What I Wish I Had Learned Before Starting as a Consultant

Published: Jun 19, 2017

 Consulting       Education       Grad School       Interviewing       MBA       Workplace Issues       
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A deer in the headlights—that’s how I felt during the first few weeks in my consulting career. While I’ve heard people telling me romanticized jet setting stories, and earning miles or hotel rewards; surprisingly, not many told me about what I can do to prepare for a career in consulting.

Value in consulting is derived from a consultant's ability to solve problems for their clients. The vehicle to communicate those solutions is PowerPoint. Consultants must be able to take incredibly complex and challenging client issues, create solutions, and communicate those solutions succinctly. Clients, normally, are not interested in seeing a complicated 50-slide deck. Clients want to know solutions up front. I have been in plenty of client meetings where we have spent an entire meeting discussing the first two slides and leaving the other 15-20 as appendix/support items. In addition to expressing complicated problems/solutions, consultants must also create decks that are professional looking. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THIS! PowerPoint skills gained in industry often do not compare to the skills and expectations in management consulting.

Along with PowerPoint, Excel is something a consultant uses daily. Excel skills are considered "table stakes" for incoming consultants. VLOOKUP, filtering, graphing, advanced pivot table analysis, logical coloring, and a number of other functions are used to manipulate. While these functions seem straightforward, it becomes increasingly complicated when you are dealing with multiple spreadsheets of massive data sets that you must combine via VLOOKUPs and other methods. The smallest mistake can translate itself into a million-dollar blunder and can cost a rookie consultant their job. Don't be that guy.

Excel and PowerPoint are the tools used to analyze problems and communicate solutions; however, a good consultant knows how to tell a story. Storyboarding is the ability to clearly and logically structure a presentation that solves the client’s issue and anticipates any questions a client may have. Essentially, the structure fits the following pattern: 1) client situation; 2) your recommendation; 3) the approach; 4) your findings at each step of the analysis; 5) interpretation of the findings; and 6) synthesis of the recommendation to overall business objectives and next steps. Storyboarding is difficult and requires constant practice to truly master; however, a great place to start is to approach all problems by going through the six steps outlined previously.

Managing (Up and Down)
Consultants are expected to manage. In the traditional sense (managing down) you will see Partners and Senior Managers oversee Managers; Managers oversee Senior Consultants/Analysts; and Senior Consultants/Analysts manage Consultants/Junior Analysts. In addition to managing down, Consultants are also expected to manage up. Managers and above often work on multiple projects and/or are also working to bring in new business for the firm. Due to the difficulties of getting everything accomplished successfully, Managers and above rely on Consultants to manage work streams and report back on project status. In addition, consultants are also expected to contribute to project management duties and take on additional responsibilities to lighten the load of their overworked Managers.

Other Items to Consider

  • Develop a Point of View of Everything: Face it, if you’re a consultant, people pay for your advice. So start developing a point of view on various domains. Start with your domain of expertise from your work history and then branch out into other topics and areas as you advance within the firm.
  • Have a Sense of Urgency and Learn to Prioritize: When you are a consultant on a project, everything needed to get done yesterday, your managers are overworked, and clients can be very involved in the deliverables. Therefore, it is important to do quality work in a short amount of time. Prioritizing certain deliverables is key, as work will continue to pile up.
  • Manage Expectations & Communication: Consulting is team-oriented. Often, one consultant’s deliverables are dependent upon another’s. It is important to manage expectations by communicating what your understanding is of the task, your approach, what the end result will look like, and when your action items will be complete. And as you progress if any of these items change, it is important to communicate those changes to the team.

Consulting is a challenging and dynamic environment. But, overall, an incredible place to hone critical thinking skills, develop insights into specific industries, present solutions to board members and CEOs, and make lifelong friends.


Markus Adhiwiyogo is an executive coach at BreakInto.Consulting, an online platform that helps aspiring consultants prepare for consulting interviews. The BreakInto platform brings a fresh approach to consulting preparation and gives candidates an edge over other applicants. BreakInto.Consulting coaches are current or former MBB (McKinsey, BCG, Bain) consultants who have experience conducting case interviews and helping candidates prepare for these tough interviews.