Life at large and small consulting firms: what to expect

01 November 2021 9 min. read
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In the consulting market, the comparison between small and large firms is a common one. When do you fit with a consultancy? Ani Mikhailian is a headhunter at Badenoch + Clark who has over the last few years placed more than fifty consultants at firms of all shapes and sizes. She outlines some of the key differences between firms, and what candidates can expect.

“The economy is rebounding strongly from the Covid-19 pandemic and consultancies are returning to (or accelerate their) growth. Consulting firms helping stimulate, transform and grow businesses are in big need for talent in order to meet client demand. The labour market for consultants is hot – this means we are in a highly candidate-driven market,” says Mikhailian.

This change of backdrop offers plentiful opportunities to switch jobs while staying within the consulting domain. “That’s why it is valuable to know which differences, possibilities and perspectives are offered career wise by the various consultancy firms,” explains Mikhailian.

Ani Mikhailian, Badenoch + ClarkOne of the most used typologies of consulting firms looks at size. While Mikhailian asserts that “it obviously is not possible to make a watertight comparison based just on size, there are definitely features that are more common for smaller, mid-sized and larger consultancies.”

Small consulting firms 

Let’s start with the boutiques. What characterises them as an employer?
A boutique often offers quite some freedom workwise and the possibility to work on internal projects that contribute to the foundations of the consultancy. Employees can be more in charge and in control of their work-life balance. Don’t get me wrong, in every firm hard work is needed and consulting is not a 9-to-5 job, but small firms tend to provide more flexibility and agility for every employee’s schedule.

Your scope in expertise will be broad. While your areas of focus (function and industry) are more niche – as the firm’s focus is niche as well. Projects are based on the value proposition and your career path is not set in stone. 

What does that mean for career options?
At boutiques, titles don’t matter as much and can’t be compared to other consulting firms. Candidates are sometimes misled by job titles – but titles reflect the flat structure, not the quality of skills or the seniority of employees. Although there are not many steps to make on the career ladder, you can grow professionally.

This approach characterises the type of people who work at boutique and small consultancies. People who move to such firms are driven by a distinctive environment and the difference they can make for their clients, the company itself and colleagues. They look for purpose, and are not chasing a title.

In my discussions with candidates from larger consulting firms, I notice that they do not always have an accurate picture of smaller players. They assume, for example, that the topics they will work on is boring or narrow. That surely is not the case. In fact, I dare to say that, in small consultancies – within their niche – consultants can have more room to develop into an all-around consultant directly from a junior level. Consultants that perform well in a smaller consultancy can get more responsibility faster.

Projects are often tailor-made and by no means boring. Consultants can really make a difference for the companies they work for and making an impact on the market they work in.

Mid-sized consulting firms 

In recent years, the number of mid-sized advisory firms has increased. What do they offer as an employer?
In a mid-sized consultancy firm, in most of the cases, the environment will be entrepreneurial. You’ll have space and freedom to find your way in the company, because they are usually less hierarchical. Many mid-sized consultancies find themselves in the same boat: some are actively scaling up, while others are going through various acquisitions and mergers to achieve growth targets. This naturally creates a certain dynamism and flexibility.

In addition, this growth phase of course has a natural impact on career opportunities and the ambitions of employees. Some mid-sized firms are established and remain quite stable in headcount. Projects are a mix of value and volume propositions. And clients are primarily local, although the chances for working on international engagements and clients increase at mid-sized firms. 

Aren’t most mid-sized ones not just a big-advisory-to-be?
There indeed is a prejudice that mid-sized consultancies always strive to be bigger in size and grow into one of the larger players in the market. That’s not always the case. Firstly, their size is often a conscious choice. Some firms believe they have a natural stop on growth, in order to nurture they strengths – a more entrepreneurial and less formal culture, flexibility and a better work-life balance.

