Consulting - Love it or leave it!

Exploring governance, work-life balance, and new business models.

Etudiants programme Grande Ecole en travail de groupe

Dans le cadre de leur spécialisation dans le secteur du conseil, les étudiants d’Audencia participent à un concours d’articles portant sur les enjeux liés à l’organisation des cabinets de conseil et aux carrières dans ce domaine. Chaque semestre, le sujet est différent, les étudiants sont invités à développer un point de vue réflexif sur les tendances du secteur, en lien avec les apports du cours. Les étudiants sont appelés à trouver un angle intéressant et original sur le thème qui leur est imposé, à interviewer un ou plusieurs professionnels du conseil sur ce sujet et à en tirer des conclusions argumentées pour y porter un regard nouveau.

Consulting is known for its rigid hierarchical structure, the impact it has on human relationships and the result of that on the overall work-life balance of consultants. But does it live up to the bad reputation? We have interviewed Adam, manager at Strategy&, and Pierre-Alexandre, junior at BCG. Based on their personal experience this article will discuss the different aspects of the consultant’s life affected by the governance system of consulting firms. 

How is the partnership model impacting social interation
Within consulting firms' governance lies a delineation of roles structured by a discernible hierarchy, from associate to partner. Typically, this hierarchical structure may connote a sense of detachment among colleagues, fostering formal and somewhat constrained interactions. However, both Adam and Pierre-Alexandre offer insights into a system where inclusivity reigns supreme, with every voice valued and actively engaged in discussions. Take, for instance, BCG France's embrace of the "tutoiement" tradition, encouraging a familiar mode of address amongst colleagues regardless of rank.

“Our office is really relaxed in this regard. There isn’t any kind of formality enforced between the more senior and more junior people. We encourage participation and discussion from junior team members. We would regularly have meetings where interns, associates, managers and directors are present in one room, and they have a brainstorming session. There isn’t any expectation that when you’re not experienced you should stay quiet and take notes. It’s very much the opposite. It’s very, I would say, horizontal.” - Adam

The governance structure mandates a clear career trajectory within the organization, with each consulting firm establishing expected timelines for advancement and meticulously evaluating consultants' performance to align with the firm's organizational framework and fit the “up-or-out” model. Performance assessments are done in multiple ways, through both formal and informal channels. Evaluations may encompass structured frameworks, peer reviews following project completion, regular one-on-one meetings with supervisors to ensure performance, and other assessments aimed at addressing critical issues such as promotions and bonuses. However, the way this feedback is delivered is fundamental. Pierre-Alexandre perceives it not merely as a means of control, but rather as a form of mentorship, instrumental in navigating the steep learning curve.

What about work-life balance?
Consultants are known to work more than 35 hours a week, often stretching to 50-60 hours. This intensive workload is often expected in the profession. However, how do consultants manage their well-being with the intensive workload? 

During his five-month tenure at BCG, Pierre-Alexandre focused mainly on a single project. Despite the demanding workload, he finds satisfaction in the valuable lessons learned from experienced colleagues. The distribution of tasks among the team members is equitable, values team spirit and implements a leading-by-doing management style.

Adam shared insights from Strategy& regarding workload dynamics. Workload is closely tied to one's role and status within the company. Junior Consultants, for example, may have fewer hours due to their focus on individual projects, but they have limited flexibility in choosing their work schedules and the projects they work on.

Adam describes that their workload goes in waves: the workload is high during projects, but after completing a project they get some days off. This pattern seems to be mimicked in other consultancies as well such as BCG. This type of variation in workload contributes to the Predictable Time-Out. These measures enhance the work-life balance and are part of measures taken by consultancies to provide better working conditions.

“What I really enjoy is this flexibility that you have. When you finish a project, you can always take time off. Let’s say I want to have a holiday in December next year or this year, so in a couple of months. They will never say “You can’t do that”. If you plan it in advance, you can always take breaks whenever you want or you can have a longer break and everyone is trying to be really flexible because they know this is an exhausting job.” - Adam

Despite the demanding nature of consulting careers, there are ways to improve work-life balance without reducing workload. Embracing remote work options, for instance, gives individuals more control over their schedules, which can be particularly helpful for parents juggling family responsibilities. However, “having this kind of life when you have kids may not be sustainable” mentioned Adam.

Considering the challenges associated with maintaining balance, many professionals contemplate alternative career paths and explore different job opportunities to ensure their personal and professional lives align effectively.

Is it time for a new business model?
The conventional business model of consulting companies presents some major challenges for people working in that framework, particularly in balancing career demands with personal life. In response to these issues and a growing interest in work-life balance, consultancies have been coming up with new ideas for business models which provide employees with different working conditions. 

One of them is the freelance model used, for example, by Eden McCallum. Under this paradigm, consultants with considerable experience can register on the platform and directly negotiate agreements with companies seeking their expertise. In addition, it allows them to choose their own terms and schedule. They have the freedom to decline assignments and take breaks as needed, fostering a better work-life balance. On the other hand, working within this framework might lack enough social interactions and a structured learning environment which can limit professional growth. Another drawback would be an inconsistent income which might not align with everyone’s lifestyle. Even though this new model presents an interesting alternative, the conventional consulting companies can still provide some resources other models cannot.

Love it or leave it? It is up to you! 
Conventional consulting business model involves long hours, the up-or-out model, and regular performance evaluations. However, what matters most is finding alignment with personal goals. Despite its challenges, working within a firm model can offer fulfillment and some semblance of work-life balance, even if temporary. Depending on mindset, lifestyle, and career aspirations, the fast-paced environment of traditional consulting firms can foster personal and professional growth.

However, there's certainly room for improvement within standard governance consulting firms. Measures such as Predictable Time-Out, remote work options, and tailoring experiences for diverse consultant profiles could enhance working conditions. Additionally, emerging business models provide promising avenues for creating more adaptable working environments that cater to individuals from various backgrounds and with different career aspirations. 

It is all about being aligned with your personal life. New business models provide more than one answer to the question, leaving the traditional governance system may be a solution to keep loving it without leaving it. Embracing traditional governance frameworks can work for you and lead to fulfilling careers both professionally and personally.

Fabien Charpentier, Joanna Dyrwal and Martin Wahlberg