Working at a bigger consulting firm is not always better

22 May 2019 5 min. read

Securing a job at a big consultancy is the dream of many graduates and consultants. But while a role at large consulting firms seems to offer great experience, does working for a goliath of the industry actually work for all consultants? Alasdair McGregor, a partner at The Berkeley Partnership, a best employer boutique consultancy, shares his views, and argues that at the right stage of a career, a smaller firm may better suit the aspirations and skills of certain people.

Working for one of the most prestigious brands in the industry promises the opportunity to learn from the best, whilst working on complex and challenging projects with high-profile clients. I certainly enjoyed my nine years in ‘big consulting’ [McGregor worked at Accenture for nine years] and learnt a huge amount.

At a smaller firm, there are the obvious advantages: you get to know everyone in the firm; you are typically closer to your clients without the ‘big brand’ between you and them; and there is no danger of feeling like a cog in a huge machine. But is that enough to tempt a talented young consultant ‘on the up’ to give up the undoubted opportunities at a big consultancy? I think it takes more than that. You need to believe that a smaller consultancy has been designed to be different – designed to offer consultants a genuine alternative career model.

To give an example, at The Berkeley Partnership our career model couldn’t really be more different to that on offer at big consulting firms. We offer our consultants no bonuses, no promotion structure, no sector or service specialisms, and no sales targets. Whilst you could be forgiven for wondering how such an unusual model could possibly work, we have found that it is the very absence of these things that attracts consultants from the big consultancies.

Working at a bigger consulting firm is not always better

Free for the better

So how does it work? And what are the challenges of making the transition to such a different approach to consulting? Rather than set consultants sales targets, we set them free to concentrate on doing a great job for the client – we find it leads to increased sales from happy clients. Rather than expecting consultants to specialise (so they are easier to sell as experts), our consultants work on projects across a range of industries and service lines. We find this attracts and retains the most intellectually curious, who in turn are most likely to impress their clients when working on the demanding problems.

One of the most essential skills in management consultancy is critical thinking. At The Berkeley Partnership, people work on their own or in very small teams – this creates a level of challenge that can really help develop critical thinking skills. Of course, the transition is not always easy – many consultants describe experiencing a feeling of there being nowhere to hide when they first join! But we don’t want them to hide: from the outset, we have worked hard to create a culture where asking for help is seen as a strength. Two of our consultants reflect on the approach.

Pankaj Bansal has been with The Berkeley Partnership for five years, having previously spend five years at Accenture. “I found at the big firms that the more you progress in your career, the more you have to sell. I am not good at sales. I want to be a management consultant. In addition, my focus was increasingly on managing big teams and doing the same thing over and over again. The variety of work at Berkeley blew me away, though it was a bit of a struggle to adjust to not having a team. You are effectively a one-man army!”

He added, “The way we work here won’t be for everyone, but it undoubtedly expands your skillset.”

“At The Berkeley Partnership, we have designed our people approach to offer consultants an alternative career model.”

After spending nearly seven years with Deloitte and PwC, Elizabeth Nyman joined The Berkeley Partnership in the summer of 2017. “I joined a big firm with high expectations and many of them were met! I was surrounded by talented people, learned a huge amount about the consulting world, and I still believe that big businesses offer valuable opportunities for people in the early stages of their career. However, as time went on, I felt increasingly pressured to specialise and become a more niche consultant, while what I really wanted was to continue to expand my skillset.”

By contrast, one of the most exciting – and liberating – things about joining Berkeley was the level of autonomy you’re given, even when you’re in a new type of role or project. This rapidly helped me discover that, as I suspected, my core consulting expertise was absolutely transferrable to most types of jobs, and has provided me with opportunities for growth that I couldn’t have imagined three years ago.”

There are fantastic careers on offer at the big consulting firms – and great consultants should think hard before leaving to try something different. We certainly know the Berkeley model won’t be for everyone. But for those who feel that bigger isn’t necessarily better, it’s nice to know that there is something else out there.

Related: Why working at a boutique consultancy can be exciting.