What It Takes to Be a Leader in Consulting

by Beverly Harvey

In April 2020, London-based Source Global Research predicted that the U.S. consulting market would shrink 20 percent by the end of the year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Procurement-intelligence firm Beroe, Inc., monetized this reduction in business as a $30 billion hit to the consulting sector. Client postponement or cancellation of consultant-led projects is responsible for much of the loss.

However, “even before COVID-19, the consulting industry was in the middle of a period of profound change,” observe the authors of “Leaders of Tomorrow” from the firm SheffieldHaworth. “Effective leadership has, therefore, never been more important for consulting firms than it is today,” the authors note.

Typically, the top leadership role in the consulting sector is partner. Partners oversee strategy and goal-setting for the business and its revenue. At one time, consulting partners shared in the company’s profits, but this is not necessarily the case today. A blogger at CaseCoach points out, “only a small percentage of consultants who join top consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain make it to partner.” In fact, the blogger estimates that less than 5 percent of consultants become partners.

What does the partner role consist of? In an article titled How to become a partner at McKinsey & Co, Sarah Butcher offers this description:

Partners oversee multiple engagements for multiple clients at a time. They maintain long-term relationships with more senior-tenured clients and entire organizations. They advise clients in terms of the types of work that might be most relevant and useful, outline the scope of our work with their clients and teams and manage requests for proposals. Partners are accountable for the work we do and impact we deliver; they remain involved in daily problem-solving and help their teams solve the toughest parts of each challenge. They mentor junior-tenured … colleagues, take leadership roles in the firm and contribute more heavily to recruiting, office/practice leadership, etc.

Experts offer advice for those seeking to make partner. Nitin Kumar, whose Getting to The Partner Level is richly detailed, notes that good performance is not enough; the aspiring partner must be growth oriented and demonstrate that he or she can help grow the firm. Kumar also recommends a strong personal brand, the ability to network effectively, commitment to clients, and thought leadership – or what he calls “presence.” Others advise getting published, having a full grasp on industry trends, possessing strong business acumen, developing new business, and honing outstanding skills in consulting and engagement management.

Preferred Background

One of the common paths for entering the consulting industry is after attaining a bachelor’s degree. Many consultants, however, don’t join the sector until after gaining a master’s degree, typically an MBA or a master’s in management. “Typically, candidates who do not hold an advanced degree,” Butcher notes, “such as a PhD, JD (Doctor of Jurisprudence), MD (Doctor of Medicine) or MBA join as business analysts.” The third common path for entering the consulting sector is from industry by leveraging functional expertise, for example, in supply chain and operations, or industry expertise.

Not all consulting leaders have business backgrounds. Butcher quotes Caitlin Storhaug, McKinsey’s global director of recruitment marketing and communications: “We have significantly increased our experienced hire recruiting and our experienced hires include former doctors, lawyers, soldiers and even a theatre company director. We are looking for people who love to work in teams to solve the world’s toughest problems.”

A common progression of roles from bottom to top (which takes about 10 years) starts with business analyst, then associate, consultant, senior consultant, managing consultant, associate partner, and finally partner. Because the progression can vary from firm to firm, Vijay Vijayasankar created The path to partnership in big consulting firms. The predictable path has been a selling point for the sector, although Richard Longstreet points out on LinkedIn, “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.”


Desirable Characteristics

“To succeed in the future,” write the authors of “Leaders of Tomorrow,” partners will need to be capable generalists with a rich understanding of their firm’s capabilities – and, crucially, the ability to create bespoke solutions for clients that cut across them.” Additional desirable leadership characteristics include the following:

Leadership Styles in the Consulting Field

Not surprisingly, a consultative leadership style is recommended for consulting leaders. “Consultative leadership,” says Gerald Ainomugisha, a blogger at 6Q, “entails asking key people for their thoughts and allowing them time to process the problem and solve for what they feel was the best possible solution.” Given that consulting leaders may interact with diverse organizations, advice by a blogger at Cerius Executives also makes sense – that consultants should adapt their leadership style to the organization they’re currently working with.


These resources offer additional insight on leadership in consulting:

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