The graduate recruitment track remains the best route into consultancy for most people. The "big four" consultancies, including Accenture and Deloitte, still hire a lot of graduates and develop them through to senior consultants.
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Kirti Lad, director of the enterprise solutions team at recruitment firm Harvey Nash, says internal promotion remains an important part of the big four's strategy, "Although they do recruit externally at more senior levels, they need to justify internally why they are not promoting someone from within.
"When they do recruit externally, those people are typically head and shoulders above the people they will be managing."
Meanwhile, Neil Price, managing consultant in the business IT team at recruitment consultancy Hudson, has seen significant growth in demand for staff from small, medium-sized and boutique consultancies.
These companies are being engaged by clients choosing to multi-source from a number of specialists rather than using one of the big brand-name consultancies as a one-stop shop.
However, Price says SMEs typically turn to the larger consultancies to source talent. "They want experienced staff they can put in front of clients immediately, and candidates are attracted to them because they are looking for roles with more responsibility and the chance to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond."
The required skills
In other words, consultancies tend to recruit from other consultancies because staff already possess the soft skills needed in the role. "A grounding in industry in my early career helped me, because I had a good understanding of what clients do in a very technical domain," says Dale Emmerson, a director in the risks and regulation practice at Deloitte.
"But you have to learn to be a consultant. You have to learn how to manage teams of people, interact with clients, interact at board level, communicate ideas and manage stakeholder alignment."
Consultants also need to be able to sell, but they need to be able to do much more than just sell. "Clients want to see directors involved throughout a project," Lad says. "Consultancies typically hire people who have grown up in the project-delivery route and moved into the commercial side."
She says that consultancies are also looking for good management experience. "That is extremely important in big consultancies where no one is 'owned' by anyone, and your boss changes according to the project you are working on.
"At a senior level, people need a desire to mentor and coach people who are not necessarily currently contributing to their own projects."
Emmerson says that it is difficult to balance managing client work with staff development. "If you do not invest in development, the company will not grow," he says.
"There needs to be a real push to ensure people get the appropriate training and the chance to develop themselves and others. If people come to me and ask for involvement in specific areas, I do look to find appropriate roles for them to support that."
Making the move
Emma Braham is one person who has made the switch from working in a client company to a position with one of the big four. Braham joined Accenture about six months ago as a SAP specialist within Accenture's security practice.
Previously, she had worked on SAP-based projects and had also completed an MBA, which she feels was key to equipping her with the skills needed to secure a move into consultancy.
Emmerson took a longer route from industry to big four consulting than Braham, moving from an investment bank to a software company, followed by stints with mid-tier consultancy Logica CMG and a smaller US-based boutique called Sapient before joining Deloitte.
Although smaller companies lack some of the kudos of the biggest players, Price says candidates find them attractive because many were founded by and employ staff who are escapees from large consultancies. "They bring the best aspects of big consultancies but leave behind the big company headaches," he says.
"They invest a lot in training people, are flexible, and will give you a chance to shine at what you are genuinely good at, rather than what the consultancy needs you to do. If you have an impact on the business, you will be rewarded not just with money, but with recognition and promotion."
Lad says the largest consultancies have tried to address the criticism that promotion has tended to depend too much on "being the right face at the right time" through greater transparency. "They now give their people a target promotion date and clear objectives that must be hit in order to achieve that promotion. If you over-deliver, you are guaranteed to be promoted."
Consultancy is not for everyone, however. Lad says there are two main reasons why people leave consultancy roles. "Consultants typically have to travel a great deal and often work away from home on assignment. There is no predictability and it can be hard to plan your life," she says.
"People also leave because they want to see projects through to the end. As a consultant, it can be frustrating that you are not as involved in the business as someone working in-house, and will probably have moved on to another project before that one is completed."
However, Braham has no regrets. She says she loves the project work, fast pace and constant challenges. "Everyone is very energised and has so much passion for what they do. There is a lot of potential to direct your own career, and get where you want to be," she says.
"I am enjoying the chance to work with different clients across many industries and to engage with stakeholders at a higher level."