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CONSULTING EXIT GUIDE: FIND YOUR WAY OUT OF CONSULTING
Hi there! I am Sudeshna from TheAbundancePsyche.com! I help consultants like yourself find and plan their ideal consulting exit. Why? Because I used to be a consultant with Deloitte and then Strategy& (PwC) and I literally drove myself insane with the number of options I had… and then did what most consultants do – went into the limbo.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Consulting. But I was convinced that I needed to spend sometime outside consulting to even become a better consultant. So I ultimately spent months researching and reflecting on what I wanted out of my exit. I picked a big tech role in a small brand of a medium sized company which used to be a Private Equity firm. As of when I am writing this guide, I still work there and I couldn’t have asked for a better exit oppotunity. But it took research, hard work and trusting that I could make the best of all situations. With TheAbundancePsyche, I try to help as many consultants as myself from 5 years back, to design their career.
In this guide you’ll find:
6 mistakes people make while planning their consulting exits
6 types of exits you can make
Top roles for ex-consultants
Pay potential and happiness index by exit type
The myth about hard skills
Best time to exit consulting
Career paths and sample career trajectories
Pros and cons of different exit types
Words of wisdom from Consulting Alumni
The top 5 leadership skills you need to crush your exit
This guide is pretty long, so I suggest you stay with me through it. I’ve tried my best to make it as friendly and readable as possible. So, I suggest you read the chapters systematically because some concepts build up gradually.
Once you have read through this guide, you will know exactly how to approach planning your exit, even if you have been in consulting for 15 years. One note of caution though, I’ve nothing against Consulting, and in fact, I love Consulting and would go back in a heartbeat when my life situation changes. I’ve also put in my perspectives on why I didn’t choose certain exit types, but remember that you and I are different and you need to craft your exit based on your medium and long term goals.
What to find where:
Chapter 1: Introduction
Why I wrote this guide
I was speaking to a fellow entrepreneur friend the other day about career change and consulting exit opportunities, to which he remarked rather surprised, “Why work so hard for a career you want to exit eventually?” Yet, during my time as a strategy consultant, working with co-workers from Ivy League institutes, this seemed so common that I never even questioned why people were interested in consulting exit options. It seemed like consulting is an industry built up on exits.
For most ambitious consultants, consulting seems like a chore after a few years. Even those who actually love the job, get frustrated with the lack of work-life balance, constant travel, and the lack of stability in their lives. Many times, the big-name status comes at the cost of health and family time. But here’s the truth – most consultants struggle to find proper insight into worthwhile careers after consulting that will keep up with their pay, and passion to do good work, while being gentler on health, hobbies, or family.
If you’re reading this guide, there’s a good chance that you are trying to find an exit opportunity that suits your personality and ambition for life, not just your ambition for your career.
We all know and joke about consulting being the bubble of insecure overachievers. Yet somehow, we wonder if we will be making the wrong decision while leaving consulting unless we land up in a big brand name. Funnily enough, even McKinsey consultants, or for that matter, all MBB consultants, are either looking for the highest paying jobs after consulting, or opportunities with FAANG. And what are they struggling with? Hard skills!
Mistakes people make while finding their consulting exit
I’ve seen them all – MBB consultants, Big 4, and even boutique consulting shops. And I can count on my fingers, the number of consultants I know who wanted to exit, and who didn’t make one of these mistakes. Here they go:
Get obsessed with brand names or the coolest tech companies because they just raised another round of capital or because they looks good on their resume
Obsess about Private Equity or Venture Capital because of money
Obsess about titles and strategy roles in Fortune 500 and ignore hidden growth businesses
Ignore an internal move within their own firm or a smaller consulting shop
Believe that they have to quit and jump into the one shot that they have at entrepreneurship
Set career goals in years, not decades
I have had too many friends burn their fingers in these mistakes, and because I am a strategy nerd obsessed with career and psychology, I probably have spent more than 20,000 hours study people’s careers. And through this guide, I will hopefully be able to convince you to not make these mistakes.
A bit about me
I know this to be true because, I, like you, searched, researched, felt like an impostor, went into work instigated depression, and cried myself to sleep in random hotel rooms in the midst of nowhere. It sounds wrong, no pun intended! I loved consulting, and in fact, I still do. I am a problem solver at heart and no one does that better than consultants. Yet why was I so unhappy in real life, though my resume and LinkedIn were glittering gold?
It was 2016 when my firm saw a lot of redundancies and my sponsor Partner left. It was then that I decided to quit consulting, because surely something that felt so hard to find a growth path in, couldn’t be for me. But I found literally a handful of resources, if that, on what paths were going to make me successful. In reality, I had no idea about what success meant other than FAANG or McKinsey. So, I started interviewing there. In fact, I had glowing feedback from McKinsey and they invited me to reapply. But moving from one firm to another without direction – how would that help? I just stayed put and started speaking to mentors, and career coaches. I signed up for personal development courses, masterminds, and whatnot. But honestly, there were almost no resources that could tell me about where I would land up if I wanted to, say, become a CEO at a Fortune 500 eventually. Also, did I want to be CEO at a Fortune 500 or did I want it because my peers wanted it as well? Consulting is this crazy place where peer pressure drives you to become someone you’re not. I thought, and in fact, I know that I love consulting and I am good at it (not based on my opinions of myself! This is based on the feedback I received from managers, co-workers, etc. during my final few appraisals). Yet, for some weird reason I was being pushed to think that if I don’t work in tech, I am a failure! Remember what I told you about insecure overachievers? It’s true!
