By Mina Landriscina
Analysis by: David Evancha
“Joining this firm means striving to surpass your own expectations,” says Vivek Gambhir, a 34-year-old project manager. “You learn how to run companies, how to invest in them, and how to make a difference. Whatever your goals, you will discover limitless opportunity here.”
A New York–based vice president at the same firm adds, “It’s the best place in the world — not just the consulting world — to learn general manager skills and find out what it takes to make change really happen in companies.”
“The people are absolutely amazing,” gushes another. And so the tribe has spoken. And if what the tribal members tell us is true, Bain & Company is one vibrant isle you don’t want to get thrown off of.
The 30-year-old firm, with its 2,800 professionals worldwide, is today widely known for its cohesive — some say cultish — culture. If the firm has any faults, super-loyal Bainies don’t appear ready to reveal them.
Tribal members simply love everything Bain. As a result, they are at the top of each of our six equally weighted categories used to determine which employers topped our 10 Best Firms to Work For: Career Development, Compensation & Benefits, Culture, Leadership, On the Job, and Work/Life.
Not surprisingly, those firms that join Bain on our list of Best Firms share much in common. While each of their cultures breeds consultants who never stray far from time-tested client-centric banter, their efforts to develop and reward talent have set them apart from the rest of the consulting world. Each of the firms has continued to nurture their people with exceptional training programs and strong mentoring cultures. They reward hard work, by being flexible with comp time or by doling out bonuses. Their leaders are experienced communicators, who routinely share the good news as well as the bad, and help establish an atmosphere of trust. And accountability begins on the front lines, where a consultant’s decision-making is often led by their firm’s ethical codes and values.
This year’s list is notable for dominance by the strategy firms — Bain, Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey & Company. These four firms have well-oiled up-or-out policies and are known to engorge their people with generous helpings of mentoring, coaching, and training. But that’s where the similarities in cultures end, the friendly rivals like to point out. In fact, Booz Allen’s consensus-building and “benefit of the doubt” culture may make it more akin to two other ranking Best Firms, Hewitt Associates, the human resource consultancy, and Kurt Salmon Associates (KSA), which advises consumer products, retail and healthcare clients. New to the list are KSA, Milliman USA, and Towers Perrin.
Missing from this year’s crop of Best Firms are the Big Five consulting offspring.
In 2001, when we conducted our Best Firms survey, four of the accounting house legacy firms — Accenture, Andersen Business Consulting, Deloitte Consulting, and PricewaterhouseCoopers — garnered top slots. Last year, that number dropped to two — Accenture and Deloitte. The failure of any of the Big Five offspring to make this year’s list speaks perhaps to larger changes afoot within the consulting marketplace. In short, the accounting offspring that came to dominate the consulting marketplace of the 1990s, and which arguably launched more consulting careers than any other grouping, are no longer counted among the ten best places to build a consulting career.
It’s a revelation of sorts, which should draw attention to the new organizational models being adopted by the former Big Five firms as they respond to SEC dictates. What’s more, given the number of Big Five legacy firms that for the first time sold shares to the public in the not-too-distant past, their absence from the list could bring new energy to the debate surrounding the resilience of publicly held firms vs. private partnerships. While four companies filed quarterly earnings reports on the 2002 list, this year, only two do: Hewitt, and Mercer Management Consulting, which is owned by Marsh & McLennan.
Those who work for privately held firms are breathing a collective sigh of relief, thankful that they can take a longer-term perspective and not be forced to overreact to quarterly financials and other short-term pressures.
“Being a privately held firm means that we, the owners, can focus on longer-term results to ride out tough business times,” says Robert Zampetti, a principal at Towers Perrin and western leader of the firm’s Human Resource Delivery Solutions practice. “Sometimes the interests of shareholders and employees DO differ. Our business allows individual practices and consultants to be quite independent and entrepreneurial.”
Consultants at public firms are not only envious of their counterparts working in the private ones, but also are rethinking the public business model for the profession.
“The core competency of the congenial partnership was the willingness to invest and to build people to create partners and build the business,” says a supply chain manager who witnessed the private-to-public evolution at his firm. “Now that we are a company, the culture has changed and this is no longer true. It seems that the worst parts of our partnership culture have been retained, while we have adopted the worst aspects of a corporate culture. The environment is subtly cutthroat.”
