Ten Things I Wish I Knew About Consulting, Before I Became a Consultant

By David Marshall, NASPAA Director of Membership Development

November 28, 2016

The views expressed in this article represent the views of the author only, and do not necessarily represent the views of NASPAA Staff or its Executive Council.  This paper should not be cited without permission from the author.  Comments and questions are welcome and can be directed to the author at marshall@naspaa.org.

Before coming to NASPAA I spent six years at two well-known and highly regarded consulting firms.  The entire time I was a consultant I had only Federal Government clients including the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Commerce.  Working at a consulting firm can provide great professional experiences that can be applied across sectors – public, private, or nonprofit.  Moreover, starting salaries can be quite inciting.  It can be a great way start your career.  However, I realized within a relatively short amount of time that working for consulting firm is different from most jobs.  I realized there were aspects of the consulting culture that no recruiter told me about.  That being said, if I were better informed about consulting firms would I have chosen a different path?  Probably not.  However, I believe it’s always best to be an educated consumer.  Therefore, in the spirit of allowing our MPA/MPP students to be educated consumers I will attempt to shed some light on some inherent differences of the consulting industry.  While every consulting firm is different with their unique cultures and clients, here are ten things for students to think about while going through the recruiting process.  Hopefully this article helps you generate a list of questions that will better inform you if a particular firm or the consulting industry in general is a good fit.


1. Who you interview with is not necessarily who you will work with

The interview process for consulting firms is not much different than many large private sector corporations, especially investment banking or other financial services firms.  The interview process lasted about a month.  The process started with an initial telephone interview.  Then the firm brought all the candidates who passed the phone pre-screen interview to a hotel conference center for speed interviews, where candidates interviewed at least 3 or 4 associates for 20-30 minutes.  The really good candidates were usually offered jobs within a few days of the speed interviews.  If there were candidates the associates couldn’t agree upon, they would be asked to come back for a final round interview with more a senior associate or principal.

During the various rounds of interviews I developed a good rapport with my prospective team.  Not only did I answer their questions well, I also asked some good questions of them.  Therefore, I felt cautiously optimistic that I would receive an offer.  When I received the offer, I was very excited.  After a couple of days of trying to negotiate my salary and benefits (to no avail) I accepted the offer.

When my start date arrived, I was eager to see the folks I met with during the interview process.  However, I quickly learned that the people I interviewed with were not on the project I was assigned to.  This is where consulting firms differ from other organizations.  Depending on the company, you may not necessarily work with the people who interview you.  The people who interview you will most likely be in your same department or industry sector – such as defense, national security, or healthcare – but may not necessarily work on your particular project.  You are assigned to a project based on your set of skills and background and/or how pressing a project needs additional support.  While most of the time I was assigned to projects in which I ultimately developed a good relationship with my teammates and clients, there were other projects where I didn’t have much in common with my teammates and/or clients.  In such cases I had to work extra hard to manage expectations.  In conclusion, if you are the type of person who wants to know in full detail who you will be working with and the type of work you will be doing before you accept an offer, some consulting firms may not be able to give you such details ahead of time.  If so, you should definitely ask questions pertaining to the types of potential projects and clients, and then do some research on those agencies to see if you would be comfortable working on those types of issues.

2. You go where the work is

As I mentioned earlier you are assigned to a project based on your particular set of skills and background and/or how pressing a project needs additional support. With most consulting firms this usually means that with each project you are assigned to, the location of your workplace could change.  While many projects may take place in the consulting firm’s headquarters or regional office (this is the best-case scenario for reasons I will explain below in #3) some projects may require you to work at the firm’s smaller satellite office or the client’s office.  If you work at a firm based in the Washington, DC metro area – in which most of your clients are federal agencies – you could very easily have projects requiring you to work in DC, Northern Virginia, or Maryland.  Other projects might require you to travel out of town to your firm’s satellite office or client site for weeks at a time.  When your project is completed you will then move on to the next project which will most likely be in a completely different location.  Therefore, you must be comfortable being somewhat of a nomad.  While you do have some say on whether or not a project is good fit, you don’t always have the luxury of turning down a project because of a lengthier commute.  If you require a stable routine and commute, then its incumbent upon you to make sure you are assigned to a project that is expected to have a long duration.

