David Warren, a director with ADD-Resources, which specialises in consultancy research and headhunting in the sector, says industry or investment banks are normal starting points. “Entry routes tend to be through a central function where people can acclimatise to industry, often working in a high-profile central strategy group or as a special projects director, assisting the MD. This is not universally the case but tends to be the area where the skills they have acquired have immediate application and they can spend maybe a year getting to know the business, doing market analysis and so on, before moving on to a unit or country manager role.”
Guinness is good for you
Guinness has a good track record in this, according to Rob Cooper, who joined the company from the Boston Consulting Group in February 1999. A previous career in the coal mining industry had given him people management experience and he was ultimately intent on a line role. He says: “There are many examples in Guinness of people who have left strategy to become general managers of countries. The choice for me was whether to continue in strategy and then move into a senior line role at a higher level or to leave strategy for a junior role and move up that way.” He has since been promoted to strategy director of Guinness UDV Great Britain, giving him a seat on the board.
As far as smaller organisations are concerned, says Warren, consultants are brought in for special projects roles. “Such clients are often put onto us by the consultancies themselves, to get hold of someone of a similar calibre.”
On the finance side, he adds, consultants can find themselves doing a lot of due diligence work at first. “Consultancy skills have a lot of direct application here but the thing perhaps they lack will be client interface skills. Handling a transaction, doing the deal, is often a completely new skillset which will take time to acquire. But they bring a lot to the party in terms of new thinking and creativity.”
Warren adds: “A surprising number of consultants also go into politics but the huge rush into dotcoms has stalled a bit. Media, encompassing telecoms convergence, broadcasting and IT, is still very popular, however.
The sexy thing is content, which is seen as a dynamic growth sector, populated by glamorous people and at the cutting edge of technology.” Ex-consultants work for Carlton Communications, BskyB and some of the telcos, he says. “People are queueing up to get in.”
For many consultants, however, the startup is still an attractive option.David Havercroft, a consultant with PwC, recently set up Whizzdom, a knowledge management and e-learning software company, with an ex-client. “I wanted to get in there and have my hands on the levers,” he says. An experienced hire from the telecoms industry, Havercroft had been with PwC for just over two years when an ex-client approached him about setting up the new venture. “I hadn’t been looking to move on but he was a guy I knew and trusted and it was an opportunity to set up something from zero as a founding partner. The satisfaction of building something is a big pull.”
And he is not alone in this view. Of 110 individuals who left the Boston Consulting Group worldwide last year, roughly 50% left for e-commerce and Internet-related employers. “Probably many of those were new businesses,” says Catherine Tenney, global manager of career services at BCG. She attributes this to the entrepreneurial nature of the people the firm recruits.
In previous years, she says, many leavers went into strategy roles, high tech industries and private equity, investment banking and venture capital.”Many people go to smaller companies – far fewer go to blue chips, shying away from large bureaucratic organisations,” she says.
The subtraction of attrition
From the dotcom peaks, however, attrition is down, running at around 10% per year, she adds.
Julian Critchlow, a London-based partner at Bain, puts the industry attrition rate at around 20-25% and that of Bain at about 15%. “To a large extent it is not a linear process. We have a lot of people who have a long term in-and-out career with us,” he says. “We saw a peak in demand for Bain people during the 12-18 months of the dotcom hysteria but, surprisingly enough, retention went up during that period. We have focused very hard on retaining good people and I think the situation made people think more deeply about what they wanted to do.”
Critchlow says 40% of those who do leave either go to startup, entrepreneurial ventures or private equity where they are directly involved in investing and turning businesses around. He cites Dell as an example of the larger corporate environment in which ex-Bain people may work. “The joint CEO and head of Europe at Dell are both from Bain, and Dell is characteristic of the fairly dynamic, break the rules, entrepreneurial type of corporate environment that fits well with the character of people at Bain,” he says.
Kate Gilliatt, global manager of alumni relations at BCG, makes a similar point about the nature of her firm. “Creating and having impact is a part of our culture and alumni want to go into a position where they can have a large degree of impact. Starting a small firm with friends or colleagues, or going into a very hands-on role with a small business gives them the opportunity to be a key player in a company,” she says.
BCG is unusual among the top firms, in that it operates a careers service for all employees, past and present, as part of its alumni programme.
The main objective of the latter, according to Gilliatt, is to reinforce the lifelong bond that alumni have with one another and the firm. This has obvious advantages for the firm, she says. “Alumni not only become clients but also play a big part in our recruitment process, giving recruits the real picture of what it is like to work for BCG, and referring suitable candidates to us.” And, less tangibly, but perhaps no less significantly, alumni are good, unofficial ambassadors of the brand, says Tenney.
Her role as manager of career services is extensive. “I provide career counselling, a database of jobs around the world that come into me through search firms, alumni and client companies. And I help staff and alumni with the process in terms of direction, resumes, networking contacts, a database of search firms, offer negotiations and so on.”
The service, which runs out of Boston, is very US-focused at present, however. Guinness’ Cooper, for example, made the transition to industry through headhunters. He says: “I had a confidential chat for guidance but, while the service is very, very good in the US, it didn’t have the same support for Europe at that time. But it’s working on it.”
