Am I a consultant?

For graduates and young professionals aspiring towards a career in consulting, one of the key questions is: ‘Do I have what it takes to become a consultant?’ To support students and professionals with their decision making process, compiled a list of the most important qualities and skills that are expected in consultants.

In the current, dynamic market landscape, expectations of organisations and professionals keep increasing. Most notably, the ongoing trend of digitalisation has caused the constant reform of organisations’ business models and transformations of complete systems, processes and companies. These developments also have an impact on consulting firms, who are frequently called upon to support their clients with the complex change initiatives or transitions that they face. The consequence, nowadays, is that expectations of consultancy professionals and emerging talent also keep increasing.

This, in turn, has raised the bar in terms of the requirements for becoming a consultant, especially in the top segment of the market. The following is an overview of the most important qualifications, characteristics and skills a consultant is required to possess.

College or university degree

First and foremost, practically all consultancy firms will examine the candidate’s background, including their level of education. The course taken isn’t necessarily the most significant factor, so even if one hasn’t taken the typical path of graduating in business administration, one can often enter the profession with other backgrounds (mathematics, law or psychology). The defining factor is whether one can demonstrate an academic level of thinking and convincingly explain why one would make a good consultant.

Logical reasoning and ability to problem solve                                      

As a consultant, one is expected to have excellent problem solving skills. Based on the available (and sometimes incomplete) data, one often has to make sense of the complex challenges posed by clients in a short time and find viable solutions to present them. With a substantial lack of data to analyse, consultants need to be able to make reasonable estimates based on logical reasoning.

Working under pressure

Consultants are expected to command good presenting skills under (high) pressure. Some client assigments and projects will come with sharp deadlines whereby flexibility is expected from consultants in terms of working longer hours when necessary. In other instances, consultants need to take drastic measures for a client (for example with a reorganisation), which can cause staff members or other stakeholders to put consultants under high (mental) strain. Moreover, consultants are often involved with large-scale projects that have huge interests and sums are at stake with little to no margin for error. Consultants are expected to be able to deal with working under such high pressure, especially as they step up the career ladder. 

Analytical skills 

With the rise of digitalisation (as well as Big Data and Analytics), demand for analytical and quantitive skills among (consultancy) professionals is growing. Consultants regularly conduct research using their ability to gather and analyse data (and presenting their findings to clients), which represents a crucial skill for consultants in this day and age. During a job interview, it is important that candidates can provide examples of a complex problem that they can solve on the basis of finding and analysing data.

Intellectual curiosity 

Consultants are expected to possess a high degree of intellectual curiosity. Seeing as they frequently work in diverse sectors and areas of expertise, it is of utmost importance that consultants are capable of finding simple solutions for complex problems. For this, intellectual curiosity or thinking ‘outside the box’ is necessary when tackling problems. During a job interview, candidates can demonstrate their intellectual curiosity by illustrating their own unique interests and passions. 

Team players 

Consultants are expected to be able to operate well within teams. Clients of consultancy firms are often aided by a team of consultants who, often in a multidisciplinary context, are equipped to tackle the challenges posed by the client. From day one, consultants usually get a high level of responsibility within these teams. However, the objectives of the team always remain top priority. During a job interview held by a potential employer, the candidates need to concretely show why they are the team player that the consultancy firm is looking for.

Leadership skills

Leadership is another essential quality that consultants need to possess. Besides managing individual tasks and responsibilities, consultants need to display leadership toward their client – partly based on their input and approach to a problem - and be able to guide them by the hand during a project. Moreover, once consultants have been working at a firm long enough they also need to be able to lead more junior consultants. In a job interview, it is important that candidates are able to convey examples of their own leadership (of a team). 

Entrepreneurial and bold in initiative

Consultants need to be entrepreneurial and show enough initiative. Since consultants are continuously busy solving often-complex problems (mostly for clients), they constantly need to find ways of improving matters and translate them into concrete (business) plans. During a job interview, candidates need to be able to name examples of situations in which they showed initiative and developed active ideas for improving an existing process or solving a problem. Another example of behavior demonstrative of initiative is taking the time to revise your knowledge on a particular subject in order to better tackle a problem, which leads to a higher regard for candidates by consultancy firms.

Client oriented and ‘people skills’ 

For the most part, consultants do work for and with clients in which they, for instance, give advise on a strategic concern or offer support for an implementation trajectory. Particularly at the junior level, consultants spend between 70% and 85% of their time with clients. The relationship with these clients forms the basis of every firm, demonstrating the importance of maintaining excellent relations with clients. Consequently, it is of great importance that consultants command the right ‘people skills’. Aside from verbal communication skills, consultants are also expected to work on their listening skills, on body language, and negotiating skills. In a job interview, candidates must show that they possess these ‘people skills’, by recounting, for instance, previous experiences in past team work cases. 