Finally, every consultant will tell you there is no standard workplace environment.  If your project requires you to work at the firm’s headquarters, then you will usually have a cube or a shared office.  If your project team is small in size and short in duration you all might meet in a conference room for the entire project.  However, if you work at your client’s office, your workspace can run the gamut between a table in the copy room to a plush office.  You just have to be flexible.


3. You may have to serve two masters

This is especially true if you work on a project located at the client site.  Since you are working directly with the client you will be expected to follow the client’s rules – core working hours, telework policies, dress code, etc.  Some clients may have more conservative policies than your firm and you will have to conform.  However, the bigger issue is that you will have two bosses.  Ordinarily, working to fulfill your obligations to one supervisor or manager is challenging enough.  However, working on client site means you must satisfy your manager within your firm as well as your client.  Typically, the expectations of your manager and your client don’t come into conflict.  However, occasionally, they do.  For instance, if the client has a major deliverable due on the same day as your firm’s department wide mandatory training or business meeting.  You and your supervisor must figure out a workable solution.  Perhaps a trickier issue is when your client is asking you and your team to work more hours than your contract specifies.  Hopefully you and your supervisor can catch these issues early before they become problems.


4. Serving at the pleasure of your client = Unpredictable or Uncontrollable Hours

While your firm’s senior management will do its best to correctly scope your project in terms of its duration, number of staff required, average hours etc., inevitably issues will arise that will require you and your team work beyond a typical forty-hour week.  It’s normal to expect crunch times around the completion of major deliverables and the completion of the entire project.  However, any client, in any sector – public, private, or nonprofit, may ask for additional work at any time.  When a client asks for additional work it’s usually very important to them and they are willing to pay for this extra work.  As you can imagine, your senior management will never turn down additional revenue.  Therefore, the consultants on the project will be expected to perform the additional work, which will result in late nights and/or weekends.  Fortunately, no one (as far as I know) has ever had to reschedule his or her wedding or other really important personal event.  However, it is not uncommon for consultants to cancel or postpone events with friends and loved ones.  Unfortunately, canceling or postponing weekend trips is also not unheard of.

Even though working unpredictable hours is part of the consulting culture, it’s important to keep things in perspective.  In my six years of working at two consulting firms I had to work late countless times – too many to remember.  However, the number of weekends I worked was far fewer, maybe only a few times a year.  Fortunately, only once in six years did I have to cancel travel plans.  Therefore, while this is the most unpleasant part of consulting, it’s important to know that being a more efficient and productive consultant as well as maintaining good communication with your client can reduce the some of the unpredictability of your project work.  Unfortunately, even the best consultant cannot completely eliminate the necessity of working some late nights and weekends.


5. You will get to know the term “fully-utilized”

In today’s consulting environment to have job security 100% of your time must be billed to a client.  Accomplishing this means you are fully-utilized.  When you complete a project, it is incumbent upon you to find another project to work on in order to be fully-utilized again.  Ten or more years ago, you could spend 2 weeks searching for a new project while doing professional development or other administrative work.  Unfortunately, now many firms want to see that you have a new project lined up as soon as your current project ends.  The push for constant 100% utilization is due to the fact that most of the major consulting firms are now publicly traded and their investors want to see strong quarterly revenue.  That revenue is directly tied to the number of hours your client is charged for your work.  Luckily, your supervisor is tasked to help you find new projects.  However, no consultant should rely solely on his or her supervisor to locate new projects.  It’s very important for you to network within your firm and advocate to be placed on projects that best fit your interests, skills, and abilities.

Unfortunately swings in government funding sometimes reduces the number of federal contracts going to consulting firms.  When contracts are not renewed and no new RFPs are issued, consulting firms may not be able to sustain their staff size.  Therefore, the firm may need to lay-off employees when they are no longer fully utilized.  Depending on the economy, consulting firms expand and contract.  This is the natural cycle of consulting firms.  While it is very stressful to be laid off, luckily you should have some good experience to help you transition to another consulting firm, or a position in the public or nonprofit sectors.  The volatility of the consulting industry underscores to importance of reading #6 (securing mentoring relationships) and #8 (networking and professional development opportunities).

