The Other Side of the Table—Are You an Engineer Who Could Thrive in Management Consulting?
Why did I become a consultant? 24 years ago, I was a young engineer for a global, integrated oil and gas powerhouse. I had spent the previous 8 years installing equipment, laying pipeline, debottlenecking processing units, and generally trying to make oilfield assets and chemical plants more reliable and efficient. I was competent at my work, but not brilliant. More importantly, it did not fascinate me.
In January of 1994, I was drafted onto a project where, for the first time, I worked with a team of management consultants. The short-term assignment lit a flame in me that has yet to be extinguished. On the heels of that special project, I quit my job, sold my house, and dragged my wife and two kids to Austin, Texas to enter the University of Texas MBA program—all for the hope of a future in consulting. Although full-time B-School enrollment exhausted every financial resource we had at the time, it also launched a professional career that continues to enthrall me to this day.
Management consulting may be a rewarding career for you too, but that will likely depend on many factors. My experience through the years with other talented engineers who gave it a try—some successfully, some not—leads me to believe a few minutes spent reading this article may serve you well in determining whether this career option deserves your time and energy.
What is Management Consulting?
At its core, management consulting is about helping companies improve their operational and financial performance, and involves the high-level activities of thinking about, designing, and building new ways of conducting business. It encompasses the people, process, and technology aspects of improvement and change. My own career encountered a broad range of projects, from organizational sizing to optimizing working capital to creating operational strategies to integrating two merging international companies. One of the exciting parts of consulting for me has been the need to continually learn and grow.
Why Do Management Consultants Exist?
There must be a good reason why the consulting industry and similar professional services have thrived; the profession in the US has outpaced GDP substantially over the years. Just a brief look online and you will come across articles more insightful than this one to explain the phenomenon. Why? If you will indulge my Texas cornbread way of thinking about this, consider these three key drivers of consulting growth in the US:
Companies are driven to succeed, and the most successful companies regularly reinvent themselves, either in part or in the whole
Most companies are not wired to reinvent themselves; they tend to favor fine-tuning of what they are already doing
Consulting projects are generally charged with thinking about business or building capability to do business “in a new way”
When a company brings in an external consultant, it is (hopefully) bringing an informed, objective, external view, along with a short-term surge in human resource to consider, configure, and bring about productive change.
What is the Day-to-Day Work Like?
The daily work of a consulting team tends to center around a handful of recurring themes. I intentionally consider a team instead of an individual here because in my two decades in consulting, projects where I have been the sole team member have been rare. Consider the following telltale activities:
Scoping the challenge—what is on the table, what is not—and forming hypotheses about what could be done to address it
Gathering data, from published sources or through primary research, to gain insights
Drawing conclusions and formulating recommendations and solutions
Testing, documenting, and presenting findings with customers and other stakeholders throughout the course of a consulting project, not just at the end (a mentor once told me to view a consulting project as “more like taking my client on a road trip, less like unveiling a work of art”)
In addition to the actual work, it is not atypical to add a weekly airplane roundtrip and a 3-night hotel stay, along with one or two 14-hour workdays; some would-be consultants are keen for this kind of “excitement,” while for others it is a deal-killer
Working engineers might see some parallels between the list above and their own weekly routine. The specific challenges addressed are often more technical for engineers, but the discipline used and the fundamentals can be strikingly similar. It is no wonder that a healthy percentage of consultants, including those who pass through our nations more prestigious B-Schools, have an engineering diploma hanging on a wall at home (Zlomek 2018).
Is Management Consulting Right for You?
Why does anyone choose one career over another? Better yet, why “should” anyone choose one career over another? In his 2001 book, Good to Great, Jim Collins commends a “hedgehog concept” to for-profit organizations that, with minor adjustments, applies well to the chosen careers of working professionals like you and me. If we adapt Collins’ language to our subject, we might say long-term satisfaction occurs most often in careers where three attributes intersect:
Sense of personal reward
Passions and interests
Decades of punching the clock have led me to see that the luckiest souls are those who find the intersection of these as early as possible.
Sense of Personal Reward. There are numerous sources of information about what consultants earn, ranging from specialist, technical consultants (achieving compensation similar to seasoned managers in many companies) to the most senior partners and principals in the world’s leading consulting firms (more like what C-Suite executives earn in large companies). However, it is important to know that personal reward encompasses more than mere pay. It must also accommodate your sense of values, moral goodness, and personal fulfillment.
Distinctive Abilities. Many of us may struggle to be honest with ourselves about what we are really good at doing, so perhaps you should answer these questions alongside someone who genuinely knows your professional and interpersonal skillsets:
Are you able to distill key learnings from voluminous, unstructured data in order to formulate insights and draw conclusions? Are you generally decisive?
Do you readily understand process flows or information technology, or both?
Are you good with details? Are you quick with math? (If you are an engineer, say ‘yes.’)
Are you convincing in your ability to articulate a point of view, both in writing and orally?
Are you effective at facilitating meetings or discussions to achieve stated objectives?
Can you be outgoing when you need to be?
If you answer “no” to most of these questions, stop reading this article and get back to work; other pursuits will be more fruitful for you.
Passion and Interests. A short survey is far too simplistic to assess one’s passion for consulting. Still, your answers to a few basic questions may shed light:
Are you intellectually curious about the way businesses work?
Do you enjoy work that challenges status quo and pushes others to change the way they think and act? Do you like change yourself?
Are you comfortable on projects where the objectives are ambiguous?
Are you accommodating of short-notice requests and interruptions to your daily schedule?
Do you enjoy working with other people?
Do you prefer projects (weeks/months in duration) over roles or positions (months/years)?
If you answer “yes” to most of these questions, today may be the day you begin your earnest exploration into the world of management consulting.
Perhaps the greatest thing about the engineering discipline is that it develops the abilities to learn quickly and to solve problems and in that way, engineering and consulting have much in common. Maybe you are one of those engineers who would thrive in a consulting environment. Circumspection regarding what rewards you and an honest evaluation of your interests and abilities may provide valuable clues as to whether you should seriously consider a career change.
Zlomek, E. 2018 As MBA Applicants, Business Majors Face an Uphill Battle (under paywall). Bloomberg, accessed 28 March 2018.
Scott John is a principal at Deloitte Consulting. He works with leading oil and gas companies to improve their financial and operational performance, and has led projects in several countries around the world. Scott holds a BS in mechanical engineering from Texas Tech University, and an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. He lives with his wife in Houston, Texas.
The article was sourced from the author by TWA editors Nazneen Ahmed and Thomas Shattuck.
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