By 2018, I had changed my position in my firm from one of weakness to one of strength. So I decided that I needed to leave. Because I wanted to eventually become a better consultant. And how do I become one? By being in the clients’ shoes, aka industry. And I decided then that I didn’t want to go to FAANG or a big bank, at the time, even though I had recruiters approaching me every day.
Instead, I interviewed with a firm that was growing fast and took up a more senior role. It had elements of corporate strategy, tech, data science, private equity and team building. I jumped in. To some of my overly judgemental peers, I probably seemed like a loser. But who cares right? I knew it was the right thing to do for me. And let me tell you, during this time, I had higher paying offers from bigger brand names. So this wasn’t me settling for whatever came my way. In fact, it was the polar opposite of settling. I negotiated terms on my offer letter. I enjoyed a long holiday before I joined them, and also had the best time of my life with my then co-workers, now friends for life.
Living the best life in France
The me from 2016 would have no idea about this new version of me from 2020, yet here I was, living my purpose. Now I have had an interesting career so far and through a lot of exploration, I’ve found a way to balance my quantitative side along with my creative side.
Right now, I lead data science and corporate strategy teams alongside running The Abundance Psyche, with which I help my consultant friends find their perfect exit opportunities. The Abundance Psyche also has taught me how to set up a side-gig, and grow a business from scratch, while meeting and working with people from 6 continents across the world. I now know better than ever I could have imagined to, in my consulting career, how to think like a CEO. But that story is for another time.
What I mean to say though is that, your path doesn’t need to look like mine. In fact, it would be ridiculous to even think that it should. But I am happy with my career choices and I am on track to achieve my version of a successful career and life. That should perhaps give you hope about the fact that I am not some crazy on the internet who just has a lot to say. I walk my talk and there are some people I don’t get along with very much (read: people who are complacent and complaining instead of taking action). That’s okay. I wasn’t born to please everyone, just to help some people. And if you’re are reading this guide, that may very well be you!
Who is this guide for
“I want to find a job at FAANG or tech. Can this guide help?”
“I feel like I have zero hard skills. Will this help?”
“I have no idea what career paths exist after consulting. Can you help?”
The thing is, when you spend years researching your decisions, build out excel models to optimise your decision-making process, you know that you’re onto something. Well, that’s what I did in 2016. And I share all that I learned about post consulting careers in this guide with you.
You will benefit from this guide if:
You are serious about understanding what success means for you, rather than for your friends, peers, family and strangers on social media
You don’t just stop at reading; you also take the follow-on action
You can approach things with an open mind
Now, obviously, I can’t write a guide that will please everyone. A few situations where the guide doesn’t work are when:
You keep jumping from blog to blog, and then instead of taking the required action, you complacently complain on Reddit or Fishbowl
You are deeply cynical of any good that comes your way
You are looking for advice with particular niche area and want to find more details about this. This guide focusses on the high-level strategy that successful consultants have used to find their exit. We spend far less time in the details of each role
How to get most out of this guide
As you may have figured, this guide is pretty darn long. And there are tons of nuances in every bit. So, it’s worth reading a few times. I structured it in a way that I think makes the most sense for someone who has been dabbling with the idea of a career change and looking for a post consulting job. However, each section, though they build on each other, is complete in itself. So I would encourage you to read parts that you think you would benefit most from, first.
Which leads me to the next thing
If you skip some of the sections, you would likely miss some key insights and still keep jumping from one blog to the other, trying to figure out the magic pill to end your confusion. Which leads to say the next thing…
And a note
If you hide behind the excuse of the fact that you don’t have time, or that you are smart and somehow all of this will magically dawn upon you, and don’t take action, this isn’t the guide for you. Most of my friends, clients and students have taken personal development and finding their vision of a successful career after consulting rather seriously. So, while they may not be seeming like the shiniest LinkedIn profiles in terms of name dropping, they are happy, fulfilled and working towards their long-term vision, rather than jumping from one seemingly interesting brand name to the other. So while this guide will provide some insight into your consulting exit, it will unlikely provide you with the clarity you need around what you should be doing. For that, you need to sign up to actually want to solve the problem.
Oh btw, this guide is long, so if you spot errors, please let me know.
5 MISTAKES THAT ARE KEEPING YOU STUCK IN YOUR CAREER
Listen to the webinar replay hosted by former Management Consultants
Chapter 2: An insight into consulting exit oppotunities
I asked my friends – McKinsey consultants, “What do you want from your exit?” Most of them replied “FAANG or a tech exit”. When I probed further and asked why, 10% spoke about visa issues. The rest basically paraphrased something along the lines of, “Because it looks good on my CV and keeps my exit options open”.
