It’s time to fix consulting’s broken talent pyramid

  • Rachel Duk

If our analyst team could earn a pound each time we heard from consulting leaders that “talent is a big challenge”, we’d all have taken early retirement by now, spending our days swilling Dom Perignon on our superyacht. Unfortunately for all involved, we’re still locked away in a dark basement frenetically examining the consulting industry, while firms are no closer to solving the talent conundrum. We all know the drill: Great people are in short supply, the much-maligned Millennial generation are less committed than Leonardo DiCaprio in a new relationship, and those blasted start-ups are, mysteriously, more alluring to young professionals than the concept of process-mapping in the back-end of nowhere. And while some consulting firms are developing retention strategies for their flighty talent pool, many more accept this situation as the new status quo.

Yet as a Big Four graduate myself, I’m convinced there’s a better way. Accepting a bi-annual mass turnover of your talent pool is damaging for both firm and consultant and a failure to retain talent will be one of the main barriers of growth for the consulting industry. Indeed, the only beneficiaries of this situation are recruiters, whose pockets are being lined with every position left vacant by another disillusioned junior consultant.

Frankly, I don’t believe every consulting firm is adequately compensating its people for the demands placed on them at the earliest stages of their careers. The allure of a British Airways gold card (more realistically: bronze) is scant compensation for months on the road and your other half being unable to identify you in a line-up. But do those same consulting leaders acknowledge that they entered the workplace at a very different time to their junior peers? When I joined a Big Four firm in 2009 I was thrilled to be renting in up-and-coming Finsbury Park (the equivalent of Bushwick for our US friends). Yet the managers I worked with had—at the same stage of their careers—been ensconced in pads in the premium parts of London: Marylebone (admittedly before the Chiltern Firehouse was established, but still), Kensington and Bloomsbury. As a 22 year old graduate I felt incredibly fortunate to have landed a great job, but it certainly wasn’t the golden ticket many expect it to be. While most of my peers are now “on the ladder” it took us some hard yards to get there, and for the analysts of today even the hardest of yards may not be enough to get them the keys to their own home. Cry me a river, you might be tempted to think—but when a consulting career wreaks havoc with most areas of your life, the dim dream of home ownership feels like a reasonable request. I’m clearly not saying that consulting firms have the power to re-shape the economy or lower house prices, but openly acknowledging the vast gulf between the top and bottom of the talent pyramid, and taking steps to address this, feels like a good place to start.

Pay is not the only thing consulting firms need to get real about. Society’s buzzwords of flexibility, balance and self-care are unlikely to resonate with the wrung out junior consultant. In an industry where the client is king, consultants find the planning of their social lives rendered impossible. “Theatre on Thursday” is more of a prayer than a plan; commitment impossible when the client request for version 27 of the steerco deck could land in your inbox at any time of the day or night. The payment for consulting services blurs the boundaries of work and life but, once again, I see a better way. A world in which outcomes hold more sway than facetime, and delivery supersedes documentation. A partner bold enough to set clear expectations with clients would deliver a step-change for employees’ experience, and in many cases, stop them hitting send on that resignation email. And what’s more, this approach is likely to positively differentiate a firm in the eyes of clients. Clients tell us that an innovative approach is the most important attribute consultant firms can bring to the table and to them, innovation is brought to life when consulting firms demonstrate different approaches and flexibility. What could be more refreshing than an engagement in which the results tell the story, not the number of hours on the timesheet.

For all its challenges, I maintain a consulting career has a huge amount to offer. From my own experience, it gave me a network of friends and colleagues that became the bedrock of my London life. It enabled me to sample the workplace in multiple sectors and gave me a breadth of experience I’d be unlikely to find anywhere else. Yes I spent several months working in a white tower block in East Croydon (and I’m still in therapy), but I was also lucky enough to spend time working with some fantastic colleagues in sunny Dubai—an experience I’m still grateful for. When I felt the quarter-life urge to live abroad, my firm gave me the network to quickly set up home in New Zealand. I’m still in touch with a huge number of brilliant people both personally and professionally.

For the consulting firm that can strike the right balance between pay and flexibility, the benefits are obvious. Its pick of the best people, a stable talent base, continuity of knowledge, happier and more engaged employees. I’m certain that it’s not long before a firm sees the light, and radically shakes up the way it interacts with both its people and its clients. But will it be your firm that changes the game?