How has the pathway to partner changed in the consulting industry?

Consulting offers many attractions for graduates choosing a career to embark on: the high salaries, the travel opportunities, the chance to work on clients’ most complex, high-stakes business problems—to name a few. But for many prospective consultants, a big part of the sector’s appeal stems from the fact that it provides an exceptionally clear progression framework. The big consulting firms provide their employees with the luxury of a well-defined career pathway: Tick all of the right boxes and you will, at regular intervals, find yourself climbing up the pyramid—going from consultant to senior consultant to manager and, eventually, to partner.

Or, at least, that used to be the case. While consulting is still associated, in the minds of many, with the aggressive “up or out” system, the truth is that it’s a model increasingly ill-suited to the realities of the modern industry. Consulting careers today are much messier; consultants are no longer hikers progressing along a trail from A to Z, but must instead see themselves as explorers and navigators, charting a course for themselves through unmapped territory.

This is a change that’s been driven by both the supply and the demand side of the talent equation. When we interviewed consulting leaders for a recent study, many told us the same thing: That few of their graduate hires now come to the firm with the express ambition of staying there until they can join the partnership. Many instead see consulting as a springboard that can provide them with the skills necessary to thrive in other industries; and even those that do plan to stay in the sector long-term expect that they will jump around between multiple different firms in the early and middle stages of their career.

But even within an individual firm, there are now more opportunities for people to carve out their own individual pathways to the partnership. The typical large firm often feels less like a single organisation these days and more like a latticework of interlinking sub-brands and service lines, and an enterprising consultant can take advantage of this to create a career path that works for them. One might, for example, spend a year or two working as a product designer in the firm’s “innovation hub”, or take a break from project delivery and instead work on developing software to support the firm’s managed services offerings.

Ultimately, this diversification of career paths can only be a good thing. Now more than ever, partners have to wear many different hats: Alongside selling the firm, delivering work, and managing their teams, they are also expected to play a proactive role in creating thought leadership, developing new services, and expanding the firm’s intellectual capital. And so the more diverse the backgrounds and the experiences of a firm’s partnership, the better equipped those partners will be to help their organisations rise to the challenges and opportunities confronting the sector today.

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