View from the inside: management consulting

What's it really like to be a management consultant? A senior associate from one of the Big Four firms (who asked to remain anonymous) tells Lucy Mair his story

In a nutshell, consulting is about advising businesses and organisations on how to do something better than they can do it themselves. There are many different types of advice you can give, but I specialise in operations management consulting, which is helping businesses to be more efficient and save money. I've spent 18 months at my firm as an associate on the graduate programme and I've recently been promoted to senior associate.

Learning curve

The graduate scheme is, in theory, a rotational programme that lets you sample each of the eight types of consulting that the firm provides. But, in practice, you may only experience two to three different areas before you begin to specialise in one. My first few assignments happened to be operations consulting projects in the public sector - and that's what I've been doing since then, having earned a reputation for public sector work. You can express preferences for the types of projects you want to do, but your assignments depend largely on what's available. There's a central resourcing team at the firm, who are like internal recruitment consultants, and when a job comes up they find the right people and assign them to the project.

Any junior consultant who claims that their job is really exciting is probably lying. In the first year, about 70 per cent of your time is spent number-crunching on Excel and making presentations on PowerPoint for the more senior members of your project team. It's tedious work, but you've got to get on with it and make the most of the opportunity to pick up knowledge and experience so you can begin to take on responsibility for more interesting work.

I joined my firm in a class of 30 graduates and at the start of the graduate programme we had six weeks of intensive training together at a residential centre. We were also given a syllabus of learning and development work that we're encouraged to complete in our own time, then every three months we're tested on several modules. It's frustrating if I'm busy with project work and have to cram in some studying the night before, but it's beneficial in the long run because it has given me an understanding of the theory behind the practical work.

On the job

Consultants are unpopular because we get blamed for job losses at the companies we advise. My particular role often involves telling clients to reduce the number of employees they have. This is because our objective is to help clients save money. Many businesses can become more efficient by replacing people with modern technology, but the easiest way to reduce costs is, unfortunately, to make jobs redundant. My current project, for example, involves a hospital which is facing huge budgetary pressures. By gathering data and carrying out surveys, my team and I are looking at where the management can afford to make cuts and how they should be implemented without compromising the hospital's services.

The biggest challenge in consulting is trying to justify your own existence - especially as a graduate trainee. When I turn up at the hospital, even though the management want me on board to help them do things better, the staff I work with on a daily basis can be quite hostile towards me. They're trained professionals, some of whom have been doing their job for over twenty years, and it's very difficult to convince them that I know what I'm doing. But it's rewarding when I get through to people and tell them something that they didn't already know, or when I can help a client to see something differently and reconsider how they operate.

Management consulting also involves a lot of travelling, which isn't as glamorous as it may sound. I'm based in London, but I need to spend a couple of days each week at the hospital, which is in the North, so I have to take an early morning train, stay in a hotel overnight, then return to London the following evening. A project like this one usually lasts for about four months, which means you're constantly going back and forth. Although I found the travelling difficult at first, you stop thinking about it after a while - it's just part of the job. I enjoy doing hands-on work, and you can't do that unless you're on the client's site, talking to them directly. Spending hours on a train isn't much fun, but I think our reasons for doing it make it worthwhile.

Fitting in

My firm is very big and, with thousands of people based in the building, at times I feel like a cog in a machine. What's more, although I've worked in small teams of three to four people on most of my projects, it's not like a normal office where you sit with the people you work with - currently, my manager is based in Manchester and my director is in Glasgow, so I very rarely see them. But the firm encourages everyone to spend time getting to know each other and building an internal network. We've got several coffee shops in the building so we can take breaks and chat to people, and there's also a number of established social clubs and sports teams. There are 300 graduates at my firm, and because there are so many of us, it's easy to find people with similar interests to socialise with.

Although there are a number of different ranks of people at the firm, my relationship with senior people is very informal. When you're working on a project everybody has their own role, so I don't think of people as partners or directors - just as colleagues. Senior people are more knowledgeable about the types of problems you're helping the client to solve, but junior people are the ones who do most of the analysis, so everyone respects and relies on each other.

Stepping stones

I enjoy my job because it's increasingly hands-on and I can take on personal responsibility for helping businesses to improve - I also get satisfaction from solving problems and making processes work more efficiently. But, by the end of the graduate scheme, I think more people know that consulting isn't the right job for them than vice versa. It's possible to walk through the door of a Big Four firm and spend your whole career climbing your way up the pyramid, but I think many people use the graduate programme as a launch pad into other careers because it's an excellent opportunity to understand how businesses operate and develop your practical skills.