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Week in the life of a consultant

I wrote this post in May 2006 while still working at McKinsey. I used to run a very popular blog on my life as a consultant during this time, and this one one of the most popular posts that many readers found very helpful, so I am reposting this here for anyone interested in what life as a management consultant is really like:

Monday, Monday

My week starts on Monday morning, 5:45 a.m. My alarm is always set for 6 a.m. but I usually wake up shortly before it rings, worried I might oversleep and miss my flight. I used to do the packing on Sundays but by now the process has become so efficient I can shower, dress, pack my bags and have a tea within 30 minutes.

At 6:30 I’m off to the airport, get my ticket from the machine and go straight to the lounge. I used to cling to every possible minute of sleep and thus arrive only a minute or two before the deadline for electronic tickets (25 minutes before takeoff) but I have picked up the habit of arriving 10 minutes earlier to spend some time in the lounge. That way I can have a small muesli with tea and grab a banana or two that come in handy during the rest of the day. In the lounge, I already tend to bump into at least 5 colleagues heading to different cities for their projects. The usual questions are “where are you at the moment?” and “how is it going?”, apart from that we don’t usually talk too much.


In order to be a consultant you need a client…

Monday around 9 or 9:30 the working week begins…. To explain what we actually do on a daily basis is very hard, because it is so varied. The general idea is that we get assigned to a project, and this can be anything from cutting backoffice cost to designing a market entry strategy to setting up world class operations or customer experience, really anything. The very first days are dedicated to meeting with senior clients (members of the board and their direct reports) to agree on concrete actions to take and the direction and scope of the project. Then we spend a lot of time gathering data, understanding data, discussing potential solutions and creating concrete suggestions. There are different approaches to this. The approach I like the most is what we call “collaborative problem solving” which means you don’t do many presentations as a consultant but learn more to solve problems and develop solutions jointly with the client, using their expertise and “the wisdom of the masses”.

Once you have gathered enough data and information, a lot of time is spent on drawing good and meaningful charts. At the beginning I couldn’t believe how much time I had to spend on this and I thought it was completely useless. Now I see the point of it. First of all, the more experience you have, the faster you draw the charts so the more time you spend on the actual content rather than the format. Secondly, each word and number in the hands of the wrong people (or the right people who misunderstood) is very dangerous, so it is very important to document on a constant basis the status of discussions. We tend to work on critical issues decisive for targets, bonus payments, investment decisions and so on, so it is important to have documented what you propose and what you don’t propose, otherwise people can easily shift blame on you.

So I would say we spend 1/3 of the time on meetings and discussions with clients, 1/3 on conducting excel analyses and making presentations, and almost 1/3 can be spent internally in discussions with project managers, partners and directors. This is often insightful but sometimes seems a waste of time when you’re busy. At my current project, we have a lot of interaction with partners and directors (directors are one step higher than the partners and actually the highest you can get within our company). We tend to get together 3h per week with all the teams working at this client to discuss current events at the client (critical discussions, frictions between senior managers, potential takeovers, competitor moves etc.), this is a great way to get to know the industry and the higher echelons of the client. Additionally, we have two or three more hours for the small team working on one topic to discuss it with directors. They make sure we are going into the right direction and like to challenge everything to test if we have thought everything through.

Working hard

Working hours depend very much on the project, the normal consulting hours in Germany are probably 8:30 am till 11 pm, but currently I have to work till midnight or longer on many days and also start at 8 am most days. There is not much “facetime” as in investment banking though, if there’s not much to do I leave much earlier than that. Yesterday for example I left at 7:45 (I think that was my record during the last 2 years!), or on Friday I just took the flight home at 1 pm since I had worked till 3 am the two nights before. So hours are definitely very flexible, but if there is one thing to count on it is that you don’t have any private life during the week.

Keeping in touch

The time spent in taxis is a great time to call friends and family. By now, it’s almost only family I call on the way to and from airports and hotels. In the first year, right after the introductory trainings, I would call many new colleagues or they would call me. Conversations were very kind and supportive. We would call and e-mail each other at least once a week to see how everyone was going, how they liked it and so on.

This has subsided significantly in the second year. Some people have adapted to work fully and have found new friends among the people they work with, or they were opportunistic from the start and have shifted their attention to people higher up in the food chain. Some people are unhappy due to tough projects or unfavourable performance ratings and avoid contact (promotions are very transparent so if you’re not promoted, while all your peers are, everybody will come up to you and ask “why weren’t you promoted?”). And then there is the third group that is somewhere in the middle, moderately happy but really counting down the days till they can leave. They are focused on finding a new job, dreaming about their MBA or just spending time with their loved ones and also tend to become less and les communicative.



Most of the best friends I have made fall in the third category, one Jamaican lawyer is looking to return to a law career, one Californian HBS grad is looking into a teaching career, and my fellow peer from Germany is counting down the days till his IESE MBA in Barcelona starts. These are the people I’m still in touch with. If I hear from people from the other two categories at all it is at the time they are looking for a new project and they call me to ask “have you worked with this partner?”, “how’s this guy?” etc.. I tend to be very helpful with extensive advice but have often experienced that once people pick a new project, they don’t really bother to update you where they ended up finally. I wonder if this will happen also with lots of contacts at business school. You have a great time together, then everybody starts new jobs, the first year people stay very much in touch to find out how they are doing at their respective jobs, and then most people fall out of touch and only call each other when they are looking for a new job and remember they should “network”. The important thing I guess is to have 5 people or so who are true friends for a longer period of time.