Other activities 

Lastly, when applying for a job as a consultant, it is of great interest that they highlight enough extra curricular activities on their C.V. alongside their work experience and educational background. Out of these activities, possible skills could emerge that may benefit a consultant in their career. Activities such as: carrying out a management function during a study demonstrates qualities of leadership, practicing a team sport (at any which level) showing team player skills, and following a language course or workshop could display that a candidate pays ample attention to advancing in personal development.

Many young professionals with a background in business management or economics are increasingly choosing a job in the consulting industry after graduation. Annually, thousands of experienced professionals also enter the industry, either by choice or by working for a firm as an experienced consultant or independent advisor. What causes the trend?

If professionals are posed the question of what they would expect from a career in consulting, their answers would vary greatly. Some expect ‘high pressure & work load’, ‘long hours’ and perhaps ‘frequent business trips’, others will mention aspects like ‘high income’, ‘favourable career development opportunities’ and ‘high level of responsibility’. Whatever the case, there are enough conceivable reasons why a job in the consultancy branch can be an attractive option for new graduates as well as for experienced talent. The following is an overview of possible reasons for a career in consulting:

Client-oriented service

Professionals seeking work on service-oriented projects will find a good fit within world of consultancy. As a consultant, much time is spent working for and with clients by advising, for instance, on strategic issues or lending support for an implementation trajectory. Most notably while at the junior level, consultants spend between 70% to 85% of their time on clients. This client-oriented aspect is particularly attractive for many professionals in the industry.

Multifaceted and intellectual 

Professionals who resist repetitive tasks and would much rather find intellectually challenging responsibilities will find working as a consultant greatly fulfilling. A career in consultancy is highly versatile – one day you’re working on market research, the next on competitor analysis, while still developing a management dashboard or helping a client with a big change of management. Consultants are constantly warped into a new environment – if not a new branch, then a new field of operation, or a new client. Furthermore, the location is also continuously in flux: going from an office in Mumbai, flying in to a client in Delhi or Dubai and meeting with their team to discuss the project with the company’s CEO. 

Working in teams and carrying responsibility

Consultants are expected to operate well in teams and to work with like-minded, hard working and ambitious professionals. Clients are often helped by an entire team of consultants, depending on the type of project. Larger implementation projects often also involve larger teams, but most projects are carried out in small teams with a large share of individual responsibility on each consultant (client engagements). Dealing with such a high degree of responsibility, combined with the intellectually challenging and complex projects, are features that many professionals seek.

Career development and steep learning curve 

An important aspect often valued by professionals is the extensive nature of career development opportunities and the steep learning curve at consultancy firms. First of all, consultants work in an intellectually challenging environment, primarily due to the range of projects (from industry to the many services offered) as well as the fact that a (strikingly) high percentage of colleagues and clients are highly educated. Furthermore, many consulting firms offer their consultants numerous possibilities for personal development, allowing them to enhance their knowledge and skill-set. One might even consider advancing their career development by seeking further education (some top firms even encourage their consultants to follow an MBA) and courses or internal coaching programmes by senior consultants.

Earning a good salary 

One aspect not to forget is the impressive salary structure within the consulting industry. It is important note beforehand that there is little to no transparency on how much consultants earn, so the exact numbers remain ambiguous. To begin with, consultancy firms in the market differ in size and prestige. Besides the base salary, there are also countless other constructions possibly to beef up the earnings (bonuses, performance based fee, etc.) that need to be considered in order to gain a clear picture of all the different and possible earning models.

Work- life balance

Alongside a good salary and a stimulating working environment, the work-life balance in consulting also attracts professionals to the industry. Admittedly, the branch has gained a reputation over the last few years for long working hours. It is also known that, on average, three quarters of consultants work more hours than is stipulated in their contracts. Yet in many cases, long hours are rewarded in the form of a variety of secondary benefits that stimulate the work-life balance of consultants -  one might consider an available option like parental leave, working remotely, the possibility of taking a sabbatical, etc. 

Career launchpad

Finally, many professionals see consultancy as a good starting point to launch their future career. A lot of private and public organisations view consultants as appealing employers, partly due to their mix of functional skills (i.e. knowledge of branch/industry or analytic skills) and their personal skills (i.e. communication or management skills). Experienced consultants leave the consulting industry to work in corporations, for instance, in management functions. At the highest level, a partner at an advisory firm may leave the industry to fill an executive role somewhere else.