Boy, it must be a hard life when you’re continuously thinking of exit options, even before you have joined the company… but more importantly, it must be really miserable to live up to the expectations of what you think the society and your peers want of you. It’s tiring, frustrating, and as one of my McKinsey friends said, it’s “psychological mindf***”.
So here’s what I am going to tell all of you, super smart folks out there – apply some strategy to your career. And guess what that means? “Begin with the end in mind.”
“What is it that you are optimising for?” that’s always been my Economist way of looking at things. And think about it, as a consultant, isn’t that what you wish your client had a clear idea of? Then why is it that you don’t think in those terms when it comes to your career?
I will tell you why.
Because of uncertainty and FOMO!
Yes, really… you’re afraid that once you leave consulting, you don’t have a defined career path anymore. You don’t have the firm giving you the carrot and the stick to perform better. You don’t have the certainty that as you get close to becoming partner, you will draw close to a $1m pay check. You feel like you’re giving ALL of that up for uncertainty. Doesn’t sound like a good deal, does it?
But then you also know that even your senior partners are betting on you leaving consulting. In fact, they know that only 1% of the people they hire will ever make Partner. Then what is it that you’re afraid of?
Let me tell you – you’re afraid of not belonging to that top 1%. After all, if you exit to an average place, for an average looking non tech, non FAANG job out of MBB, Big 4 or some boutique shop, aren’t you just proving to yourself and your co-workers that you’re the run-of-the-mill average? That you’re not the top 1% of your cohort? It takes courage to say, “And for that reason, I am out” Dragon’s Den style. Because let’s be honest here, we consultants are the reason the phrase “insecure overachievers” exist. You know this is true! All you need to do is check how many times this has been said on Reddit and Fishbowl and how often it’s been liked and upvoted. But here we are, still talking about the fancy consulting exits, because that’s what you’re here to learn!
Okay, so here are the industries that hire consultants- ALL OF THEM!
So, when considering career change, it is not enough to think of just the brand name or money paid out as a part of a package. Your time, energy, and peace of mind come at a cost.
What sort of companies hire consultants?
If you’re interested in knowing what sort of companies value consultants, all you need to do is to look at the websites of my friends at Movemeon and sign-up. But here are the broad buckets we typically speak about:
Private Equity houses
Start-ups and the related ecosystem
Boutique and specialised consulting shops
Other consulting firms
Yes, yes, this includes Fortune 500, tech and banking! Majority of the big corporate players in fact prefer to hire consultants typically at mid-management levels. Why? Because all those skills you didn’t think were valuable, guess what, those are valuable. The transferable skills bandwagon exist for a reason – the reality is, it is incredibly difficult to find people who have never been in consulting, think problems through and solve them end to end. Yes, McKinsey, you had them at MECE!
But it seems so easy? I don’t believe they would pay the big bucks for that!
Easy to you and your peers doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Private Equity firms
There are a few reasons why PE firms are interested in consultants:
Analytical skills and an ability to think a problem through
Oh did I mention Excel skills?!
The truth is that Private Equity house are one of the sharpest when it comes to commercially driven strategy. How do I know? The firm I work for, used to be a PE house till just a few years back, and I can tell that by just being around the folks who have been at my firm since its PE days, and comparing them to my friends who exit to corporate strategy, Private Equity folks live and breathe numbers and data, and that means all those great analytical and Excel skills you picked up doing deal strategy, or just vanilla Excel, they all count. In fact, you have to move to industry to realise how elusive good Excel skills are, and how useful. (I am a data scientist who swears by Python but the strategist in me is always Excel first!)
Start-ups and related ecosystem
While many start-ups can’t afford to hire consultants, those that do actually know how to use them the best. And in my opinion, start-ups get the best value of consultants because they can fill multiple roles with one smart person. Again, because of the ability to break down a problem and solve it, the start-up leadership roles are places where consultants can and do thrive. Here again, those strategy, leadership, and analytical skills along with your confident communication comes in handy. And you don’t even need to get to the fancy names like Uber and AirBnB. Relatively unknown start-ups on a mission can actually accelerate your growth like no other. If in doubt, remember that Sheryl Sandberg joined both Google and Facebook before they were Google and Facebook.
Boutique and specialised consulting shops
Who wants to move from the elite MBB or Big 4 to boutiques? People who want to fast track their career and be far more specialised than their peers – that’s who.
There’s no denying that the big consulting firms are the breeding ground of great talent. But that is for generalist skills. How many of you would believe that Strategy& or BCG at some point had better commercial data scientists than FAANG data science teams? No one! So when by some strange circumstances such folks land up at the big firms and then realise that the leadership doesn’t think like them, they leave, not because they want to exit consulting but because they want to escape the run-of-the-mill and specialise. In fact here’s one thing I will say – after a while in your career, consulting or not, you need to have deep expertise in at least one thing. Most people prefer “T-shaped” people these days – people who have a broad vision of the entire landscape while being an expert in one or two specific areas. This could be anything from marketing, to data to networking. But the era of generalist consultants is starting to lose weight.
