Is there a right or wrong time to leave consulting?
For more than a decade, I have helped hundreds of consultants make the transition from consulting into industry, with a specific focus on the Retail & Consumer space. As you can imagine, I have had many conversations around the topic of “is now the right time to move into industry?”. So, I have decided to put some of my thoughts in writing.
The above question can only be answered by each individual. Some consultants love consulting and choose to stay their whole career in this space whilst others discover that they wish to ‘fly the nest’ and put their advisory skills into practice in a corporate setting. The key thing for me is ensuring my candidates focus on trying to do what they love in an environment where they can professionally grow.
The aim of this article is not to dictate when you should leave consulting. However, I hope my learning from more than 10 years working in the industry can help people currently considering this career change.
Every year, hundreds of strategy consultants make the transition from strategy consulting into industry. In my opinion, there are five reasons why consultants typically choose to leave consultancy and make the shift into industry: salary, working hours, travel demands, personal circumstances and professional challenges. Consultants are often looking to improve their work-life balance, to stop working crazy hours, to obtain more line responsibility, to work in a sector they are passionate about, and to grow into a P&L responsible role. In some cases, depending on the level or brand, the jump can also provide a better salary package. Everyone’s situation is unique, and we all have different priorities which often change throughout our career. However, the above drivers seem to be the core reasons why people leave consulting.
From a corporate perspective, consultants are often equipped with a certain type of toolkit, including analytical rigour, academic pedigree, great training, consulting and programme management skills, a breadth of knowledge from multiple industries and experience driving change programmes.
My experience suggests there are typically 3 times in a consultant’s career when they are most likely to consider a move. The first is 1.5–2.5 years, the second 5–6 years, and the last 8–10 years.
The rationale behind the first exit is quite clear cut. After 2 years of consulting, some consultants feel confident that they have obtained the analytical toolkit that could benefit an industry role. In my opinion, staying an extra year wouldn’t necessarily improve their marketability that much. However, their salary could increase to a point at which an industry role might struggle to be competitive. Ultimately, the potential industry employer would be asking the question: “what do I get from a 3-year consultant that I couldn’t get from a 2-year consultant?”
The gap between the first and the second exit point can sometimes be hard for consultants to stomach. At this stage, most will be at either Senior Associate or Junior Manager level. In most cases, consulting firms reward tenure better than corporate organisations do. Consultants must choose to take the financial hit or stay and climb the consulting ladder, possibly embarking on an MBA. Once reaching this post-MBA stage - typically Manager Level - the expectation is that you have started overseeing a small team and may have even started to become more sector focused. Six to twelve months into the role, your managerial toolkit should have expanded. If you then decide to make the shift into industry, you’ll have to prove yourself capable of transitioning into a very different culture. Managing a team of junior consultants in consulting is very different to managing a live business unit. My advice here would be to stay as a Manager and try to focus on a particular sector. Build on your management experience and aim to lead increasingly large project work streams.
The third exit point is typically between 8 and 10 years. At this level, the expectation is potentially to move into a Senior Manager/Head of or Director role in a corporation. The entry points really depend on the company and individual. By this stage, the consultant would probably be sector-aligned and have gained experience in managing and developing teams and dealing with more senior stakeholders. The key now is to choose a brand that will enable the consultant to grow and become more operational/commercial and gain P&L responsibility. Ask yourself: is the company you are considering experienced at hiring consultants and moving them around the business? Is there an internal alumnus of former consultants? If the company is a smaller business, does the senior team support the hire and are they prepared to invest in you and help you make the move?
For many, joining a consulting house is a means to an end. Few realistically expect to become a Partner. So, try and ensure you are staffed on projects that are either functionally- or sector-aligned to your longer-term goals. Your focus should be to gain experience that enables you to get into a business where you believe in the brand and can see yourself being part of their journey. You do not want to be moving company every 2-3 years.
In terms of salary, consultants get paid well. This is typically due to the type of work that they do and the intensity at which they work. At junior levels, salaries can often rapidly increase. However, industry normally catches up when reaching Manager level and beyond. When discussing opportunities with consultants, I often say: “The first move you make into industry will not be one to get you rich quick”. It is about finding the right brand, role and culture.
Consulting offers a great opportunity for people to gain exposure to many different industries and to assist in some very high-level corporate challenges. As I mentioned earlier, the time when people choose to leave is very individual. If you are enjoying the consulting work, do not fall into the trap of assuming ‘the grass is greener on the other side’.
Many consultants are focused on getting to Partner level and that is a great achievement, whilst others want to make the shift and join the corporate world. Whether you are making your first, second or even third move, it never gets any easier and there will always be an element of risk with any move. Try and make the decision on which company to join with both your head and your heart. Does the potential employer operate in a sector that appeals to you? Do their culture, their leadership team and their challenges excite you? Be patient. Do not rush the decision. Be diligent and do your research.
I hope that the above offers some comfortable guidance and, as the market is vibrant, would welcome a chat with anyone who would like to discuss options outside of consulting.
Retail & Consumer Goods