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7 Challenges Ex-Consultants Face in Corporate Jobs - and How to Overcome Them

Posted on April 20, 2018 at 4:15 AM


There were over 637,000 people in the United States employed in the management consulting industry in 2016, according to Statista.com. With annual staff turnover rates of an estimated 15-20 percent, that suggests tens of thousands of former consultants leave consulting every year to take 'real' jobs at corporations. Since the consulting and corporate worlds are different in many ways, that transition can be a big adjustment for these 'recovering consultants.' I made that transition after I left Bain & Company and learned plenty of lessons. I recently interviewed 42 other former consultants -- 19 from Bain, 4 from McKinsey, 1 from BCG, and the rest from others -- to ask them for their insights and advice. According to that survey, here are the 7 biggest challenges consultants face in corporate jobs, and advice to overcome them.


Challenge #1 - "Too Much Corporate Bureaucracy"


(67% agreed, 19% disagreed) 

 

Consulting work can be cut and dry. Consultants often work on projects with clearly defined goals and timelines. Bureaucratic barriers at clients are often cleared by senior executives at the client looking to get important - and expensive - consulting projects completed as quickly as possible. Once a consultant moves into a job with a corporation, they have to face the bureaucracy on their own.

 

Ben described it this way: “Once you are inside, the Powerpoint deck is just the first step to 'sell' a project or initiative internally. Then comes the hard part - marshaling resources, motivating a team that may not report directly to you, and moving the project forward to achieve real results.”

 

Arshad described the challenge this way: “Understanding who does what and how to move an organization towards a goal - that is a challenge. Consultants tend to be a bit isolated from the complexities of how to move an organization behind a novel concept or a new business direction. The key is to get the attention at the right levels to move the right pieces of the puzzle in order to get your goals accomplished!”

 

Glen summarized it this way: “Consultants can fall into the trap of believing that the 'right' answer and the logic and associated PowerPoint deck will always win the day. The value of gathering support for your point of view in other ways is accentuated in corporate environments.”

 

Recommendation - Corporate executives have to invest as much energy and thought in planning a successful implementation as consultants spend defining the strategy and business case.


Challenge #2 - "Organizational Politics are a Bigger Pain"


(67% agreed, 21% disagreed)

 

Politics can mean many things in an organization, but I have found corporate politics often center around Relationships, Prioritization, and Culture. Like any organization, consulting firms have internal politics, but they are capped by several factors including: the outward focus on client Relationships, the clear line of sight to revenue as a Prioritization tool, and the ability to select people for fit with the Culture. Internal politics in larger, more complex corporations can be a bigger challenge.

 

Regarding Relationships, Glen advised: “Anticipate that a greater percentage of your time and effort will be spent on managing / negotiating / building relationships both inside and outside your organization.”

 

Rick said: “Build relationships - success is no longer about just being smart and being able to communicate well, you have to pay attention to your coworkers and understand how to get things done in the new environment. I remember coming out and getting very passionate about outsourcing our data center. I put together a data driven deck and started to socialize. I quickly found out that despite what I thought was a really sound strategy, the idea went nowhere because I could not get the attention of the right people.”

 

Patricia said: “Know your audience--your peers, your boss, your boss's boss--and manage communications accordingly. Open, honest and direct doesn't work as effectively within a non-consulting environment.”

 

James summed it up this way: “Great soft skills go far in this new world.”

 

Darryl echoed that: “Most jobs require more soft skills and political savvy than analysis. Sometimes former consultants may appear a bit arrogant or aloof.”

 

Regarding Prioritization, Mike summed it up this way: “Consulting gives you a view of where you can find the impact. The challenge is you now need to make that impact happen which requires you to understand politics and processes. Get to know the organizational politics quickly and figure out the processes for getting work done (project prioritization process, strategic planning process, etc.).”

 

Regarding Culture, Jen said: “Understand that there will be a culture change, and that depending on the type of organization you end up working with, the resources and amenities at your fingertips may vary.”

 

Patrick advised: “Make sure you understand the culture of the company you are joining.”

 

Darryl said: “Understand the organization's values and make sure they align with yours.”