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Morale — a quick benchmark to get a pulse on a given organization and a bigger picture of the profession as a whole — differed little from last year. For the profession, the percentage of consultants registering their morale as “very high/high” did not budge from 2002’s level of 53 percent. But at the top firms — Bain, Booz Allen, PRTM, Milliman, and Hewitt — spirits appear to be on the rise. Not coincidentally, organizations that continued to have good news stood in stark contrast to competitors facing tough choices such as whether to have another round of layoffs or instead eliminate 401(k) matching programs.
Those consultants listing their morale as “low” bumped up slightly, increasing to 22 percent from 21 percent last year. At least two years of staff reductions, skipped bonuses, pay cuts, nose-diving stock prices, and lack of job security are wearing down this segment. Some respondents work at firms where the end of an assignment equals a pink slip or where leaders consistently overpromise on deliverables. Their outlook is decidedly grim. They say that they are working harder and longer — and traveling more — in struggling to meet deadlines, but aren’t seeing the appropriate rewards come their way.
“Morale is somewhat bipolar,” confides one consultant. “People continue to enjoy the work and the challenges it presents and continue to go to great extremes to deliver. But the downward cycle of the consulting industry and many of the industries we service, coupled with the change in work practice — increased travel, tougher sales cycles, and cost reduction — have had a big negative impact on personal employee morale.”
Consultants are feeling the pressure of work going offshore to India, predominantly, and to other parts of the world as well. “Consulting is a dying industry in America,” says a Massachusetts-based technology consultant. “Offshore outsourcing has put a lot of pressure on employees — salary, staffing, etc. This is no longer a growth industry with rewards at the end of the tunnel.”
In addition, the path to partner — for those who are interested in that career track — often seems longer — with foggier processes — and more politically charged. And with staff reductions taking place, it’s harder for women and minorities to climb up. “Advancement tends to run along traditional lines in terms of race and social backgrounds,” confides a 42-year-old female principal in New Mexico. “As times have gotten tougher, this has become more obvious. In other words, we’re exactly the same as all other firms in the field.”
In past surveys, consultants told us that among the top reasons for choosing their firm was the opportunity to do intellectually stimulating and diverse work, and to impact client companies. This year, we added more questions on the actual work experience in order to paint a better picture of your day-to-day life.
“It is a very challenging environment to be pushing for change at the client,” explains John Simmons, a principal at Pittiglio Rabin Todd and McGrath (PRTM). “Clients are more cautious about making the kinds of investments that would warrant a consultant’s assistance. We have had to work harder to underscore our short- and long-term value to clients, at a time when many of the client staff are not certain of their own future.”
As the consultants tell it, firms are keeping to their unwritten promise to be objective and independent. In fact, nearly 90 percent say that their firms always or very frequently maintain the highest standards of objectivity and independence.
“Integrity matters here,” says a 31-year-old partner at Monitor. “We tell the truth to our clients, even when that comes at some significant risk to us, and we tell the truth to each other, even when that means we’re having difficult conversations with one another.”
At Booz Allen, integrity is one of ten business and individual values that consultants are judged on each day. “Booz Allen is great because the company acts as an honest broker,” says a 29-year-old manager based in Virginia. “We don’t just go in to sell the client products/services that we know, we go in and help them select the best fit in products and services. I’ve seen Booz Allen sub-out a large amount of work to a firm with better expertise because it was the right decision.”
For the most part, consultants enjoy the type of work they do and go home at night feeling that they did something worthy. Overall, 86 percent find their work to be stimulating or somewhat stimulating, with billable professionals at Monitor Group, First Consulting Group, and DiamondCluster among those most excited with their typical projects. About 87 percent feel that they have a positive impact on clients, and even more — 90 percent — say that they always or very frequently meet their clients’ needs.
Most say that they are fortunate to get to advise industry-leading companies on their most pressing issues. Those who work with government cases tell us they that the slowness can be frustrating, and that great ideas often get bottlenecked due to the bureaucracy. At the same time, these cases have the potential to be the most rewarding.