Other consulting firms
Okay, I won’t lie, I feel like I am cheating a bit while telling you this, but another branded consulting shop or even being at your own and changing career tracks is a perfectly valid option.
But why do I feel like I am cheating? Because most of us seem to think consultants always want a consulting exit.
I personally don’t subscribe to this view and in reality, I LOVE consulting and I am good at it too! So, why do I have to leave consulting if all other criteria on my list are met? I don’t! And neither do you.
If you love consulting, but are struggling with some components like growth or impact, those can be fixed in your brand named consulting firm itself. There is a whole piece around goal setting and communication that is beyond the scope of this guide, but I won’t sell Consulting as a valid “exit option” short, because many consultants I know, after exiting consulting, google, “Should I get back to Consulting?” And if you are feeling this, let me tell you my perspective – as of when I am writing this guide, it is very likely that someday I will return to wear my consulting robes, and in fact, a majority of consultant folks will. Consulting will always remain as the single most powerful career pivot tool for years – much more powerful and effective than an MBA.
Okay, okay, I see I am starting to get onto the nerves of some MBA people here, but consider this – would you spend two years and $200k+ on a MBA more than once in your career? So, you do have only one post MBA exit indeed. But consulting exit?
Well, no one will stop you from getting back to consulting, once you have been a consultant. In fact, consulting shops love it when you have consulting and industry experience on your CV. You become almost a no brainer hire for them.
Many of my friends and mentors know that the fastest way to grow in large non-strategy consulting shops is to leave and come back. I said non-strategy because most strategy shops operate with an “Up or Out” principle, which might make it harder to come back at a grade higher than an Engagement Manager. The other thing to note is that it is incredibly difficult to keep growing in a consulting firm unless you master the art of selling and have an established book of clients. So even though I say that Consulting shops would love to have you back, if this is above the Director level, and haven’t established a way to sell effectively, this could become a problem very quickly. And since we are already having the sales conversation, let’s jump into the next one…
This has to be my favourite and something most people don’t talk about. I say that this is consulting’s best kept secret, but if you look at people’s career paths, you’ll see how common this in fact is. So, what exactly do I mean by your own?
There are three ways to think of this:
As data from Movemeon shows, Freelancing is the fastest growing exit for consultants, because guess what? Even though it seems like we are insecure overachievers, after a point, the rest of life catches up, and we want to be present in our lives – hobbies, family, holidays and what not, while still earning a pretty decent (read: high!) salary. Freelancing is far more common, and a hell lot more rewarding in many senses, because your client won’t hire you back unless they think you’re adding value.
Consultants, especially those ones who are actually good at both strategy and implementation, the ones that have the audacity to believe that they are C-suite material, are actually more often than not, C-suite material. The thing is, only with entrepreneurship, are your strategy skills really taken for a road test because it’s all great to come up with 100 slides (btw, I’ve heard that the newest directive is 10 slides max… but even then!) but implementing them to achieve the outcome you wanted to get to is a whole different beast. And in my heart, I wouldn’t call myself a good strategist, if I couldn’t be an entrepreneur, but hey, I get it. It’s not for everyone… I know friends and family who have seen entrepreneurship led poverty in their lives and they think of entrepreneurship completely differently. But I also will say that in today’s day and age, you no longer need tons of capital to set up shop, if you are keen.
Set it up as a side hustle and once it starts replacing your salary consistently, scale it… but I hear you say, “BUT I AM WORKING 15 HOUR DAYS AND CURRENTLY RECOVERING FROM BURNOUT”.
And to that, my reply is, first leave consulting and find a job that’s 9-5.
The least spoken cousin of consulting exit – the FIRE aka Financially Independent, Retire Early community. These folks are incredibly talented and disciplined and they set all sorts of goals. There’s just FI, and then there’s fat FIRE, lean FIRE, medium-fat, medium-lean… god, I wish there were as many cuts of meat in Whole Foods! But do you get the point? These people are the most goal oriented that I have met. They work to achieve their FI number and then most retire and work in social services, or pick up a hobby… and the hobby at times is entrepreneurship! This is the point where I don’t have data to tell you, “I told you so”, but just have a look at the Reddit or Fishbowl FIRE community threads and you’ll know that I don’t make stuff up.
Pay and happiness by exit type
Well, I have some data for the different routes that consultants branch out to. But, one thing to note here is that this data doesn’t reflect all those folks who went into the entrepreneurship route. I would argue that the ones that succeeded even a tiny bit to create a side gig, are the ones who are probably the best paid and the happiest. Hours worked? Well, we’ll have to park that one for entrepreneurs!
Source: Movemeon’s 2020 Salary Report
Source: Movemeon’s 2020 APAC Salary Report ($ is AUD)
Source: Movemeon’s 2020 Salary Report (The APAC Salary report says pretty much the same thing)
Now that we’ve almost gotten to MECE on companies for consulting exit opportunities, it’s only fair to tell you a bit more about the roles you could pick up after consulting.
