Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Week in the life of a consultant

This post is for MBA Blogger who wanted to know what life is like as a consultant. I couldn't recommend him a book, so this is my version of consulting life....

Monday, Monday

My week starts on Monday morning, 5:45 a.m. My alarm is always set for 6 a.m. but I usually wake up shortly before it rings, worried I might oversleep and miss my flight. I used to do the packing on Sundays but by now the process has become so efficient I can shower, dress, pack my bags and have a tea within 30 minutes.

At 6:30 I'm off to the airport, get my ticket from the machine and go straight to the lounge. I used to cling to every possible minute of sleep and thus arrive only a minute or two before the deadline for electronic tickets (25 minutes before takeoff) but I have picked up the habit of arriving 10 minutes earlier to spend some time in the lounge. That way I can have a small muesli with tea and grab a banana or two that come in handy during the rest of the day. In the lounge, I already tend to bump into at least 5 colleagues heading to different cities for their projects. The usual questions are "where are you at the moment?" and "how is it going?", apart from that we don't usually talk too much.

In order to be a consultant you need a client...

Monday around 9 or 9:30 the working week begins.... To explain what we actually do on a daily basis is very hard, because it is so varied. The general idea is that we get assigned to a project, and this can be anything from cutting backoffice cost to designing a market entry strategy to setting up world class operations or customer experience, really anything. The very first days are dedicated to meeting with senior clients (members of the board and their direct reports) to agree on concrete actions to take and the direction and scope of the project. Then we spend a lot of time gathering data, understanding data, discussing potential solutions and creating concrete suggestions. There are different approaches to this. The approach I like the most is what we call "collaborative problem solving" which means you don't do many presentations as a consultant but learn more to solve problems and develop solutions jointly with the client, using their expertise and "the wisdom of the masses".

Once you have gathered enough data and information, a lot of time is spent on drawing good and meaningful charts. At the beginning I couldn't believe how much time I had to spend on this and I thought it was completely useless. Now I see the point of it. First of all, the more experience you have, the faster you draw the charts so the more time you spend on the actual content rather than the format. Secondly, each word and number in the hands of the wrong people (or the right people who misunderstood) is very dangerous, so it is very important to document on a constant basis the status of discussions. We tend to work on critical issues decisive for targets, bonus payments, investment decisions and so on, so it is important to have documented what you propose and what you don't propose, otherwise people can easily shift blame on you.

So I would say we spend 1/3 of the time on meetings and discussions with clients, 1/3 on conducting excel analyses and making presentations, and almost 1/3 can be spent internally in discussions with project managers, partners and directors. This is often insightful but sometimes seems a waste of time when you're busy. At my current project, we have a lot of interaction with partners and directors (directors are one step higher than the partners and actually the highest you can get within our company). We tend to get together 3h per week with all the teams working at this client to discuss current events at the client (critical discussions, frictions between senior managers, potential takeovers, competitor moves etc.), this is a great way to get to know the industry and the higher echelons of the client. Additionally, we have two or three more hours for the small team working on one topic to discuss it with directors. They make sure we are going into the right direction and like to challenge everything to test if we have thought everything through.

Working hard

Working hours depend very much on the project, the normal consulting hours in Germany are probably 8:30 am till 11 pm, but currently I have to work till midnight or longer on many days and also start at 8 am most days. There is not much "facetime" as in investment banking though, if there's not much to do I leave much earlier than that. Yesterday for example I left at 7:45 (I think that was my record during the last 2 years!), or on Friday I just took the flight home at 1 pm since I had worked till 3 am the two nights before. So hours are definitely very flexible, but if there is one thing to count on it is that you don't have any private life during the week.

Keeping in touch

The time spent in taxis is a great time to call friends and family. By now, it's almost only family I call on the way to and from airports and hotels. In the first year, right after the introductory trainings, I would call many new colleagues or they would call me. Conversations were very kind and supportive. We would call and e-mail each other at least once a week to see how everyone was going, how they liked it and so on.

This has subsided significantly in the second year. Some people have adapted to work fully and have found new friends among the people they work with, or they were opportunistic from the start and have shifted their attention to people higher up in the food chain. Some people are unhappy due to tough projects or unfavourable performance ratings and avoid contact (promotions are very transparent so if you're not promoted, while all your peers are, everybody will come up to you and ask "why weren't you promoted?"). And then there is the third group that is somewhere in the middle, moderately happy but really counting down the days till they can leave. They are focused on finding a new job, dreaming about their MBA or just spending time with their loved ones and also tend to become less and les communicative.

Most of the best friends I have made fall in the third category, one Jamaican lawyer is looking to return to a law career, one Californian HBS grad is looking into a teaching career, and my fellow peer from Germany is counting down the days till his IESE MBA in Barcelona starts. These are the people I'm still in touch with. If I hear from people from the other two categories at all it is at the time they are looking for a new project and they call me to ask "have you worked with this partner?", "how's this guy?" etc.. I tend to be very helpful with extensive advice but have often experienced that once people pick a new project, they don't really bother to update you where they ended up finally. I wonder if this will happen also with lots of contacts at business school. You have a great time together, then everybody starts new jobs, the first year people stay very much in touch to find out how they are doing at their respective jobs, and then most people fall out of touch and only call each other when they are looking for a new job and remember they should "network". The important thing I guess is to have 5 people or so who are true friends for a longer period of time.