 

Noelle recommended “Get involved within the organization to reduce the outsider label and to create in-roads and recognition in other parts of the organization (corporate initiatives, fundraisers, social activities, sports teams, etc.) Seek out team-based opportunities and initiatives that occur within the company. It's a great fit and provides a consulting-like feel and gives you an opportunity to shine.”

 

Recommendation - All the above. Also consider getting training and coaching. Training can help build the “soft / EQ skills” required more of corporate executives than consultants. Coaching can help you understand the political landscape in your organization and how to best navigate it.


Challenge #3 - "Colleagues Don't Communicate Efficiently and Effectively"


(62% agreed, 17% disagreed)

 

Efficient and effective communications are core skills for consultants and they get lots of training and on-the-job experience to hone those skills. People outside of consulting don’t get that same training and experience.

 

Mike summed it up this way: “People are terrible at writing decks. They're monolithic data dumps that don't have a clear story or recommendation. Not only will you find going through their work frustrating, you'll also be frustrated when they ask you to add tons of irrelevant data and information to your nice, clear, simple recommendations.”

 

Jason said: “You have to dumb down messages. It takes longer to communicate. Standards are not the same across a company. Vocabulary is not the same.”

 

Thomas shared this: “Communication is the biggest thing ... whether it’s email or PowerPoint or meeting notes, management consulting is an utterly spoiling experience with respect to effective and concise exchange of ideas. Having said that, getting stuff done and talking about it aren’t the same thing so underestimating someone’s skills simply because of their bullet point marksmanship or charting acumen is a grave mistake.”

 

Recommendation: Invest in training your team in the communication skills that consultants learn. It will boost their performance throughout their careers. It will improve your team results and reduce your frustration.


Challenge #4 - "Not Enough Intellectual/Academic Stimulation"


(60% agreed, 26% disagreed)

 

Consulting firms' outputs center on ideas and analysis. Corporations typically produce more tangible goods and services. Former consultants can miss the intellectual, analytical part of the work.

 

David mentioned the following things he missed: “No one to really brainstorm with, fewer people that challenge your assumptions (often leading to poor outcomes as they will assume you are right even when you are not). It can be challenging to push people to make evidence-based decisions (or even gather the information to do so).”

 

Rick echoed the lack of evidenced-based decisions: “The lack of analytic rigor has become very clear and frustrating. We convinced the organization that they needed to do some test and learn experiments on some new product solutions. We put the test into market, but after only a week, senior leaders decided they were so excited by the concept that they wanted to roll it out to the entire portfolio (10 million +). This was before any results were back to prove the business case. It was all anecdotal and by feel.”

 

Recommendation - Search for others in your company or network to be a sounding board and brainstorming partner. An executive coach can also be a helpful external resource.


Challenge #5 - "Work Feels Lonely / Miss the Camaraderie of Consulting"


(57% agreed, 21% disagreed)

 

Consultants can feel a lot of camaraderie with their consulting colleagues. The travel and long hours of the work, combined with the fact that many consultants are about at the same age and place in life, can create strong bonds between colleagues. The corporate world looks more like the real world. People come from a wide variety of ages and interests. They may not look to their colleagues for friendship and camaraderie as much.

 

Recommendation - Find other former consultants within your larger organization and create a network. Take advantage of the decrease in travel to find activities outside of work to find camaraderie.


Challenge #6 - "Not a Clear Promotion Path"


(52% agreed, 31% disagreed)

 

Consulting firms typically have a very clear promotion path - you strive to make partner. To get to partner, you have to prove you can bring in revenue, which means you are creating your own headroom for promotion. Career paths in the corporate world can be less clear or fast. You may need to have your boss leave to get their job. Or you may have to switch departments to find the headroom for a new, bigger role.

 

Glen suggested this: “I would think about the level at which you leave consulting as each successive consulting promotion (e.g. - Manager, VP) roughly slots you into a corporate structure at a higher level. Also think about whether you think you want to be a career 'strategist' or are more interested in an 'operating/GM' role or 'functional' role (e.g. - Finance, Marketing, Biz Dev/M&A). Sometimes strategy is an entry door into an operating or functional role, but this may or may not be the best avenue depending on the company and situation.”