Secondly, while some mid-sized consultancies are scaling and growing, they don’t always want to become a ‘big corporate’ in size. Their goal can be to grow and flourish with revenues and better talents, but to still keep their own DNA and differentiated approach to the business.

Another concern of candidates from the bigger consultancies is that they don’t see the added value of making a step to a mid-sized player, because they consider it to be a step backwards in their career. To some extent this is understandable, because a well-known top-level brand does help in opening doors and building relationships with clients.

But what we always tell candidates is that a mid-sized firm can provide so much opportunities in the area of professional development and by being exposed to a steep learning curve. 

At mid-sized firms that are scaling-up, a more all-around and entrepreneurial savvy approach is required; hence candidates can ‘simply do more’ at such companies. This can also be a nice benefit for the long-term perspective, because we experience that this seems to fit more and more common career path ambitions to pursue – joining a start-up or a scale-up company outside of consulting as a next challenge.

Large consulting firms

How would you describe the large firms and how do they differ with the rest?
When you join a large consultancy, you enter a well-oiled machine, your onboarding is smoothly arranged, and career paths and internal processes are fixed. The firm’s brand recognition and credibility in the market is strong, and the firm has a solid market share and a trusted relationship with their partners.

The client portfolio will be strong – including companies from across all sectors that are leading players in their segments. Big firms can serve clients end-to-end and support with various topics. That makes them an appealing party for big clients to work with.

At large consulting firms, you can generally say that the culture is somewhere between formal and informal, depending on the company. Hierarchy is more present and work-life balance is somewhat less settled. But the packages of secondary and additional benefits are broader, the atmosphere within teams is close-knit. 

And of course, not to forget, large firms have big budgets for talent development, marketing and other activities like corporate parties – all types of spend that give them a certain appealing edge. 

How do you plan your career at a large consultancy?
With fixed levels and timelines, your career path is quite clear. The top management often went through a similar career path, from whom you can learn exactly what it takes to move up. Because companies of this size are dealing with large scale projects, the emphasis on sales will increase as consultants grow the ranks: commercial consultative selling, expanding the client network and opening new doors’. 

For some at a big consultancy, there is room for an expert career track. But in general, the business model of a bigger firm limits those possibilities. Hence it still remains a big puzzle for large consultancies to keep top experts – but commercially less savvy professionals – with the company. Especially consultants aiming for a partner role should consider this facet (although in practice only a handful actually reach the partner position).

Another important factor is the limited space at senior level and that it’s quite overcrowded in the higher tiers of the ‘pyramid’. The competition is therefore fierce, so being promoted in senior levels is quite tough and can be challenging and less appealing for some types of people.

The responsibilities of consultants are defined in their role, with comparably less room for own initiative. On the other hand, there is a wide range of learning and development opportunities, so there are definitely additional ways for personal development.

Growth in headcounts at large firms has less impact on day-to-day business, and there are relatively more reorganisations and company transformations. Of course, this provides for an interesting experience and also offers opportunities. 

Next steps

For those actually considering a new challenge within consultancy, what would you advise?
Visualise your ideal role and think about what you appreciate most in your current work. Is it the dynamics within the firm, the quality of work, the content of projects, the client portfolio or like-minded colleagues? What do you miss now?

Also consider what you would rather not have in a new role, or what are the definite no’s. Such as internal politics, promotion pressure or travelling while having a young kids at home. Do not automatically assume that these aspects simply belong to consultancy, because there are places where things are different. 

When assessing their next career move, consultants sometimes find it intimidating to talk to another party, or even a direct competitor. Why might that be?
They feel that an official application procedure is a step too far. I honestly get that. That’s why I often suggest to have a low-key exploration coffee or acquaintance talk with a partner or peer, for example. It’s interesting and insightful on several layers.

At Badenoch + Clark, we organise such talks on a weekly basis for our candidates. And, to be frank, those are the ones that, in the end, often lead to a nice career move – because the match was naturally developed in a smooth and non-pushy way.