How can consulting firms attract and retain consultants?

01 June 2020 6 min. read

Consulting firms live and die by their people; ultimately in consulting, clients pay for talented people, ahead of other factors such as a brand and proprietary methodologies. So how can consultancies attract the best talent, and at the other side of the equation ensure that their best people stay on board? 

Just as consulting firms might market and pitch to a client, designing and promoting propositions for their clients’ needs, consultancies also have to market and pitch to candidates. “Marketing obviously is a major factor in talent acquisition,” says Richard Longstreet, who runs the Consulting recruitment practice at 3Search, a firm that works for many leading consultancies. 

It starts with an attractive website and a careers section, reinforced by a social media presence. There are several ways of using this online presence to make a consultancy a more attractive employer, three of which stand out, says Longstreet.

How can consulting firms attract and retain consultants?

“Consultancies need to persuade candidates that they will be working on impactful and meaningful projects. The projects that you show on your website should be exciting. What is exciting will vary from consultant to consultant, but you want to bring in consultants who will enjoy the work that you do.”

To get a clear picture of what projects could best do the trick, “speak to your consultants and find out what excites them, and bring this out in your case studies.”

Second, “consultants go into consulting with the promise of strong progression and growth opportunities. How are you selling this? If people in your company have been promoted quickly, shout about it. Demonstrate that your consultants have a bespoke learning and development plan and that they will be able to focus on work that they find most interesting as they grow.” 

On top of project work and development, consultants want to enjoy working for a consulting company. Longstreet: “Show that you have an inclusive, collaborative company culture where everyone (at all grades) can work with autonomy and can get support from anyone in their team, not just their direct reports or line manager.” 

“Fundamentally, the companies that best engage with their consultants are those that reinvent the employer-employee relationship. Consultants at all levels should be shown that they are not just a resource, but that they are valued as individuals by employers that recognise the mutual benefits of promoting employee engagement and wellbeing.”

This goes further than the online environment. In practice, consultancies typically forget that after a candidate has applied, there is a risk that he or she may turn down the offer at the end of an application process. 

“Getting this right requires a focus on the candidate experience,” says Longstreet. Quick (and useful) feedback, smooth interview processes, interviews outside of core working hours and meeting members of the team are all factors that contribute to an improved candidate experience. “The decision to join a new company is not an easy one, and a positive experience throughout the application goes a long way in helping a candidate decide to join a consultancy.” 

Retaining talent

Consulting firms invest significantly in the development of their consultants, training them from graduate-level through the ranks until they’re leading engagements and selling your business to clients. For leaders, it is rewarding to see their development, and firms are also getting an excellent return on the investment they made. 

However, some consultants leave the firm before this ‘return on investment’ is reaped. On top of losing valued people, firms will have to recruit a replacement, and onboard that consultant, which comes with further financial investment. 

So what can consultancies do to drive down their attrition? “By far the most common reason that consultants give for leaving consulting as an industry is work/life balance. Long hours, constant travel and side-of-desk work that can count for your promotion case as much as your client-facing work (and is often done in evenings or over weekends) mean that many consultants burn out,” says Longstreet. 

“This is particularly important for consultants in their late 20s and early 30s, who find that being away from home for four days a week is incompatible with their aspirations to start a family. Travel is often a necessarily evil within consulting, but try to be reasonable with it. If a consultant has been on an 18-month engagement working away from home 5 days/week they might appreciate their next project being nearer home.” 

“By far the most common reason that consultants give for leaving consulting as an industry is work/life balance.”
– Richard Longstreet, 3Search

While strong progression is one of the big draws of consulting, progression can also be a reason why people leave. Some (particularly strategy consultants) go down the venture capital or private equity route, which can command even bigger salaries and offer a slightly different challenge. Others go in-house to gain leadership experience and deepen their subject matter expertise, often with the view that this will help them push for partner should they later return to consulting. 

To this end, Longstreet advises consulting firms to work with their employees on these considerations. “If a consultant is looking to deepen sector expertise ahead of a return to consulting how can you maintain contact to ensure they come back to you.” Similarly, “keeping a positive relationship with your alumni can have multiple benefits, but is often overlooked by consultancies.” 

Another main pull of consulting, variety, can also be a factor that makes people turn away from the industry. “Tired of the mercenary nature of their work, rarely seeing projects through a full lifecycle and even less frequently seeing the fruits of the work they do for clients, many consultants go in-house with a view to own their own product or function and embed themselves within a business.” 

Based on his discussions with hundreds of consultants leaving to peers or exiting the industry, Longstreet advises consultancies to make sure their consultants feel they own something, and that it’s valued. “Consulting revolves around its projects, but ownership can be found internally with propositions and other vital internal work (recruitment, thought leadership, CSR etc).” 

Finally, “red tape” and “bureaucracy” are terms that consultants use time and time again motivating their departure. In most cases, “big consultancies – often the slowest to react to the shifting demands of their workforce – lose consultants because of these two factors.”