 

David echoed that this way: “Parachute into the highest level possible as the climb up the ladder may be long.”

 

Amy suggested: “Look for an area in the company which is dynamic and growing, and where you can be a part of a strong team. Find a well-positioned, appreciative boss who will bring you up the ladder with him/her.”

 

Bill said: “Ensure the opportunity provides ability to impact bottom line. More impact = more support and greater financial & career upside.”

 

Noelle advised: “Recognize that your first move/position within a company may be temporary. As executives/business units get a better understanding of your breadth of capabilities and your relationships expand, movement within the organization can happen. You may find a position that is of more interest to which your skills are better suited. As a woman leaving consulting for a more stable and consistent lifestyle to perhaps start a family, think a few steps ahead when selecting the correct role. That high-paced strategy and acquisitions job might be a great fit right out of consulting but the demanding, round-the-clock schedule might not be conducive to being a working mother. It could however be a great role to gain exposure to an organization and find the best long term fit. Even a successful former consultant who always puts in 150% can still get overwhelmed when trying to manage a new family and a constantly demanding job.”

 

David gave this take on when to make the jump: “Consulting prepares a young person very well for an attractive but narrow slice of the real business world. I would caution a person from staying too long in consulting because after a while that may be the only thing they are qualified to do.”

 

Zeeshan pointed out one nice thing about career paths in corporations: “You can progress in senior levels without having to be solely sales focused. You can start to specialize in a vertical which matters more as one get to more senior levels.”

 

Recommendation: Realize you will probably only make the jump from consulting to corporate once. Make it count and do it right by doing your homework and getting lots of good advice.


Challenge #7 - "Pace is Too Slow"


(50% agreed, 26% disagreed)

 

Consulting is typically a project-based business with clear deadlines. The corporate world often isn’t. The pace can seem much slower to consultants making the jump.

 

Jeff advised: “Be prepared for a slower rate of decision-making and a slower moving environment. Rejoice in the fact that you get to own (or at least work on) projects from start to finish and really drive the ultimate result and beyond.”

 

Zeeshan summarized it this way: “Expect a different organizational clock speed.”

 

Jason added: “Provide extra time in your plans. Don't expect your team to work at your standards. Often you will be surprised that your standards are much higher than you need to get the job done. Don't forget that people don't have the same training that you have had.”

 

Surge summed it this way: “Projects and initiatives will get momentum in fits and starts, and slow down in halts and stops. So, best to keep a funnel of good initiatives to jump to the next initiative when one slows down.”

 

Joe added: “You need to adjust expectations from a variety of perspectives (career plan/ growth, pace of work, speed of change/ decision-making) to match those of your new employer. And after you understand the traditional pace at your new employer, then you can become an agent of change to drive your new company to perform at a higher level.”

 

Noelle added: “Adjust your time frame: The speed at which change and buy-in happens is monumentally slower than in a consulting environment. As a newcomer, you can be viewed as pushy or impatient if you challenge the natural rhythm. It is helpful to find well-established champions/mentors who share your perspective, who can help move your initiatives through the organization.”

 

Tarm added: “I came in with a mindset that I now have all the resources and knowledge to change the operations of the company. However, after pushing for change numerous times, my boss told me 'This is not a consulting firm and your stakeholders are not clients. They are your colleagues. Whilst there may be a case for change, if you push it too hard, you risk them not collaborating with you when you need them the most.'"

 

Kevin added: “Things move slower, but you are stuck dealing with whatever change you initiate - so it is key to realize that change, and effective change, are very different things.”

 

Dennis added this take: “Work moves a lot slower. You get a lot more time to pursue personal projects. Get a hobby that will provide you with intellectual challenge outside of work. Consider becoming an entrepreneur.”

 

Recommendation - Embrace the pace! At work, use the extra time to get depth of expertise and to build relationships. Outside work, harvest the extra time to invest in the other things in your life you have underinvested in while you were consulting.


If you have made the move from consulting to corporate, I'd love to hear from you. You can add your thoughts to my survey. You can see the training and coaching I specialize in offering to former consultants. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and Facebook

Categories: Career Planning, Coaching, Communication Skills