Home sweet home

Thursday evening before takeoff I also head to the lounge if I have time to have a quick snack before the flight (the food on the planes is usually unacceptable). Again, I tend to bump into several colleagues, which is nice because people tend to be more cheerful and talkative on Thursday evenings when compared to Mondays. I used to go to the duty free to bring chocolate or champagne as a present on Thursday but this has also become less interesting over the years so now I don't usually bring any presents home anymore.

Casual Friday

Friday is our "office day" (see the view from my office on the left) where we have no client meetings and use the time to prepare documents for the next week, conduct analyses and also complete some of the admin stuff we don't have time for during the week, such as expenses etc.. I also like catching up with my peers, especially with the above mentioned partner in crime counting the days till business school. I tend to be very efficient on Fridays since I like to go home early. I try to head home at 5 pm, unless there is something urgent for Monday. Usually I opt for leaving early no matter what, even if it means I have to spend an hour or two on the weekend finishing.

This pretty much sums up my week. On the weekend I usually recover from the week, sleeping a lot, relaxing a lot, playing with my nephew, shopping, watching Seinfeld or Bruce Lee movies , doing some sports and so on. In general, time passes extremely fast. This is good because there are only 9 weeks of work left for me now and I hope they pass very fast.



Forrest Gump said...

wow, that is hectic and looks tough, which makes me ask - besides the money and status that might come with the consultant job, is working as a consultant fun?

FM said...

Thanks..sounds interesting and challenging, and a valuable learning ground for several years. Do MBA students have any significantly different pros / cons to their roles?

Moe said...

SPOT ON! Excellent and honest insight into consulting life.

Forrest gump, to answer your will learn A LOT in a consulting career and I think it's an excellent platform for building up your own skills and "brand" when/if you decide to shift into industry. From my experience, people that tend to stick around and continue with consulting career either truely enjoy it or it becomes increasingly "difficult" to get away from it all because you are getting close to the partnership level/been doing this work for years.

In Consulting, if they had a difficult or crappy assignment, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and you know the project will be done soon....that's not necessarily the case with an industry job and it's an important factor for many of my co-workers.

Finally, I really don't understand how people can sustain this life with family. I am single person but even keeping in touch with my friends is hectec and I miss having a normal social life during the week and not just the weekend. I can't imagine how people do it when they have family and kids. This is one of the biggest questions on my mind today since my company will be sponsoring my MBA but recently (maybe I am finally maturing! :-P) I have been questioning, is it really
"worth it" to commit to them another 2 yrs plus my summer internship when my heart is no longer in it for the long run?

One thing for certain, the majority of people who have had a career in consulting do not regret it at all and are appreciative of the experience they have gained from it all.

Benny said...

Great post.
I would say you managed to describe very well a consultant's life.

btw, about the scholarship, I criticized the Fundacao (non-profit company). You didn't... so there is a great difference...

Julius Seizure said...

Thanks for the insight....I wonder why every book/post I read about I-banking and consulting makes me never want to be in that profession but at the end of the day - these companies tend to suck up the most MBAs. I wonder if money becomes more important to people having no income for two years and added debt of close to $120k. Another question that comes to mind is whether the money offered by these companies is because the work requires a VERY high skill and experience level or is it because no one would work in i-banking/consulting if they weren't paid a whole lot more than working in the industry as people say?

angie said...

Thank you very much for your comments. I would like to address some of the questions

I don't think you can say it's "fun" in general, it's a tough job and they don't pay a lot for fun but because they also expect a lot in terms of sacrifice. You have good times and bad times and I think there are more ups and downs than in normal jobs, so more excitement/fun in some moments but also more frustration and pressures.I think hardly any job is fun all the time (probably none, unfortunately)

what do you mean exactly with the pros and cons in their roles? do you mean if MBAs do different things at the job than other consultants??

I agree with you completely. I wonder how you will decide about returning in the end. Many former analysts have warned me you become nostalgic very soon and think it wasn't that bad.

I think it is both. You need well qualified people who have other opportunities elsewhere so you have to pay them better than anyone else. You couldn't demand such sacrifice from people who could easily work in an easier job without offering good money. Once you take less qualified people, you can't justify the astronomic fees to the client anymore.

I only browser your post quickly and didn't find any criticism, seems like I missed it. You'll never know what was behind their decision I guess.

Moe said...

Angie, that is why I am thinking of just basically leave but keep the door open.
Since I am unsure at this point (it's funny how career perspectives changes quickly as you realize that you will be a student again soon!), I might not take their offer of sponsorship since I think I am being unfair to them and will be taking funding away from someone else in the firm who truely wants to remain with the firm for many years to come after MBA.
I informed the partners about my thoughts and situation and they appreciated my honesty with them and more importantly, they did say the door will always be open for me to come back.
Even a bigger issue now is my firm is thinking of selling it's middle eastern operation which makes it an interesting situation for me as my intention was to work with the Middle East partners on a fulltime basis after the MBA.
Maybe my long term goals that I put in my essays are becoming my immediate goals after MBA!
Eitherway, is it August yet? :-P

Forrest Gump said...