What sort of roles do consultants go into
The short answer is, all sorts. But if you’re reading this guide, chances are that you don’t care about short answers. So here we go:
Strategy and Operations folks get into:
Typical strategy roles like Strategy Manager, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Head of Strategic Projects, and transformation
Investment analysts and the likes in PE or investment banking
Business development aka sales roles
Product management aka the closest you can be to entrepreneurship without actually being an entrepreneur
Leadership roles that require them to build out a function
Commercial partnerships liaison
Analytics and insights roles
Project management roles
Marketing & Sales folks can try:
Senior marketing manager roles that are more analytical
Business development roles
Senior strategy roles in advertising agencies
HR Consulting & Organisational Structure people get into:
Learning and development
Human capital strategy
HR Transformation and Automation
Business Process Redesign
Shared services and outsourcing strategy
Vendor selection and management
Talent and recruitment reorganisation
Corporate Finance, Business Recovery Services, M&A folks can try:
Investment analyst / associate roles
Heading strategy and M&A teams
Strategic alliance type roles
Movemeon has another interesting set of data by role types, which basically tells me that you should stay in strategy as long as possible… but is that true? I don’t think so – more on that in the later chapters but here’s the data.
Source: Movemeon 2020 Salary Report
I have kept Technology, Risk and Sustainability related roles out of scope of this guide. If you are in these functions, chances are that you are already quite technical and know what you can exit to. However, if you want to pivot out of your current type of role, that would be a whole different guide. If this is you, feel free to drop me an email and we can discuss.
Do you know what my biggest complaint against consulting as an industry is?
We take the smartest people… the top 1% of the world’s workforce. And then turn them into insecure overachievers, aka, “I don’t have any hard skills!”
Chapter 3: But I don't have any hard skills!
What skills do you need to succeed in life?
Influence, communication and confidence. It’s true, and you know it! While you may want to deny that, or say that the world is unfair, let me ask you – have you seen any super technical person, without those three skills, successfully lead anything? Also note that influence isn’t manipulation, communication isn’t just speaking on a podium and confidence isn’t arrogance.
With this perspective, let’s look at your skillset. If you are missing these, you want to work on them for the long run. But having worked in both Consulting and industry, here’s my take on why I would hire Consultants with the right attitude over technical folks who don’t understand the value of business communication:
Business doesn’t happen through technicalities. Businesses happen through large scale project co-ordinations. And this is what consultants are super savvy at. Does that mean you don’t need hard skills? Absolutely not. But I am relying on your intelligence to grasp things fast, to be a fast learner. Because yes, you will need some technical skills but they’re not the skills required to launch a spaceship (though I’ve read about a couple of consultants exiting to Spacex!)… so, you’ll very likely be okay if you could learn through Google and YouTube. And as you spend more and more time in an industry, you build up domain knowledge, which is why, I personally am a big proponent of serving an industry you want to know more about.
The art of story boarding and effective communication
Skills that literally every job looks for and 90% of the consultants have
I said 90%... give or take but around 10% don’t fall into this category for a variety of reasons:
They are not really strategy or management consultants. They’re implementation gurus who were special hires.
They are still junior, i.e. haven’t finished 2 years in consulting, and not lived through the variety of projects, managers, and sometimes, frankly, crazies!
Complacence – if this is you, most people including me can’t help you.
Lack of right attitude – okay, I am big on attitude and whether or not you are coachable. Some people are too smart, so much so that they self-sabotage without even realising. If you are indeed not in an implementation role and have spent more than a couple of years in strategy / management consulting, and are always complaining, you might be missing a lot of what consulting has to offer.
Other reasons to make this list MECE – if you are looking up “MECE” in your favourite search engine, chances are that you need some stretch projects on the analytical side.
Okay, enough said… you get it that the skills you need to have, you do have out of consulting.
But hang on, I still can’t code in Python, I haven’t worked on MS Access, never used JIRA, I don’t know what Agile is…!
Chances are that you will need one or two things that you need to mention on your resume. I am a big fan of a concept called “learning by doing”. Why?
Because, seeking is more powerful than knowing.
So, if you’re still in consulting, find projects that will give you those skills. If you can’t create your own side project, learn those skills and put a focus on that project on your resume. Where there’s a will… well, you can find a way!
Chapter 4: When is the ideal time to exit consulting?
My friends at Movemeon have a whole article on this. You can read it here. But by the time you’re on this chapter, you perhaps have figured out that I am a fan of nuance- the devil is in the detail. And that’s what it definitely is with the time to exit. So, is there a magic number?
There are several. And then, there is one.
Let me explain…
There are several points in your consulting career that you are well positioned to leave based on tenure – 2-2.5 years, 4-5 years, 8-10 years etc. This basically coincides with promotion tenures. So, if you are solely optimising for growth, right after you get promoted is actually the best time to leave.
But you already know that! What’s the nuance?
Here’s the deal with each of the time frames:
You have developed some transferable skills but it is unlikely that you can exit to a higher level because you don’t have industry expertise and experience. So actually, you constantly feel like you have no hard skills.
