Management consultancy: Why talented people are back in demand

The economic crisis led to a decline in the industry, but it is now firmly in recovery mode.
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If you'd mentioned wanting to become a management consultant two years ago, you'd have seen more than a few raised eyebrows. Post-crash, the industry saw a decline in personnel to the tune of 8,000. But although the economic downturn is by no means over yet, the demand for new management consultants is up again – to the extent that the Big Four are battling over top talent.

"There's always churn in this industry, but we saw a sharp decline in numbers that is picking up rapidly because the marketplace wants to be well positioned to take advantage of the upturn," says Alan Leaman, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA). "The upshot is some aggressive recruiting in the graduate market, along with a lot of career changers coming in."

Even Josh Lewsey, who won the 2003 Rugby World Cup with England, has joined the profession, recently starting with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

While there's still a strong role for the generalist, there is a big demand for people with a high level of technical skill, says Leaman. Areas of specialism include business strategy, manufacturing and businesses services, marketing, human resources, quality management and environmental management.

Regardless of the area you choose, the reasons for wanting to join the industry tend to be the same, says Leaman. "First, you will want to make a difference. With consulting, what you're doing is all about adding value, which can give people a real buzz. Second, you will want to work at a very senior level. The stakes are very high in this work – which is why it's paid well – and the level you're operating at is the very top."

The types of work you do are likely to look rather different than prior to the downturn, however. "A lot of hard work is now focused on driving out costs and making businesses more effective and efficient," says Leaman. "It's all about improving and re-engineering businesses to get them through the recession and upturn. There's also a lot more work in the expanding markets overseas, and there are a few signs that the work of management consultants is becoming more people-focused than before."

Almost as soon as the Government was formed, there was talk of cutting back on the use of management consultants in the public sector, but Leaman says this may not be as drastic as it sounds. "The Government is not launching any new, big, expensive initiatives that need to be delivered, but I believe a sensible Government won't get rid of their skills altogether."

The firms you can work for is varied. First, there are the large generalist consulting firms – including the Big Four of PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG – that offer a wide range of services from strategy consulting to IT and outsourcing on a global basis. Then there's the strategy consultants – usually American and much smaller. These primarily offer strategic advice to companies on a project-by-project basis – such as the reorganisation of a company's structure or the rationalisation of services and products. Human resource consultants offer specialist advice ranging from personnel policy to job enrichment, while the advice given by IT consultancies ranges from defining information needs to the provision of software. Financial consultancies guide businesses around issues such as the installation of budgetary control systems to profit planning, while niche firms often specialise in a particular sector or offer a specialist service.

Probably the biggest recent change in management consultancy, believes David Mann, managing director for management consulting in the UK and Ireland at Accenture, is that it's now about doing as much as telling. "If you go back 20 or even 10 years, when management consultancy was starting out, it was very much about getting people to think about what issues they had, and how to move forward – usually in the form of a report. With us, though, it's now about making the things you've suggested happen – in other words, the implementation."

Besides the stimulation this brings and the financial rewards (analysts earn an average of £26,000, consultants £40,000, senior consultants £58,000, managers £69,000, principals £84,000, directors £120,000 and equity directors and salaried partners £180,000), Mann says the thing people rave about is the opportunity to work with other highly motivated, intelligent people who are really driven. Career progression is another draw. "Whilst the route upwards through the ranks is pretty standard, it can be accelerated if you're good enough. This is helped by all our management consultants having the opportunity to take on responsibility from early on."

Paul Thompson, Deloitte's consulting talent partner, agrees. Indeed, this year has seen the highest level of mid-year promotions in their consulting practice. "It's 34 per cent up on last year," says Thompson, who largely attributes this to their range of support programmes and networks for people as they progress.

This autumn, the firm is set to hire the highest number of graduates ever, which he says is driven by client demand, particularly in sectors such as financial services, manufacturing, consumer products, media and telecoms. Analyst Mark Frost, who was among the graduates hired last year, says: "I knew I wanted a job that offered variety, involved problem-solving and required engagement with people on a daily basis. I spent a lot of time researching online and came across consulting, which immediately ticked all my boxes."