Two final thoughts on full-utilization.  A new presidential administration or a change in the party leadership within one or both houses in Congress can create considerable uncertainty for consulting firms.  It can take up to six months or more for some presidential nominations to be confirmed.  In the meantime, an agency may not want to extend any existing projects, give the green light to any anticipated projects, or issue any RFPs for future projects until their new leadership is in place.  Thus, if you are consultant and your project is being held up because of this, you must find another project to be fully-utilized again.  Changes in Congressional leadership are usually not as dramatic; however, they could result increased or decreased scrutiny of your project.

Finally, if you are a consultant with Federal clients you will hope and pray that the Federal Government does not shut down.  If so, depending on the terms of the shutdown, your client could issue a stop-work order.  That brings your work to a screeching halt and once again you are not fully-utilized.  The only difference is that it isn’t just you who is not fully utilized, but its most of your firm.  Fortunately, the most recent shutdown in 2013 was only 16 days and most firms covered their employees’ salaries during the time they were off work.  However, if the shutdown went on longer, the effects could have been disastrous for many firms and their employees.


6. Securing mentoring relationships might be difficult

Depending on your firm and the project you are assigned to, developing mentoring relationships might be difficult.  Almost all firms will assign a new consultant to a supervisor or manager who is tasked with helping you find new projects (keeping you fully utilized) as well as mentoring you.  However, if your supervisor/manager is not assigned to your project or even worse he or she is located at an office or client site far away from your work location, you may rarely see that person.  Once a month or two months is not uncommon if you are not located in the same office.  Thus, your mentoring relationship is dependent on email and phone calls.  Additionally, if over the course of a year you work on several short-term projects, you may not have had the opportunity to work with any one person long enough that knows the full range of your capabilities.  Therefore, it’s really important to make sure you are persistent in developing a relationship with your supervisor/manager.  If you to want to position yourself for promotions or to be assigned to the most plum projects, it’s incumbent upon you to take advantage of any and all opportunities to meet with your manager and other senior associates.  This includes going to department meetings, training courses, brownbag lunches, happy hours, etc.  You will need to do this on top of your regular client work, which will certainly test your time management skills.


7. MPA/MPPs are minorities at most consulting firms

Although both consulting firms I worked at were in the Washington, DC area and both specialized in Federal government projects, MPA’s/MPPs were minorities.  Most firms will have a lot more MBAs than MPAs/MPPs.  You may also find a good number of people with bachelor’s and graduate degrees in management information systems, engineering, computer science, and psychology.  I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say that the major consulting firms recruit more heavily at the top tier business schools than they do at the top public affairs/policy schools.  While this isn’t as big an issue as some of the others I mention in this article, a young consultant with limited work experience or experience only in the public or nonprofit sector might find working at a consulting firm a bit of a culture shock.  While consultants without a public policy background are equally committed to creating solutions for their public and nonprofit sector clients as their MPA/MPP counterparts, I do think their motivations are different.  While the public policy consultants have a deep desire to create solutions that allow government agencies be more effective and efficient, they are usually less concerned with the mechanics of sustaining and growing a business.  The business school grads have an inherent advantage on how to successfully run a business.  Thus, I think the MBAs are better equipped to navigate the corporate culture of consulting firms.  As a result, many MPAs/MPPs have successful careers doing client work, but a much smaller number make the transition to upper management.


8. Few industries offer as many opportunities for networking and professional development

While most of this article has focused on the need for MPA/MPP students to do their due diligence to be sure if a particular consulting firm or the industry in general is a good fit, this section discusses the best reason for a policy student to work at a consulting firm.  I cannot think of another industry that offers as many opportunities for networking and professional development as management consulting.  For a MPA/MPP student interested in learning about how government agencies work, working at public sector focused consulting firm is a great way to learn about and network with multiple agencies.  By being assigned projects that typically last from 2 to 18 months, within a few years you could have experience in multiple government agencies.   During that time, hopefully you will have developed good relationships with all your clients.  Therefore, the number and diversity of people within your network might be greater than if you started your career at one government agency.  Moreover, it is quite common for government agencies to hire their consultants as full time employees.