But if you indeed have an inkling of what path you want to take, you can use these 2 years to find projects that will support your CV for the exit. Most people don’t and if you’re amongst them, don’t worry, it’s completely normal. Personally, I think the smartest thing you can do early in your career is to stay open to new ideas and concepts, not be the annoying know it all graduate. Humility and confidence really go hand in hand and this could not be more true.
So, if you quit at this point, chances are that you might not get the seniority level you wanted, but you might get a substantial pay rise and real-life industry skills to look forward to. Of course, your consulting skills could be bettered in many ways but there are more ways to do that than just by being in consulting. (If that’s what you’re interested in, drop me an email – I can tell you how.)
So, pro of quitting at this level – it’s easier to get a salary bump and skills for life. The con? You might not even know what you want to be doing at this level. So, let’s look at the next option.
At this level, you know the industry a bit, but not enough. You very likely have managed junior consultants for a bit, but that’s extremely different than managing a team in industry. In consulting, you get away with being a lot less invested in the growth of your juniors than in industry.
So, there’s a fair chance that companies might not want to hire you at the level you wanted to get to or be okay for you to manage a team. There is also a fair question about salary and not many firms will want to pay you the money you were making in consulting. But that said, this point is, in my opinion, the best time to transition into a leadership role in a smaller firm to optimise for long term growth. So, yet again, it comes back to, what are you optimising for?
This is when the golden handcuffs start becoming very real and you might even have to take a step back to change tracks. However, it’s not unheard of that some senior folks find amazing exits in leadership. How do these come by?
It’s about being in the right place at the right time. The senior managers or directors who had been loaned out to run a client’s team can merrily transition out into that role permanently. Also, if you’re more commercial than delivery focussed, business development becomes a very real option for you after this point and that’s much more sophisticated than many sales roles out there.
A certain number of years after you’ve made Partner
Why? Because apparently the retired Partner benefits are through the roof. Many people stick it out in consulting to become a retired Partner and in fact, I know some very talented retired Partners who are using their “retired” life to pursue their next career option, completely backed and validated by the firm they served.
When you feel like you are on a high
One of my mentors, early in my career said, “Always buy low and sell high, even in your career.”
“Always buy low and sell high, even in your career.”
He was a banker turned entrepreneur turned consultant turned PE firm Partner. He followed his own advice to the dot. And he became a PE partner at 34 – no connections, no big-name education… just being smart and strategic about where he wanted to go in the long run. So, if you are thinking of quitting because things around you are coming down… because you can’t just take it anymore, my sage advice would be, take a break to think things through, see if you can turn things around, and leave on a high. Co-workers always remember the last projects you worked on, and if you don’t sign-off on a high, asking for that referral several years down the line becomes difficult. Also, when you leave on a high, you call the shots, and your confidence is irresistible for your new employer too. So, as you can imagine, this is actually the real advice – forget the tenure and money, make sure you leave when people least expect you to!
Chapter 5: Progression potential and career path in the roles after exit?
I think this is the fear that keeps most consultants in their current jobs, as they moan about the lack of clarity. By nature, consultants are the ambitious sort. So, god forbid they get “stuck” in a dead-end role that has limited potential for progress. After all, in consulting, it’s easy right? You are Analyst, Associate, then Engagement Manager, Principal and Partner… the path is defined. And because it’s defined it sounds achievable.
But industry roles are vague- because really, the world is your oyster. If you choose the right sponsors and can deliver top notch work, you will flourish. But growing in industry, unless you’re waiting to be promoted into the role when your boss resigns, requires creativity. The role you were hired for, will likely not get you promoted. Remember those stretch projects? You need to find your stretch projects in industry if you want to keep growing.
One of my senior mentors who had joined a small firm as the Head of Strategy, gradually kept on adding feathers to his cap. When he started, he was working purely on strategy, then he added insights and data. Next was product. The next thing was M&A… now he reports directly into the CEO. He has grown tremendously in 5 years of his corporate career because he put his hand up and shared his vision, influenced and created buy-in at the highest levels of the chain… and then actually got a team together to deliver on that.
But is it only strategy roles that are easier to grow with?
In fact, in general, strategy roles are really hard to grow with because you have limited scope to prove that you can mobilise a team and deliver. And how much ever coveted strategic planning is, if the strategy can’t be operationalised, it’s not a great strategy is it? Personally speaking, I think Operations roles are great for growth. These days a few other roles like Product Management and Product Marketing are also becoming popular, because you literally get to be the CEO or CMO of a product. Of course, if you’re in one of the Big Tech FAANG firms that literally have thousands of products, and you land on a product that gets shelved in a bit, it could be a sad exit. But even then, you have the potential to join another product team within the same or another similar company.
Most of my consultant friends who were uber ambitious, wanted growth and that almost always meant that they were shooting for the C-suite. I won’t lie, some were ambitious but clueless what they wanted in life. But the ones that ultimately have grown the fastest are the ones who were really intentional about their careers and life, and knew where they were going. Knowing your destination definitely gets you off the scenic route but also get you to your goals faster.
