective on the market’s evolution. I spent a lot of time digging through analyst reports, legal court cases, and other reports to find data. We also spoke with all of McKinsey’s internal experts, and all the key industry participants to help develop a recommendation.

Work-Life Balance
Consulting is a demanding profession, and anyone who tells you it’s easy to manage is lying to you. The job is fast-paced, engaging, and will consume between 60-75 hours every week. About half of my colleagues were working in-town at any given time. For consultants like me, who are staffed out of town, we fly out bright and early on a 6am flight Monday morning to whichever exotic location our client happens to be at. Once we arrive at the client’s location, we usually set up shop in a conference room and that’s the base of operations where we spend most of the 12-15 hours we work each day. We usually fly back home Thursday night and work from the office on Friday and catch-up with all our colleagues.

The lifestyle is manageable in the following way: you get your weekends to yourself, and that’s the tradeoff most consultants make. We work really hard during the week, but leave the work at the office when we go home Friday night. While many firms have part-time programs for some of their consultants, the vast majority work this kind of schedule.

Finally, most of these firms are ‘work hard, play hard’ environments and there are a couple of nice office wide retreats during the course of the year when you get to enjoy a really nice time with everyone and their families. This year, McKinsey took all the summer associates to Vail, Colorado for four days, and it was a blast!

Industry vs. Consulting
I worked for a Fortune 500 company before coming to HBS, so one of my big questions was how consulting differed from working in industry. Over the summer, I noted three main types of differences.

(1) Fast pace: In my corporate job, I would formally meet with my boss once a week and update him on the nature of projects and I had a lot leeway in scheduling and how to get my work done. In consulting, deadlines are ‘hourly’ or ‘daily’. You may have a meeting at 9am which leads to a deliverable for noon. The upside is that you are exposed to more in 2-3 years than you would be in 5-10 years working in industry.

(2) Nature of the work: First, the work is always changing. Every time you finish a project, you move on to something completely new. Second, you are working through others and the highest achievement is to help your clients succeed and read about them doing well as a result. So personal success & achievement means something very different here. Finally, you get a lot more exposure to senior executives than you would otherwise. The problems you work on are the ones that senior management cares about and is willing to spend a lot of resources and time to resolve.

(3) Caliber of people: Much like HBS brings together some of the best talent from the business world, consulting cultivates an incredible talent pool. Everyone at the firm is talented, intelligent, motivated and engaged in the work, and it’s a real privilege to work in that kind of performance culture.

Final Analysis
So who is happy as a consultant? At the end of the day, there are three traits that define someone who has fun in consulting. The first is a true love of problem solving and teams. You will be pushed to think about the same problem in many different ways over the course of a project and expected to contribute to everyone else’s thinking as well. If analytic work doesn’t excite you, you won’t be happy. The second is a desire to help others. As mentioned earlier, at the end of the day, your achievements consist of helping your clients achieve their goals, so if you’re an operator at heart, you won’t enjoy this long term. Finally, and most importantly, is a strong belief in who you are and what’s important to you, so you can feel comfortable saying ‘enough”, and go home and enjoy your personal life.

So if you’re looking at this as a stepping stone to something else, but don’t really like the work, it’s going to be an arduous couple of years before you move on. But, if you love problem solving, helping others succeed and are confident in who you are, then I think consulting will be a lot of fun for you. You’ll learn a ton, work with great people, and it will open a lot of doors.

September 20, 2004
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