How Big 3 Strategy Consultants Can Move Toward Independence

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If you’ve got experience working with one of the world’s “Big 3” management consulting firms – McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group or Bain & Company – you already know you’ve got an impressive story to tell. After all, you’ve been involved in helping world-class organizations solve some of the toughest business problems around.

By itself, the firm you’ve worked for can tell prospective clients a lot about how you’ll attack any challenges they face.

But as I’ve written before, each of these firms has its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as its own approach to assignments. By itself, the firm you’ve worked for can tell prospective clients a lot about how you’ll attack any challenges they face.

In this light, it’s worth considering how the Big 3 describe their staffs and cultures:

  • McKinsey calls its staff “a community of people” doing “meaningful work where their skills have impact and make a difference in the world” and who “constantly learn and grow and to view the world as their classroom.”
  • Boston Consulting Group strives for “an environment of openness, flexibility, and mutual respect” and claims seeking “a better way to manage case work and help our consultants sustain longer, more satisfying careers is a constant objective.”
  • Bain says its formula for success is simple: “create a high-impact, supportive culture where immensely talented people are encouraged to be brilliant at everything they do.”

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of similarity in those statements. These are sophisticated organizations that, at the end of the day, sell smart thinking as their product.

To succeed, they need people with exceptional skills and intelligence, who are going to look at issues in ways that go beyond the ordinary – to color outside the lines, if you will, while reassuring clients that their efforts won’t lead into areas that may be more fanciful than workable.

At the same time, each firm has its own way of thinking. BCG tends to give more consideration to the front-line impact of its efforts and the details involved in getting something done, while McKinsey and Bain emphasize a higher-level approach.

That implies that veterans of the latter two are best suited to strategic work while BCG is more likely to produce professionals who sweat the details on the ground as much as they analyze the view from 30,000 feet.

Your Big 3 experience hasn’t just provided you with an exceptional entry on your resume. It’s taught you a highly valuable way of dissecting problems and creating solutions.

That’s an important distinction, especially when you’re considering how to position yourself as an independent consultant. Remember, your Big 3 experience hasn’t just provided you with an exceptional entry on your resume. It’s taught you a highly valuable way of dissecting problems and creating solutions.

And, it’s given you an alumni network to tap whenever the need arises, whether you’re looking for work opportunities or specific expertise to offer clients in need.

No matter which of these firms you worked for, it’s important to recognize the unique characteristics of its culture and approach as you reposition yourself for life on your own.

Early on, your pedigree will bear much weight as prospective clients decide whether or not to engage you. As time goes on, however, and you use your background to build your own body of work, your Big 3 employment will be considered more of a foundation block for the results you deliver.

The important thing is to demonstrate early your ability to think for yourself. When talking to prospective clients, by all means show off your Big 3 experience. But be sure to show off your own thinking, as well. Remember that one reason executives hire independent consultants is for their original thinking, their ability to take an approach that is beholden to nothing except the success of the client.

By melding the experience you gained as a brand-name consultant with your own unique approach, you can become a brand name of your own.

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