Tenney believes that a top consultancy brand on a CV is a passport to a good job. She says: “A lot of organisations are very familiar with the brand in terms of the calibre of our people and the work they produce. Client firms say to me ‘we haven’t any particular openings but we would welcome anyone from BCG looking to make a change’.”
Life in the outside world
So what is it about consultants that employers outside the industry value?Tenney points out that firms like BCG and its competitors all tend to hire a fairly unusual group of people. “They tend to be extraordinarily bright and able to master enormous amounts of information in a short period.
As they develop analytical and conceptual skills they can also be extremely creative at analysing information and spotting gaps and ways where a business could grow, enhance market share and so on.”
And what of the consultants themselves? “Consultancy gives you structure and logic so that when you have a very complex issue with lots of opinions, you are able to see the wood for the trees and lay it out in a logical, simple way,” says Cooper. “As importantly, if not more so, it shows you how to influence people, understand organisational lines and the political landscape – who really are the decision makers, the blockers, the stakeholders.”
Robert Samuelson joined Virgin Group nine months ago as director of corporate development, after nine years with Arthur D Little. A director (equivalent to senior partner) specialising corporate finance, largely in telecoms and media, he did a mix of strategy work, new ventures and fund raising, working quite closely with a number of banks.
Apart from the obvious things such as the ability to analyse and think strategically, and understand a number of different businesses, structures and how they work, Samuelson’s time in consultancy gave him reasonable awareness of senior management and their behaviour. “In my role now, on the boards of companies, that understanding is pretty relevant,” he says.
He also highlights the ability to understand market trends and positioning in the market; the ability to present concepts and ideas to partners, suppliers, customers and internal management; and the ability to “develop a storyline for a business in terms of putting where we are trying to get to into a simple construct which says there are four things we need to do”. He adds: “Boiling it down to a few key things is something consultants are quite good at.”
But, he says, echoing Tenney: “The great strength that consultancy brings is the ability to move into new things, pick them up quickly, understand them quickly, and not to be concerned at day one that you don’t know it all. Basically, you can get on with it, make decisions without all the information and fill in the pieces as you go along.”
Samuelson’s skills were not lost on potential employers. Although he didn’t put himself formally on the market, his contacts produced results. “I ended up in the slightly difficult position of having four offers at once,” he says. “And the process flushed out quite a good promotion internally too – to head up the global corporate finance practice.”
He opted for the Virgin job as the most challenging. And he has not been disappointed. “The key differentiator is in terms of being the proprietor rather than the advisor. Projects are your projects. Consultants are great at saying ‘you should invest $50m in this’ but now I have to put my money where my mouth is and live by the consequences. Suddenly those decisions become harder.”
He adds: “There is also quite a change in perspective in terms of being sold to and presented to rather than having to sell and present to others.” He does not miss the variety of consultancy work, however: “Virgin is such a broad-based business that it maintains the variety. What I do miss is support structures like the research base. Only when it’s gone do you realise how useful it was,” he says.
While lifestyle is often cited as a reason why consultants leave the profession, for Samuelson it was not an issue. “I had a structure which worked quite well, whereby I worked hard during the week but for 80% of weekends did little or no work,” he says. “That’s the way to keep your sanity,” he says wryly. “For me, the key drivers were for a change of experience and, in a sense, moving back into the learning curve. And at that stage of your career you have to decide whether you are staying in consultancy for the longer term or not”. He agrees that a lot of people see consultancy as a short-term career move but adds: “If you enjoy it then you need something to make you move.”
The go-getting attitude
For many consultants the desire for line responsibility, to make things happen rather than simply make recommendations, is a strong motivator.
Says ex-BCG consultant Deborah Devedjian: “In consultancy you might come up with the most brilliant series of recommendations but if they can’t be implemented or financed right, they might stay on the shelf. That is very frustrating.”
Her first job out of consultancy, in 1990, involved helping to develop the private sector in Eastern Europe, as one of the founding team of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. “It was a dream come true: we made recommendations and implemented them. We were visionaries shaping the future of not just companies but also countries,” she recalls.
“We had to use analytical, communications, leadership and development skills to create investment strategies, country by country, launch them, bring in the right people and so on. It was tremendously exciting.”
Since then she has set up her own venture finance and strategic planning boutique before joining private equity investment firm Warburg Pincus in New York, as head of investment in the education and training sector.
She says her consultancy experience has largely shaped her career. “It helped me understand how to ask the right questions and gave me a broad base of experiences, knowledge and lessons which can be applied across all industries and companies. That’s invaluable. That you can’t just pick up – you have to live it.”
Whizzdom’s Havercroft also values the breadth of exposure in consultancy.”As you move from assignment to assignment you are exposed to far more issues and challenges than you would experience in the same time period in a normal line role,” he says. “And you wouldn’t see the same wide-ranging thought leadership in any other environment.” He also came away with a real understanding of how to question and challenge, he says. “That is a skill which PwC taught very well.”
And without that consultancy experience Havercroft is certain that he wouldn’t be where he is today. “It has moved me into a job which I wouldn’t otherwise have had – I am working at a different level,” he says. ?: