Consulting 101: What do you actually do?

Ah the life of a consultant…one of those professions that everyone knows about but few actually understand what we do. Two years in I still have friends and family constantly ask me “what do you actually do?”. This was also a question I asked on repeat when I going through the interview process for my current job. Now that I am two years in I think I have pretty good handle on how to explain the industry, hope this helps!

Consulting as an Industry

In essence consulting is the practice where organizations bring in external experts to provide expertise in an area the organization itself does not have experience in, or might have limited experience but needs a third party opinion and support.


Within consulting there is many different types of consulting. Some firms/freelancers specialize in specific areas such as only doing technology consulting, only do HR consulting or only consulting in one field such as accounting systems. Typically someone in this type of work would say ” I am Salesforce consultant” or “I do HR consulting”.

Other firms ( like the one I work at) are more general and provide what is often called “management consulting” which is a fancy way of saying we can consult on management level priorities. This is typically what most people are referring to when they say “I do consulting”.

Management Consulting 

Now within management consulting I will also make some distinctions ( please stay with me). Within most MC firms there is strategy consulting and what they call management consulting. Strategy you can think of as being the precursor to all management consulting projects. A company is having an issue and brings in a strategy time to do analysis and propose a solution. These projects are short and are similar to what you see in TV consulting ( House of Lies anyone?), they involve doing competitive analysis, building financial models and doing business cases. At the end the strategy time usually proposes a way forward for the firm that the firm can either implement themselves or hire another team to support implementation. While a lot of traditional consulting companies just do strategy consulting ( think McKinsey) more and more firms are moving to end to end consulting which means that after the strategy team goes in the firm is able to present a management consulting team to support the remainder of the project.

Management consulting firms typically work on projects where the end goal is already defined but the means to get there are not. If the goal is becoming a data centric company we might do analysis on the different data gathering mechanisms, the best data management systems and suggest the best ways to utilize and integrate data across the company. Once the specific project plan is established by the management consultants, technology experts are typically brought in to actually design and build the system and then change management consultants coach the organization through releasing this new system to their employees.

Day to Day Work 

Typically day to day jobs of management consultants include: project management ( coordinating efforts across teams and reporting to clients), gathering and analyzing data, gathering and documenting client requirements for systems, change management ( ensuring the employees of a business are ready for a change).

For instance, for the past year I have mostly worked in change management so I spend my days analyzing the current status of an organization’s skill set, building communication and engagement plans, drafting communications to employees, designing training plans and meeting with project sponsors to ensure that when the change goes live everyone in the organization will be able to work in this new way. My days are a mix of independent work, team work across our consulting team and meetings with our clients. I personally spend a lot of time using PowerPoint, Visio and good old Word.

Essential Skills 

Like the stereotype goes PowerPoint and Excel as pretty essential skills for a consultant, especially when you are starting out. We are constantly reporting back to clients on the progress of our work so being able to concisely convey information in a logical format is paramount to the job. Data as well is a cornerstone of our industry so being skilled at organizing and analyzing information quickly is very helpful- Excel, R, Power BI and Tableau are all commonly used.

As for soft skills the standard response good attitude, work ethic and superior communication skills applies. We often work long hours under stressful situations so you need to be able to grind it out when needed and still be an enjoyable person to be around, no one likes a complainer even when the work you are doing sucks. Communication seems obvious but many people equate this to being overly charming and using buzzwords, where in fact a much more useful skill is being able to convey important information in the shortest time possible with the shortest words possible. Be easy to understand the first time and use your remaining time to build strong relationships with your clients. Lastly, our industry relies on trust so accountability goes a long way- don’t oversell, always state your assumptions and citations, and if you say you are going to do something you better follow through.

Hope that helped you get a sense of what consulting really is! Now that I have more time I am hoping to do more posts on the field, so let me know any questions you have in the comments!

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