Is a Long-Term Career in Consulting Possible?

Published: Jul 24, 2017

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When it comes to choosing an employer in the consulting industry, candidates often survey the field and come away with the impression that there's really only one career path open to them: spending two or three years at a firm before moving on.

There have traditionally been good reasons for doing this: many people enter consulting with the intent of fast-tracking themselves into a management career, or to gain the requisite experience to bolster an MBA application for one of the bold-face business schools.

But what if there were a way to gain all of those benefits without the stress of having to think about your next move from literally your first day on the job? What if, in other words, it were possible to have a consulting career where the idea of staying for five to ten years, or even longer, was built into the core of the firm's identity?

Newsflash: it just might be possible. In an era where consulting firms are facing stiff competition for talent everywhere from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, many firms are beginning to focus on increasing retention of existing employees to keep up with demand.

Along the way, they're finding out that it's not just a numbers game, either: as Matt Riordan, a Partner at Putnam Associates—a Boston-headquartered life sciences consulting firm—told me in a recent interview, there are serious business benefits to be gleaned from a focus on retaining consultants over the long-term. And this is a firm that should know: fully 70% of Putnam's senior leadership consists of people who started their careers with the firm.

Beyond up or out

Noting that the firm has been has been focused on long-term retention since its inception almost 30 years ago, Riordan suggests that there are several benefits to the strategy—for both the employee and the company.

"We certainly recognize that there are a lot of firms out there that have a two-year or an up-and out policy," he tells me. "At Putnam, our approach is quite the opposite.  Where we sit as a firm, at the intersection of life science and business, it requires a pretty deep skill set and knowledge base. We invest a lot in training our employees—both as new hires and as they progress in their career.  By identifying the qualities and skills we want to develop in our staff, and providing them the formal and the on-the-job training, it really pays off for us if we can see our people grow, and see them expand their skill sets to benefit themselves and our clients. And we see a lot of that value as a firm start to pick up once someone has been around two to three to four years."

Retention is good for clients…

Not only does that make sense for Putnam, it also helps with client satisfaction and retention:

"The number one frustration of clients with consultants is having to spend their time explaining to the consultants what they should be doing," says Riordan. "We want to make sure that's not happening. We want to be able to jump in and be the experts— both in terms of specific challenges our clients are facing and a general sense of understanding of our clients’ context. If we can make our clients' lives easier rather than harder, that's going to benefit our business."

…and for consultants

And, unsurprisingly, it also helps individuals to accelerate their career paths, as Riordan points out. (And if anyone should know about how Putnam looks after employees, it's Riordan: he has been at the firm for more than a dozen years, and stayed at the company after business school at Yale—through the firm’s MBA Sponsorship Program).

"While long-term career retention is a goal, we recognize that not everybody is going to stay at the firm for 10, 15, 20 years like several of the partners. We’ve had tremendous success in getting people into  top 5 MBA programs, as an example, after they've been with us for 4 or 5 years—they really are able to differentiate their candidacy based on the level of real leadership that they've had in the organization here at Putnam, and as a manager and leader for the clients we serve. And when people have left to go into industry-level positions, they're able to jump in at a much higher level than they otherwise would have been able to at that point in their career if they'd gone directly into industry or another firm with less focus on developing managerial experience." 

The importance of honesty 

Of course, you don't find those candidates—or that kind of firm—by accident. When I asked Riordan how the firm identifies potential hires who are looking to stick around for the long term, his answer came down to a simple concept: honesty. 

"We let candidates know that the job itself is very rewarding, but it's especially rewarding in that three- to five-year time frame. So if somebody is looking for a job that's going to be less than two years, we're frank with them, and let them know that, there might be other firms that would be a better fit." 

To try to boost its retention, the firm has specific targets for numbers they want to see to continuing on beyond set milestones, such as the two-year mark. And, to prove it's not just talk, the firm has introduced a number of different benefits focused on encouraging talent to stick around—these included a specific retention bonus for newly-hired associates, as well as a revamped parental leave policy. 

The work-life balance question
Finally, I asked Riordan about one of the biggest retention challenges in the industry—the hours. Any firm that wants to hold onto its employees knows that, as they progress in their careers, the promise of a better work-life balance in an industry position is often a powerful lure. To that end, Riordan notes that, while consulting will always be consulting, the firm does whatever it can to mitigate the work-life issues for employees: 

"It's not exactly a nine to five job; but we want to make sure it's not 80 to 100 hours per week and people are getting burned out. We want to try to find a balance there and make sure that it's sustainable in the long-term."

At this point, hopefully it should be clear that, while consulting is an industry that has its own set of challenges related to employee retention and issues like work-life balance, no two firms are exactly alike, and there is no shortage of people within the industry who are trying to move the needle on these issues. Therefore, as you move through the interview process in the next few months, it's worth keeping these issues in mind and exploring the possibility of investing in a career option that will provide the potential of long-term career and a strong outlook for future opportunities. Who knows: maybe in years to come, the phrase "consulting lifestyle" will come to represent something closer to the model at Putnam Associates than its current meaning.

This post was sponsored by Putnam Associates.