In all honesty, for this chapter I tried doing some research on people who left consulting and are currently in quite senior roles. However, what I found left me more assured than ever about how aggressively ambitious consultants are, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
While doing my research, of course I found some PE and VC folks, senior leaders in Fortune 500’s and people who have moved to start-ups. But for me the surprise (and also relief) was in how many consultants have successfully cracked into the C-suite through entrepreneurship. I tried separating “start-ups” from classic businesses but in both cases found that there is an overwhelmingly large number of consultants who end up in their own business.
Initially my plan was to put in formulae in here to tell you how each path progresses. But with the research, I realised that most (estimate - 90%) of the paths progress to running your own business. The rest are Partners or senior leaders. Funny thing is, most of those senior leaders have had a stint in entrepreneurship somewhere in their careers.
Want the career trajectory data?
It contains career insight on how leaders landed their leadership roles.
Chapter 6: Pros and cons of the different exit types
Earlier in the guide we spoke about a number of exit options but what we haven’t covered are the pros and cons.
Ability to see things through to the end (mostly)
Training material and budget
Depending on at what point you leave and at what level you join, growth could be slow
Lack of the variety of projects that consulting offers
Private Equity houses
Easily the best-paid exit
Really tests your business acumen in some cases
Deal and due diligence related work could be extremely interesting or extremely boring depending on your orientation
Harder to crack into without connections
Severe lack of diversity
Start-ups and the related ecosystem
Excellent opportunities for growth
Impact and implementation are top of mind
If you get in early enough and with equity, you could have massive potential
Sometimes we end up obsessing about whether it’s an unicorn start-up, never realising a few things:
Once a start-up has reached unicorn status, the financial attractiveness is far less than if you joined before it became famous
Unicorns are equally hard and competitive to grow in, and you could be signing up for dodgy culture as many employees at several controversial unicorn start-ups have reported
The roll-up your sleeves and get it done culture, aka lack of structure, which personally for me is a huge pro but I appreciate that many of us don’t want to go down that path
If it’s before Series A, could be risky
Boutique and specialised consulting shops
Potential to develop specialised skillset, and become an expert while working with colleagues who are also experts
Could be far more fulfilling and implementation heavy than bigger consulting houses
Lesser known brand
Growth potential might be limited
Other consulting firms
If you are frustrated with your team or just want to switch career paths and location, other competing firms are a valid option. You still get the big brand names that are easier to crack because you have a consulting background.
Growth path to Partner could still be very easily attainable
You might face the same issues from your old firm here
Being just another number
Being your own boss
Unlimited growth potential
High risk, which can be somewhat mitigated by creating a side gig first
Lonely path, definitely not for everyone
Chapter 7: Alumni Speak
I hope if you are reading this guide, you are wondering why am I giving this out for free. I’ll tell you why – because as I was trying to put this together, I met various people on my journey. Ex-consultants who challenged me, mentored me, befriended me and mostly, inspired me to finish this. Having made these connections were completely worth writing this up. So here I go:
Founder of Movemeon & Payspective
Ever since I was an early teenager I've had the bug for starting businesses. Back then it was working weekends and school holidays cutting hedges and mowing lawns! I would never change my time at McKinsey - I learned a huge amount, met some great people (including my co-founder) and saw lots of the world. But I always had the itch to "do" rather than to "advise". Back then, if you started McKinsey in London as an Analyst, you could only stay for up to 3 years. At that point you were asked to leave but given an offer to return (subject to having gained other experience, like an MBA). So it was a perfect time to start a business, with the safety net of a job to go back to if it didn't work out. I also didn't have any kids or even a mortgage at that time so it felt very risk free. So I dropped an email round the other BAs who were leaving to see if anyone else was up for a startup. Nick (co-founder) and I sat down in a pub a jotted down as many ideas as we could think of on a beer mat and (with a lengthy gestation period for a bit of travelling), movemeon was born.
There are many pros of entrepreneurship. The most notable for me has been the "doing" - there is nobody else (in the beginning) so you literally have to turn your hand to everything. This is the total opposite to a McKinsey environment where you have support and expertise everywhere. The second thing I've really enjoyed is building a team, seeing them develop and creating a working culture I'm really proud of.
As with any job, of course there is the flipside. It can be a long road and it's really tested our resilience (particularly in the early days). My top tip here is to find a co-founder - I don't know if I would have survived the journey on my own.
ON HER CONSULTING EXIT
How did you know it was time to quit and why?
I decided to change my career after having a few good months of having the “Sunday blues”: every Sunday afternoon, when I was thinking that another work week will start the next morning, I was feeling low. Then, with one meeting with my boss, I realised that I didn’t want his position (Partner) – it didn’t feel right for me. I realised that all I wanted was freedom- to be able t decide for myself work hours, work days, when I get a holiday and for how many weeks, and most importantly, to control how much I earn.
How did you then decide to get into entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship, was frankly the only option that made sense considering the amount of freedom I was craving.
What did the path look like for you and what would be your top tips for people who want to make a similar move?