Home sweet home

Thursday evening before takeoff I also head to the lounge if I have time to have a quick snack before the flight (the food on the planes is usually unacceptable). Again, I tend to bump into several colleagues, which is nice because people tend to be more cheerful and talkative on Thursday evenings when compared to Mondays. I used to go to the duty free to bring chocolate or champagne as a present on Thursday but this has also become less interesting over the years so now I don’t usually bring any presents home anymore.

Casual Friday

Friday is our “office day” (see the view from my office on the left) where we have no client meetings and use the time to prepare documents for the next week, conduct analyses and also complete some of the admin stuff we don’t have time for during the week, such as expenses etc.. I also like catching up with my peers, especially with the above mentioned partner in crime counting the days till business school. I tend to be very efficient on Fridays since I like to go home early. I try to head home at 5 pm, unless there is something urgent for Monday. Usually I opt for leaving early no matter what, even if it means I have to spend an hour or two on the weekend finishing.

This pretty much sums up my week. On the weekend I usually recover from the week, sleeping a lot, relaxing a lot, playing with my nephew, shopping, watching Seinfeld or Bruce Lee movies , doing some sports and so on. In general, time passes extremely fast.
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If you are interested in a career in management consulting, also read this consulting career guide.

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{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Kristie February 16, 2012, 3:05 AM

    Hello,

    Thank you so much for posting this! It’s really shed some light on questions I had about consulting. I’m a first year undergraduate student in general business and I’ve been doing a lot of research in management consulting. I love that you travel and work with clients directly.

    One thing that’s been making me hesitant to take the step into majoring in management is that I hear there’s no chance of a family life in consulting. I’m really family oriented and would like to start one when I’m older, while at the same time having a good career life. Is it possible to have a family and good career life in management consulting? If not, are there any “exit” roads or other jobs available to ex-consultants if I pursue management consulting for ten or so years before leaving it to settle down?

    Thank you so much in advance!

    Kristie

    • High Flying Ladies
      Twitter: ueberfliegernet
      February 16, 2012, 8:11 PM

      Hi Kristie,
      glad you enjoyed the post! You raise a very valid concern! Work life balance and the travel is one of the drawbacks of consulting, so you are right to be concerned. There are certainly people who make it work, for example by doing only engagements in their home town once they have family, but given that there will always be travel and somewhat long hours involved, I think it is a very tough job to combine with family life.
      But you are young and I think too young to choose a job based on family planning already. The average time people spend in consulting is 2-3 years. Most who leave go on to business school or academia, or (the most common) to corporate jobs, often in senior positions at clients, and many also leave for leadership positions in the non-profit sector. If you work for one of the top consultancies, you learn a lot very fast and your exit options are extremely good and varied. So if you are in undergrad, even if you may just work in consulting for three years after you graduate, you can still explore many other jobs later.
      You migh also enjoy reading my post
      What is a female-friendly career? Myths and reality.
      Let me know if you have any more questions!
      All the best,
      Anke.

      • Kristie March 2, 2012, 5:38 AM

        Anke,

        Thank you for the link to the second article, that was very insightful.

        I could go on all day asking questions, but I don’t want to overwhelm the blog haha. Management consulting is quite a broad term. Every time I respond with it to the question “what do you want to do when you graduate?” they ask me if there’s a more specialized area then just giving advice to another company. My question is, the type of lifestyle that the blog writes about, is it under a specific specialization like finance, marketing, customer relations etc.? Because the job that is described in this blog is exactly the one that I want.

        Also, McKinsey is my dream company to work at. Are there any tips on how to stand out as a candidate for the job or what major they particularly choose from out of all the undergraduate students? (I’m in general right now).

        Thanks again.
        This is much appreciated,
        Kristie

      • High Flying Ladies
        Twitter: ueberfliegernet
        March 4, 2012, 9:01 PM

        Kristie,
        sure no worries, ask as much as you like! You may have seen I actually added an “Ask me” section to this website especially for this purpose, so feel free to drop me other questions there!
        The lifestyle I wrote about comes from my experience in strategy consulting, but I think it would be very similar for any type of consulting really.
        In terms of how to stand out, your major is likely to be the least important factor, at least for McKinsey. They do care about recruiting from Ivy League/top universities and aim to hire students from the top 5-10% of those universities, so you do need extremely strong test results and academic credentials. Other than that, it really helps to have any other areas of achievement no matter in what field (music, art, sports, academics, leadership), simply because it reflects a high level of ambition, determination and discipline that the likes of McKinsey look for. Hope that helps!

  • Jaret June 13, 2016, 7:01 AM

    Based on my experience at the Firm this is a relatively rosy view… Generally reviews with leadership result in points of view which conflict with the existing story, and it needs to l be adjusted substantially. Then this must all be undone when the DCS wants to revert to the original story. Moreover, I’ve rarely had a client satisfied with a progress review–usually if they are happy they ask for extra work, which is arguably their right given the price they are paying..

    • High Flying Ladies
      Twitter: ueberfliegernet
      October 7, 2016, 11:59 AM

      sorry to hear you have had a bad experience, I did not experience it in any way that you describe.

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