The ultimate guide to starting a management consulting career

Do you need an MBA to start a career in management consulting?


Yes, I have an MBA, but I’ve also seen many consultants (campus and experience hires) who had no intention of getting an advanced degree. There was a time when educational pedigree seemed to trump all. These days, real-world experience and problem-solving skills are all the rage.

The credentials you need also depends on where you want to live in the consulting world. You can think of consulting for the most part as four different categories:

1) Pure Play Strategy

2) Management Consulting

3) IT Consulting

4) Independent/Personal Consultants

Knowing which one of these you want to do makes a big difference, so let’s dig into specifics for each one.

Pure Play Strategy

These are your “traditional” consulting firms usually considered the most prestigious (e.g. McKinsey or Bain). The work these guys do usually does not involve sticking around to see the if the strategies they developed actually get executed. They do, however, make a ton of money and it opens a lot of doors for you when you leave consulting. It is common for people to go back to get their MBAs when pursuing careers in this area. When college students talk about landing a consulting job, strategy is usually what they have in mind. I don’t think anyone would argue that strategy consulting is widely viewed as most prestigious in the consulting world. This, however, is only a small part of the consulting industry.

Management Consulting

Strategy consulting is a subset of a much larger category known as management consulting, but it is often looked at on its own. The rest of management consulting includes a lot of different types of practices:

– Finance and Accounting Operations (Where I currently practice)

– Enterprise Performance Management (planning, budgeting, forecasting, reporting)

– Supply Chain Management

– Operations

– Customer Relationship Management

– HR/Talent

And that’s just a few that popped into my head just now. What people don’t realize is that every consulting project has a strategic component. If the project wasn’t part of a larger strategy, the project would never get a green light, and you wouldn’t be there.

What separates these from the pure play strategy practices is their involvement in the execution.

What that means is that a lot of value gets put on industry/sector knowledge and knowing how to fix a problem that may not be well-defined at first glance. This translates to people moving into consulting from industry. I’ll let you in on another secret. There are some folks who’d prefer not to hire MBAs to fill their consulting practices.

Technology Consulting

This group here is for your system implementors – SAP, Oracle, Workday etc. People in this area generally specialize in one system and take on longer projects implementing the same system at different clients. The large projects typically begin with management consulting work and may involve management consulting assistance throughout. The part I like about having been in management consulting is that I’ve gotten exposure to multiple systems in different implementations. As I often tell people,

I prefer to be known as a finance guy who is good at learning systems than a systems guy who knows a little finance.

Anyway, that’s it for now. As always, if you have additional questions just hit reply and let it fly. If you haven’t answered the survey yet, here’s the link one more time:

Independent / Personal Consultants

With the proper relationships, you can independently consult in any of the areas above. It’s most common to see this after someone has worked at a bigger consulting firm for some time and then ventured off on their own. On one hand, there’s nothing to say you can’t make this work for you. On the other hand, the less experience you have in consulting, the more you need to invest in relationships up front to make sure your business stays viable.

In some instances, when people think consulting, they think of standing side by side with someone who has limited time to research their own decisions. These types of consultants are generally working with individual clients instead of businesses. That’s what I mean when I refer to a personal consultant. Interior designers, life coaches, and career coaches are examples that fall into this category.

Regardless of the type of consulting one wants to pursue, a lot of people reaching out to me miss the mark right off the bat because they think they want to be a consultant but have no idea what problem they’re even equipped to solve. Can you imagine talking to a potential prospect and when asked what you do, you sit there with the blank stare face? Not good.

How do you figure out where to focus?

Of course, if answers to the below don’t align with your interest, you may have to take some additional steps to reposition your perception but consider the following:

Option 1: think about problem people usually come to you for help solving.

Option 2: relive the pain you experienced when you were in their shoes. If you didn’t like the options available, there are likely others that don’t either. That was my approach when I created this document comparing electronic signature tools. Additionally, it can be reused for comparing any solutions in a methodical way.

Option 3: just ask. Granted, you have to ask the right questions, but what better way to understand what people want/need than for them to tell you their struggles. That is why

I created this 60-second survey I’d like you to complete:

Take this 60-second survey on what you want to learn about consulting

See what I did there?