To say that management consultants work to increase efficiency is accurate, if not thorough—it doesn't capture the myriad responsibilities these professionals tackle for an equally vast range of organizations. We discuss the details of day-to-day life in the field—and the skills and degrees you'll need to start in it.
In an era when the internet and global media train a constant focus on every industry, it's more important than ever for businesses to find ways to stand out, tighten their operations, increase revenue, and keep expenses low. It's a highly competitive environment in which business leaders need to exploit every potential advantage. A management consultant can provide one by dispassionately developing strategies to improve an organization's overall performance and operations while growing its business.
While the demand for management consulting professionals is increasing at a steady rate, the field itself is hardly new. The first management consulting firm was founded in the late 1890s by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Arthur D. Little; the firm still bears his name. Booz Allen Hamilton, established in 1914 by Edwin G. Booz, a graduate of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, followed. McKinsey & Co. arrived just over a decade later, followed by other industry heavyweights, including the Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Co. in the latter half of the century.
Most management consultants work for consulting firms. They span a range of services across all areas of business—from HR, strategy, and marketing to IT, distribution, and finance. This broad range of services makes consulting an attractive career path for individuals who seek varied work environments, challenges, and opportunities for personal development. Many also favor the frequent travel and high salaries the profession provides.
This guide to management consultant degrees covers the following questions:
The job description for management consultants typically focuses on providing practical advice and professional services. As business experts, they're trained to solve complex problems, devise novel strategies, and improve the financial and operational health of their clients' organizations. Their clients are often large organizations, such as Fortune 500 companies, investment firms, government agencies, and leading nonprofits.
Most organizations hire management consultants for their industry insight, problem-solving abilities, and logical objectivity. They are also ideal for providing objective, third-party opinions on significant decisions, such a substantial investment, potential acquisition, or strategy shift.
To help with a specific aspect of business or an organizational issue, management consultants may interview all levels of an organization's staff to understand capabilities, problems, and previously unsuccessful solutions. They may analyze financial and other organizational data, including financial statements, payroll information, and employment reports, and review organizational technologies to understand business needs.
In many cases, management consultants are expected to guide executives and train management to fulfill corporate missions, expand capabilities, and suggest solutions supported by quantitative data. Throughout a single project, they're also required to participate in many, many meetings with an organization's leadership team, during which consultants will provide updates and leadership offers feedback and guidance of their own.
Typically, organizations that need the help of management consultants solicit proposals from many consultants and consulting firms that specialize in the required work. Those who want the work must then submit a proposal that explains how they will do the work, who will do the work, why they are the best consultants to do the work, what the schedule will be, and how much it will cost. From there, organizations select the proposals that best meet their needs and budgets.
Management consultants frequently work in teams. Most work for consulting firms that contract with organizations to provide guidance. These firms fall into the following categories:
With the job market for management consultants growing increasingly competitive, employers are looking for applicants with robust a skill set. Successful candidates should combine hard skills gained through education and on-the-job training with personal qualities that enable them to interact effectively with other people and quickly adapt to change.
It's not uncommon for management consultants to be challenged with problems that are entirely new to a specific industry. With little experience or data to back up their decision-making process, they need to figure out how to turn out-of-the-box ideas into actionable recommendations for improved systems, processes, and organizational changes.
Some firms require candidates to have advanced level computer science and data modeling skills. This could involve in-depth expertise of Excel, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), and Structured Query Language (SQL) or programming and big data languages such as C#, Hadoop, and Python.
Clients pay big money to work with management consultants. They expect expertise, and they expect results. You need to project mastery and self-assurance to impress these folks. Fail and you will soon find yourself looking for a new gig.
On a given consulting project, change can take shape through an unexpected problem, new information, a new direction in business priorities, or a modified brief. Clients may expect consultants to drop everything to address their crisis right now. Management consultants frequently work long, irregular hours. The profession requires someone comfortable with the uncomfortable—or unpredictable—who can remain adaptable in the face of change.
Management consultants excel at creating and giving compelling, convincing, and impressive presentations. Whether it be one-on-one with a member of the C-suite or in front of a crowd with the latest multimedia technology, they must be able to tell remarkable stories, communicate complex information in simple ways, and be memorable.
Consultants should be able to develop a trusting relationship with all levels of an organization's staff quickly and easily, be good listeners, and have excellent oral and written communication skills. Whether speaking with a leadership team or entry-level employees, it's also essential that they demonstrate a willingness to hear how a problem is affecting an organization's members personally, and not just from a financial or production standpoint.
In the consulting world, the ability to work with data—that is, to see patterns and trends and to draw meaningful conclusions from them—is crucial to providing recommendations to clients.
During large projects, management consultants work in teams that can range from ten to hundreds of people. Poise, trustworthiness, friendliness, and leadership ability are crucial to prevent a project from quickly turning into a hotbed of chaos—and instead, create the environment of support and momentum that's necessary for successful organizational change.
Most employers require candidates to have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in accounting, business, finance, marketing, management, or a similar field. Others prefer to hire those with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a related master's degree. Let's look at some of the top schools for each path.
According to US News and World Report, the best undergraduate business programs in America operate at these schools:
US News and World Report also publishes an annual ranking of the top MBA programs, which include programs at:
Certification isn't required to become a management consultant, but those who pursue specialized qualifications tend to have an advantage over non-certified job seekers.
Certification is offered by several professional associations and organizations. Top certificates include the Certified Management Consultant (CMC) qualification from the Institute of Management Consultants USA.
To obtain this certification, candidates must have completed three years of work experience as a full-time consultant within the last five years, hold a degree from a four-year college, and provide five satisfactory client evaluations from officers or executives of client organizations. Additionally, they must demonstrate their professional competence and understanding of the ethical aspects of consulting through written and oral examinations.
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