AA - I would beg to differ. There are jobs where people are happy, and I personally think that for each profession, there are people who enejoy it a lot (probably true for consulting as well). I write software code for bread, but I dont feel energised about that fact when I wake up in the morning. But I will tell you this, there are people who actually love this line of job so much that they are willing to spend their whole day in office. It doesnt make any difference to them that by doing so they are in turn ruining their work-life balance. I have a friend who is charged up each time he learns that their is a new technology or software in the market, and he goes the extra mile to learn that - and probably that's the reason he's doing so well. I may be wrong in saying this - but I feel that most(definitely not all) future MBAs are the people who for some reason dont completely enjoy what they at work, and probably approach an MBA with the desire to explore greener pastures. So the feeling that "work is not fun" probably resonates more in our community (of MBA applicants) than it would otherwise do. What do you think?

-tvu said...

AA thaks for the post. I was curious about management/strategy consulting. I did some research onto "a day in life" of consulting, but yours is has more detail and honest about highs and lows. Hopefully I'll still want to continue that direction once I start my application for LBS for next year. Hopefully I'll get in. If not, there's a couple of other B-schools I have as secondary choices.

angie said...

tomv, glad to be of help.

Forrest Gump - I agree with you that there must be people who love their job. What I was trying to say when I said that no job is "fun" was that even if you do a job you love, one cannot expect it to be fun most of the time. Just take a dedicated doctor helping starving children or an actor in a theatre. I'm sure such people love their jobs, but still these jobs are very tough and demanding. So it was just a matter of semantics.

Apart from that, I'm sure you're right that bschools must have an unusually high number of people who aren't 100% convinced by what they're doing and want to do something better. Let's hope we won't be disappointed :-) !

mbayisyen said...

I don't know but I really don't mind Lufthansa's meals. They're much better than thsoe served on North American airlines. Frankly speaking, I travelled a lot for work and I think a body can only take so many flights in a given period. I dreaded going on yet another flight. Sad considering how much I enjoyed traveling (for fun).

angie said...

mbayisyen, Lufthansa meals are good on longer distance flights, it's just on national flights that they are pretty poor, usually white bread with ham or salami and that's it. They've improved a little bit recently and sometimes they offer some fruit in the morning or a salad in the evening, but 9 out of 10 flights it's the white bread with cheap pork :-(. I can't believe myself how much time I have spent on airports and in taxis over the last years.

searching4path said...

Not an MBA here, but a fellow consultant in that third category you've described..waiting for my chance to get away from the consulting life. Congrats on leaving and best wishes with your new direction in life!

MBABlogger said...

Thanks a ton for such a wonderful post.. What an idiot I am :) You wrote it for my query and I am reading it today after such a long time.. thanks to the tags you added :)

I have taken up an internsip with a consulting firm for a few months before I start MBA and I agree to most of what you said.. its a small firm so the culture is a bit diff but still most of it is same! And so far I am loving it and all game for it..

Thanks once again for spending so much time to answer my queries..

optimus prime said...

Thanks for such an amazing and vivid description of a consulant job. Like forrest gump said there a lot of people who actually love their jobs. Im a service engineer with a company which is one of the best in many industries. But i work for a smaller region and i don't like my job at all. I dread waking up every morning to go to work. The happiest days are when i have no work. I've been in this for the past 19 months, tried to get into something else, but luck didnt come my way. This is one of the reasons i felt the need for an MBA, as i would have a multitude of options post MBA.
I really want to get into consulting or startegy management. One thing i learned in my current job is I love to solve others problems. Angie, it would be great if you can advice me on the steps to get into consulting. Im an engineering major in Biomedical.

Vijay said...

What a great post, I had only heard from people what life is like. But in your post you made it sound fun to me.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

hi angel....thans 4 such a post...really provided great insight...i have a query...actually i am applying in a consultancy firm but i plan 2 go for mba next year so should i reveal this fact to them if incase i am asked to sign for a bond??

nevido84 said...

Hi Angie,

How many hours a day/week will you be working as a trader? Can you please post an entry about different job titles with min/max hours of work required daily/weekly from IB and MC candidates?

And, I have been reading your posts, actually I started to follow you today and still trying to catch up. If you already made a post with this information I appreciate if you can send me the link.



angie said...

anonymous - that depends on the consulting firm, many of them support MBAs so it would not be a problem. one year into the job is a bit quick perhaps, just be open-minded about it.

Nathan - as a trader I work between 50-60 hours per week, the most common schedule is about 7am - 6pm

i'd say min-max is
trading 50 - 65
IB 60 - 100
Consultng 55 -80
just roughly
and trading is the highest paid, so you know where the smart and lazy people go :-).