Many fresh college graduates start their careers each year at large consulting firms with big plans to stay and become a partner (that was me at first, too). Some know they won’t stay that long, but set other timelines for themselves like staying until they’re promoted to manager, for example. And then, each year, people at all levels (but especially the lower levels) leave for other jobs. At the end of the day, probably less than 10% of entry-level consultants will stay and make it to the partner level (firms don’t love to publish how many of its employees leave, so getting the exact percentage here is tricky, but I’d venture to say 10% might even be on the high side).
So, will you be in that 10%? Or will you find greener grass elsewhere? After spending time in both the consulting world and the corporate world, I’m going to share with you the biggest differences and things to consider when contemplating a switch.
Keep in mind, these pros and cons are based on my personal experience leaving consulting. Depending on your priorities and working style, some of the listed “pros” might actually be cons for you, and vice versa! I would suggest bucketing these items into your own pro-con list and then using it to make an informed decision.
PRO: YOU’LL BE MORE INVESTED IN THE COMPANY’S LONG-TERM SUCCESS
When I was consulting, I would switch between clients and projects every 4 to 8 weeks. Not only would the project change, but often the project team would change, too. Meaning, I was usually working with a new set of people every month or so. At first, I thought I enjoyed this aspect because I never got bored and I was learning a lot very quickly. However, it began to weigh on me that I didn’t stay with a client long enough to feel truly invested in their success. Additionally, switching teams that often meant it was hard to develop long-term working relationships with my teammates. Getting used to a new boss every few weeks is challenging!
Of course, some of this was due to my level at the time. If you stay in consulting for the 10+ years required to become a partner, your job would be more centered on client relationships and you would likely feel extremely vested in the consulting firm’s success, as you would be a partial owner of the firm.
I left consulting to do corporate development for a technology company (you can learn more about corporate development, here) and now that I’m “in-house” (i.e., working for the company instead of being an outside consultant), I feel much more invested in my company’s success and I can see how my work is having an impact on the company. This has had a positive impact on my morale and motivation.
Another potential upside is equity (stock in the company). Corporations sometimes offer equity as part of overall compensation to further ensure that employees’ interests are aligned with the company’s interests.
PRO: YOU’LL GET A BROADER EXPERIENCE
Depending on the size of your company, you could be asked to do certain projects that involve multiple departments. These cross-functional projects are a great way to network with other people at your company and learn new skills. You’ll do better in this environment if you’re a team player and ready to jump in and help wherever needed.
My current job involves helping the company I work for find and execute on acquisitions to accelerate its growth. When we are working on an active acquisition, we are very busy for 6 to 8 months. However, we often don’t roll straight from one acquisition to another. During this “in between” time, my teammates and I can be pulled into other projects.
The analytical skills that I developed when I was consulting have proved very useful not only in my current day-to-day job, but also in these other strategic projects. It’s common for corporate roles to require previous consulting-type experience for this exact reason. Consulting is a great way to get a solid foundation very quickly. And once you have the foundation, you can choose to double down and stay in consulting or transfer those skills to a different job.
PRO: YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT THE INDUSTRY YOU’RE IN WITH HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE
For me, there’s no better way to really learn the ins and outs of an industry than to work in it and work with people who are experts. I’m proud of the industry knowledge I’ve accumulated over the past few years and having to use that knowledge on a day-to-day basis has solidified my understanding.
As I mentioned above, my consulting projects were very short-term and often the industry sector would switch from client to client. I had to learn as much as I could about that industry in the 4 to 8 week period, but then I typically didn’t have to use that knowledge again. It’s worth noting that if you stay in consulting long enough, you may be able to specialize in an industry that interests you and only work on projects in that industry. But in the early years, you’ll likely find yourself industry-hopping like I did.
CON: THE PROMOTION PATH IS LESS STRUCTURED
In my experience, one downside to working for a corporation can be the lack of structure around promotions. Although companies have defined roles and hierarchies, when it comes to how long it might take to get promoted, the timeline is less clear cut than the consulting world.
Consulting firms have promotions down to an exact science. New hires typically start at the associate level and depending on the firm, will stay there for 2 to 3 years. Then, associates get promoted to senior associates and after 3 more years, they get promoted to managers. So on and so forth all the way up until you reach the partner level. This structure is sometimes referred to as an “up or out” mentality because you either get promoted or leave (voluntarily or involuntarily). Depending on your personality, this structure may give you comfort.
What I have found in the corporate world is a far less structured environment. You might stay at your current level until there’s a real need for a promotion. Or, you might have to wait for the person above you to get promoted before you have your chance. This isn’t to say promotions don’t happen, but you should consider whether a defined promotion path is important to you or if you can live with a little ambiguity.
CON: THERE’S MORE DOWNSIDE RISK IF THE COMPANY DOESN’T PERFORM WELL
I mentioned already that being personally invested in my company’s success has had a very positive impact on my experience. But, the other side of the coin is if the company doesn’t do well, my job is potentially at risk (“more risk, more reward”).
The smaller the company, the more this might be an issue. Consulting roles are generally more secure because the firms are large, have been operating for many years, and can “weather the storm.” However, we know that big companies (and even big consulting firms) can fail as well, so no one is completely immune. It’s also smart to consider how a recession (or global pandemic!) will affect both roles.
As you can see, there are several big things to consider when deciding to stay or leave consulting. I believe it was the right decision for me to leave consulting, but I have plenty of colleagues who decided to stay and that was the right decision for them. There’s not a universal right or wrong answer because it all comes down to personal preference. I encourage you to seriously consider the points above and make the decision that feels right for you.