This question comes up all the time. All. The. Time. Business consultants, sometimes called “management consultants,” are used to explaining what it means to be a consultant. For some reason the word “consultant” elicits a response in people that ranges from “that’s so cool” to “do you also steal candy from babies?”

Business school students, other management consultants, some executives that have worked with consultants, and people who dream of traveling for work sit in the “that’s so cool” camp and everyone else is skeptical to disdainful. It seems to me they either think we are a little bit evil or that we don’t really work (as in “oh, you do {air quotes} consulting {air quotes}”). 


“What do you actually do?” is the most common question I get.

Unnecessary Secrets

Management consulting has always seemed liked a veiled industry. Even if people understand what we do, they don’t understand how we do it and consultants themselves are guilty of perpetuating the image of it happening as if by magic.

We talk of our executive clients, our well-known client brands, the great project outcomes, and our (conceptually) sexy travel. We do this because the reality of the day-to-day isn’t that interesting. And, we legally can’t talk about the content of our work because that belongs to our clients.  

The day-to-day in consulting is very similar to any job except: we change projects, clients, problems, and locations more frequently and everything we do happens under a compressed time frame because most projects have a limited duration.

Consulting Content 101

The content and steps associated with executing a project are always unique to the project’s scope. If you are driving cost out of an apparel company’s supply chain, for example, the content will look slightly different than if you are improving the product development process at a telecom manufacturer and that will look different from a project to design new products for an electric car company. 

It is hard to generalize all the possible things management consultants and other consultants consult about. The types of projects and the expertise that consultants bring to a client differ firm by firm. Many consultants in large firms specialize by industry vertical or horizontal functions and/or geography.  The best way to get a sense of what consultants consult about is to check out the offerings and case studies on any of firm’s web site.


Types of Projects
Each firm groups projects differently. I think of them in 5 categories: Diagnosis/Discovery, Strategy/Design, Implementation, Ongoing, and Other. Each type has a different purpose (and is surely different client by client) and different steps. A Discovery or Diagnostic project (what IS the problem?) looks different than a Strategy or Design project (What should you DO about the problem?”).


Uh Huh. So What Do You ACTUALLY Do?

It won’t be short, and yet it won’t be comprehensive, but let me try to explain what we do and how we do it.


1. The Big Picture

We advise companies on making improvements to their businesses that they either don’t have the expertise, perspective, time and resources, or clout to do themselves. 


Expertise: Sometimes a company just doesn’t have the expertise or skill in-house that it need to diagnose a problem, solve a problem, grow your business, innovate, implement technology, and so on.  It could hire people and train them or it could rent people who already have that expertise and a lot of experience. 

Perspective: Outsiders can often see things a company can’t and come up with solutions it can’t because the company employees 1) are too close to the business, 2) are too wedded to what has come before, 3) have had less exposure to other companies and industries, and 4) have an understandable aversion the risk of getting fired.

Time + Resources: New initiatives and emergent problems take a lot of effort and a company and its employees have full time jobs running a business. Sometimes it just doesn’t have the right combination of time and people available to work on business critical things that come up. Again, it could hire people, train them, and manage them or it could rent teams with the expertise and availability to get them done in the time frame it needs.

Clout: It can be very helpful for executives to have the heft and expertise of seasoned consultants behind them. Sometimes you are brought in to lend your methodology and credibility to a project that has been stuck or is very important.  You might also be hired to handle a very controversial project or decision because of the authority your brand, expertise, and methodology bring to the table.


2. The Project Overall 

It differs firm by firm but the generally accepted practice of running a consulting project is:

  • Partner with the client executives to design the size and the scope project and the desired outcomes
  • Design an approach that achieves the scope and outcomes in the right time frame and for the right price and then form the best team (client + consultants) to do it
  • Execute the project (see below for more on this)
  • Present the results or the strategy (and gain agreement), or implement the solution
  • Wrap up the project
  • Hope to keep working with the same client on another project 

3. What We Actually Do On a Project

 Example: A Discovery or Diagnositc project

  • Get to know our consulting team and the client team
  • Develop the project plan and list of deliverables (strategies, decisions, and things you hand over at the end)
  • Form teams of clients to support the project
  • Interview client employees to help us rapidly learn about the company, its data, its concerns, its people, its strategy, etc.
  • Process all the details of all documents, data, and insights
  • Think and think together, a lot
  • Develop hypotheses about what the problem is and what is contributing to it
  • Build models – financial, data, research, product, supply chain, you name it – to capture and analyze the situation and run future scenarios
  • Conduct research, if needed
  • Hold weekly meetings with executives and client team members
  • Build Powerpoint slides to share our thinking, test our thinking, share data, bring our clients along with our process, gather more information, and introduce concepts
  • Hold meetings with the wider client team and decision makers throughout to “sell in” the new strategies or plans we have been developing, gather feedback, and adjust recommendations
  • Present recommendations and gather feedback
  • Adjust recommendations
  • Travel to the client every week (usually, though this is changing)
  • Manage the project team, client team, and administration (billing, legal, and so on) through out
  • Meet with project sponsor throughout
  • Propose, if warranted, a next phase project 


There it is. That is what we do. 


So is there any magic?

No. It’s a job and a career. You can build the skills necessary to do it well. Being really good at means bringing great insights, ideas, knowledge, project management, client management, relationships, team leadership, talent development, and budget management to the project in order to deliver outcomes that improve results for the client, satisfy teammates and clients, and, maybe, sometimes, create something that feels like a big contribution of value.

Will I like it?
Give it 2 years. You will learn a lot and you will see the career and life style close up. If it isn’t for you, you will still walk away with consulting skills (business skills) that are valuable in all jobs.