Having graduated with a BSc in physics and an MSc and PhD in astronomy, he admits he was conscious of the downturn. "It added some pressure when applying for jobs, but in some respects it helped by making me ensure each application was as good as I could possibly make it." He welcomes the "endless opportunities to get involved in sport and social activities. You can end up spending a lot of time together and it begins to feel more like an extended family".

KPMG, which has also seen a big recruitment increase since last September, adds the economic and regulatory environment to Deloitte's list of current client demands. KPMG helps such organisations to improve their performance through transforming operations, business intelligence and finance transformation, working capital and cash management, revenue enhancement and cost optimisation, IT enabled transformation, embedding risk and regulatory management and deal services.

Ashley Unwin, partner and head of consulting at PwC, points out that a good academic record is just the start when it comes to taking on people. "We require people to be outgoing, with ambition, energy and drive. Emotional intelligence is especially important to us, given that so much of the work consultants do is in interacting with other people."

At Ernst & Young, a spokesperson says: "An entrepreneurial and ambitious spirit is a good start, alongside confidence, commercial acumen, an analytical mind and a well-rounded nature."

You never stop learning, says Joanna Henderson, senior consultant at Ernst & Young. "We work on complicated problems, and so some days I may be using analytical techniques to derive insight, whereas on other days I may be facilitating a workshop to help the clients act on insight. It's hard work, but the sense of achievement of seeing your hard work make the life of your client easier is definitely worth it."

‘I'm really interested in strategies that business adopt'

Pat Newberry is managing partner, commercial in PwC's consulting practice and the president of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA).

"I joined the profession 20 years ago. I'd been a partner working in a big accounting firm, but my work had strayed more towards general advisory work, and a consulting opportunity came up in the financial services industry. I took it because I'm really interested in strategies that businesses adopt – and transactions and deals are only part of that. I wanted to get deep inside companies and see how they ticked.

It wasn't an easy transition. Consultancy isn't just about advising – the trick is listening and understanding before you go anywhere near advising and implementing. My career has mapped out well. I'm one of the senior partners who run this consultancy, and am amazed at how many new challenges come along.

Among my most memorable moments was merging a major life insurer with a major UK bank. They were very different cultures with complex organisational technology problems to solve. That was a real buzz.

There have been hiccups. When the dotcom bubble burst, most consultancies, especially in the financial sector, suffered and I had a couple of very hard years in 2002/03. But it did teach me an awful lot.

Management consultancy is much more demanding these days. When I started out, a lot of the emphasis was getting organisations to work in a project manner.

They had relatively little experience of putting together big projects and programmes, whereas today the private sector works mainly in this way. That's how they run their day-to-day business, so the help they look for from consultants is much more specialist – more detailed technological intervention.

That means you need deep skills in particular areas, such as change management, financial management and IT."

‘The rewards - financially and in terms of stimulatoin - are huge'

Juliet Osborne is market director for home affairs in Tribal's Government business.

"I spent two years visiting prisons across the UK. I worked with the president of Pakistan on anti-corruption reform. I have worked in a number of police forces to improve their performance. What other career could you pick that gives you an entrée into so many areas of public life? When I get home and turn on the TV news, a large proportion is relevant to my day job. There aren't many people who can say that.

That's not the only reason I love my job. I also enjoy the opportunity to add value to public services at the highest levels. Then there's the career progression which, for me, has felt like a sharp uphill climb.

I started working in the voluntary sector in 1992, because I wanted to do some good in the world, but quickly realised I needed a profession. I qualified as an accountant and focused on home affairs. During a two-year secondment to the UN, the nature of my work shifted from finance to performance improvement, and in 1998 I made the official move to consulting and joined KPMG.

Six years later, I followed two partners to set up a strategic consultancy within Tribal. Since then, I've pretty much exclusively focused on the home affairs market – covering everything from the Ministry of Justice to policing. I now lead all of Tribal's work in home affairs.

Good consultancy is no longer about writing a report that will sit on a shelf. It's about delivering outcomes. In any case, the kinds of areas we focus on are how to manage large procurements, how to get the best value out of large IT suppliers, how to set up social enterprises and get them delivering to the public sector. It's not -cost-effective to do that in-house.

This job is not for nine-to-fivers and there's a lot of travel involved. But the rewards – financially and in terms of stimulation – are huge."