In addition to networking opportunities, consulting firms do offer lots of opportunities for professional development.  Because consulting firms try to be as responsive as possible to the needs of their clients, they are quick to offer training to their consultants on multiple topics.  Moreover, they embrace and sponsor more types of professional certifications than many other businesses.  They do so with the knowledge that as more of their consultants are trained in various topics and as more of them earn professional certifications, they are more competitive in terms of winning contracts and they can charge more money for a more educated and experienced consultant.  With the advent of online education, most firms offer a myriad of online courses.  They offer many in person classes as well.  As a new consultant, you might be asked to take courses in public speaking, technical writing, stakeholder management, computer software programs, diversity/human resource management, or any number of additional courses.  You should absolutely take advantage of these courses because they will make you a better and more marketable consultant, which is important in order to get assigned to more prestigious projects.

Many firms sponsor professional certifications in Six Sigma, project management (PMP and CAPM), facilitation (CPF), and many others.  I even received a certification in public housing rent calculation just to provide an example of how elaborate and specialized these certifications can be.  MPA/MPP students with backgrounds in engineering, computer science and/or management information systems will have the opportunity to earn certifications for various types of software applications, programming/coding, or internet security just to name a few.  Consultants with a background in both public affairs/policy and a quantitative/technical field are probably the most sought after consultants.  However, since certifications are expensive and time consuming to provide, a new consultant might not be offered the chance to receive a certification until he or she has successfully completed a couple years at the firm with excellent performance evaluations.


9. Are you comfortable getting a security clearance?

If you are considering working a consulting firm in the Washington, DC area, you should be aware that many federal government clients require a security clearance to work on certain projects.  For most students who are graduating from policy schools this won’t be a problem.  I received a Department of Defense (DoD) “Secret” level clearance which is a middle level clearance.  In addition to providing character references in which the government interviewed, I had to list my complete education, all employers, and all addresses.  The process took two to three months.  “Top Secret” level clearances usually include a polygraph in addition to a more extensive background check of your personal information, financial history and perhaps your spouse or other family members.  Because Top Secret clearances are more extensive than a Secret clearance they can take much longer to complete – sometimes up to one year.  All clearances must be renewed every five years and if you are planning business or personal travel overseas, that information must be reported to the agency who granted your clearance before your trip.

If for some reason you are not comfortable going through the process of getting a security clearance, you should discuss this with your recruiter very early in the process.  While there are some agencies that do not require clearances (and you might be able to be placed with those clients), most recruiters prefer job applicants who are willing to go through the process.  Just like with professional certifications, consulting firms are more competitive if more of their consultants have security clearances.  You should also be aware that if you join a firm and you are asked to get a clearance several years later; most firms will expect you to get the clearance.  You may not have the luxury of saying no.  Likewise, if you start the process and for some reason your clearance is denied, you should know that could have an adverse effect on your employment.  Hopefully you will be able to work another project, but there are usually no guarantees.


10. Up or out within 2-3 years

The final piece of information I wish I knew before I became a consultant, is what use to be known as an “up or out” policy.  Back in the 1990s and earlier many of the most prestigious firms had an “up or out” policy, which meant if you weren’t promoted within two or three years you were asked to leave the firm.  The rationale behind such a policy is that if you couldn’t get promoted within two to three years, you probably haven’t grasped key consulting concepts and/or you were never able to fit-in within the firm’s culture.  Some firms were very strict in enforcing this rule while others were less so.  In any event, over time many firms discontinued this policy.  I could be mistaken, but currently I haven’t heard of any firm that still has this type of policy officially in place.  Nevertheless, you could run into older consultants in which this policy is still part of his or her mindset.  During the interview process, you should discuss with your interviewers the criteria for promotions within your department and the timeframe most employees are able to advance from one level to the next.


In Conclusion

While working at a consulting firm certainly has its challenges, for the right MPA/MPP student it can be start of a meaningful and dynamic career.  The opportunities for networking and professional development are unparalleled as you gain both private and public sector experience.  However, if you join a consulting firm you will work hard.  It’s good to recognize this on the onset if you are contemplating working at one of these firms.  Most MPAs/MPPs who work at these firms use this experience as a launch pad for their careers utilizing their experience for all types of jobs in various industries and sectors.  Because of the unpredictability and volatility of the industry, working at one of these firms might be more attractive when you are young and without major commitments.  In any event, experiences within the consulting industry vary from firm to firm and its very important for MPA/MPP students to ask lots of questions during the recruiting process to determine if there is a good fit.  I hope this article has provided some useful information to guide you through the recruiting process.