I first went into freelancing, as I could easily use my consulting skills to bid for consulting projects on platforms such as freelancer.com. Then I signed up for a course about building an online business. And then for more. I purchased a domain name and put together a website all by myself in one weekend. I started to promote my services through my website and this is how my small business started. Today I have a highly sought after marketing certification, I am helping clients from 4 continents, I run a podcast, I am working from home only a few hours each day and I spend the rest of the time home-schooling my kids and travelling the world, learning new things every month and creating memories that will last a lifetime. And I’ve ditched the “Sunday blues” for good. For me, life is much more than a race to the top of a corporation. But of course everyone’s life and goals are different, and that’s okay. I just want people to know that today, because of the internet and the technology and knowledge we have access to, you can truly build your career around your life- you just need to have a bit of courage and faith and start exploring all your options.
On her consulting exit
I was working as a consultant in Saudi Arabia and making 6 figures but also working literally around the clock. My online business really started as an experiment back in 2014 and was more like a secret project that no one even knew about. It was mostly just a way to flex my persuasion muscles and see if I can create something that did not require my physical presence, something that would allow me to spend the summers with my parents back in Pakistan. I had no idea back then that it would blow up to this level. In fact, I was so doubtful that I did not quit my consulting work for almost 2 years after I started my online business. Now, it is a 100% online 7 figure business that requires very little upkeep from my side, I have a wonderful team that handles everything and I thank my lucky stars every day that I started that mad little experiment back in 2014.
Why entrepreneurship when you were making tons of cash already?
Entrepreneurship is a way of life for me, not just a career. The transition from consulting to entrepreneurship is the transition from contractual working to ownership. Ownership of decisions, equity, transactions and product makes it a full contact sport.
I wanted to be an entrepreneur since my 8th grade (when I was playing strategy board games with friends). I moved to USA for my education and due to my visa situation, I had to work full-time. I also knew that I had to learn a lot in order to be successful at entrepreneurship, that building a business is a lot more than building a product. So, I kept working on side projects and recently quit my full-time job to start a business. It’s exciting to start a business because I get to learn something new every day.
Starting a business in 2020 is a lot easier than it was in 2010, the number of tools, resources and software accessible to anyone is just incredible.
I feel the world around us is changing and micro businesses, hustle workers and gig work will give everyone a chance to become a business owner.
On his squiggly career path
Why did you decide to leave consulting?
I always planned to do consulting for a short time to build up skills, namely communication and problem solving. When I felt I had learned enough I was onto the next thing.
How did you know Product Management was the next thing?
I had known that before I started in consulting itself. I wanted as close to general management role as possible, and that is Product Management in the tech sector.
I love building products, understanding customers, marketing, strategy - essentially everything :). Where else would I get to do everything
Tell us a bit about Intentional Product Management (Shobhit's latest venture) and the transition to it while having a demanding job at Google.
Intentional Product Manager is my passion project. I realized that I am a good product manager, but an even better coach for product managers. Additionally, I learned that certain things are just not well taught by the general "Product Management 101" courses.
I wanted to make a difference in the life of Product Managers so I started Intentional Product Manager. My mission is to help PMs have a fulfilling career.
Any tips for people who want to get into Product Management?
Don't believe anyone who tells you that you cannot get in because of X,Y,Z reasons. Where there is a will, there is a way. They key is to leverage your entire set of experiences and relate it as a story to Product Management. Feel free to reach out to me to chat more.
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Chapter 8: Final words!
I am an Economist turned Strategist. Guess what I am good at? Optimisation. And I think this is what most people overlook when thinking about their careers and life – what is it that you are optimising for?
You don’t have to have an answer right away. In fact, your answer will most probably evolve as you progress through your career and life. But even then, it helps to have an inkling of where you see yourself in a decade or two. My guilty pleasure is in me fantasising about a nomadic life in the Himalayas, picking fruit and sometimes freezing with chills in a tiny cottage by a stream. Who knows whether I can really achieve that, but the fact that I’ve have a happy place to retire to in my heart and mind gives me the drive to show up everyday to make it a reality.
Now, you may very well ask how holding a leadership role and running The Abundance Psyche gets me closer to that goal. In fact, you have every right to. But to that I will only have to say, there is a lot that doesn’t meet the eye and I would need another 100 pages to tell you how all of my life is connected to that dream of retiring in the mountains. That’s for another time, may be over a beverage even. But, if you indeed have read through the whole guide, I really want to commend you. Honestly, not many people have the patience to read through so many words and texts, and because you are here (hopefully you are not one of those who reads the last page first!), I want to let you in on one of the best insights my friends at Movemeon and also ex-consultant friends provided me with. Freelancing is the fastest growing field and freelancers are the happiest ones of the lot. But that’s only because we don’t have enough data to estimate happiness when consultants have finally exit to entrepreneurship – but I am willing to bet that this lot, if they are at least covering their basic expenses, are the happiest. Why else would I find so many consultants who ended up in a venture, a side-gig, a start-up, a publishing house, an e-commerce store, an online business and so on?
Knowing that most consultants will eventually want to start something of their own, knowing that it is only a matter of time, here’s what I suggest learning as early as you can:
Learn the art of influencing
Learn to be the CEO and the implementation person all at the same time
Learn how to focus
But more than anything else, learn the balance of humility and confidence
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