“I feel that I make a contribution to making the world a better place by helping our clients [often the federal government] design more effective programs,” says Jennifer Giancola, a 29-year-old consultant at Abt Associates, a research and consulting adviser to government and business clients.
For example, Abt has helped promote AIDS treatment programs in Africa and restructure healthcare delivery and financing in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian republics. Professionals at ICF Consulting say that their federal engagements are challenging yet socially redeeming — such as helping to improve the nation’s air quality by helping manufacturers and utilities take part in energy-efficiency programs. And Booz Alleners proudly call themselves the “Cadillac” of the U.S. Department of Defense firms for all the security work they do for the military.
Consultants at Boston Consulting Group, PRTM, and KSA are among the most satisfied when it comes to the size of their clients, while those at Hewitt and Milliman are among the happiest when it comes to the level of management they interact with. And McKinsey and PRTM get the highest ratings for matching the right people to the right projects.
The cardinal rule in this business is that client needs always come first. However, what our respondents find exasperating is when the same people who pay for new solutions appear to be ungrateful and resistant to apply them.
“Clients can be demanding or unreasonable, and because our rates are so high we often bend over backward to try to keep them happy,” says a Washington, DC-based principal at a former Big Four firm. “This can lead to last-minute changes that impact the work plan — but not the schedule — which leads to increased work hours. Given the recent economic times, teams are stretched very thin because we haven’t hired new resources.”
As a New Jersey–based KSA manager admits, “Some projects can be frustrating, especially when a client that cannot handle change well is conducting a significant change project!” His advice? “Stick with it.”
Follow That Leader!
At the top firms, the executive leaders take care to communicate their strategy and vision, share their profits, and treat their people well. In return, their employees are loyal and commit themselves 100 percent.
“I trust and admire my partners and would do almost anything for them,” says a loyal Bainie. “I believe deeply that each and every one of them would do the same for me.”
Our respondents know that the soft economy can mean that their leaders have to make tough decisions. They don’t necessarily need coddling, but just some old-fashioned respect. “Our leaders have compassion in tough times,” says a Towers Perrin consultant. “Business results may lead to tough decisions, but I have always felt respected as a person.”
When management trusts that they have hired the right people to the job, they delegate more. Again, appreciation and loyalty for their leaders is the reward. “Booz Allen is not about senior leaders directing and controlling how we approach the market,” says a pro who joined the firm six years ago. “Instead, our senior leaders encourage and value our ideas and perspectives and initiatives as to how the firm should approach the market and our clients.”
But senior executives may want to make sure that their managers are truly carrying out company policy. Often employees respect the CEO, but have other thoughts regarding the supervisors they must deal with day-to-day. These are the people who can make the workplace either fun or something that resembles Dante’s Inferno.
“Whether the company shows fidelity to its employees and whether you have learning and growth opportunities largely depend on who’s at the top of your practice pyramid,” says a 55-year-old manager in Virginia. “If you’ve got a leader who values employees as the company’s only sellable asset, as I do, you’re okay. If you don’t, Lord help you.”
It seems that while many firms view training and support resources almost as perks to be cut during hard times, employers of choice look at these expenses as ways to provide excellent client service. The opportunity to continually develop their professional skills is a major reason consultants propelled certain firms to the top.
Despite the fact that all four strategy firms — Bain, BCG, Booz Allen, and McKinsey — tend to hire from the top business schools, all new consultants must attend an indoctrination program that can last up to several weeks. Experienced hires or those who have postgraduate degrees but not a business background are immersed into a mini-MBA program. Consultants of all levels get follow-up training at least every 12 to 18 months. These programs cover their firm’s methodology and teamwork, and how to communicate with clients.
At Towers Perrin, the firm’s training institute looks at all employees in aggregate and makes recommendations to individuals based on their role, years of experience, and prior training history. Pros can also nominate themselves for programs that are of interest to them.
As a natural progression, firms like to reward their star consultants with managerial roles. But what we hear time and time again is that while the stars may be great at selling business, they lack the people or soft skills needed as managers, senior consultants, and, at times, principals. It’s making life for the people who work under them sometimes unbearable.
“Project leads, although great at shepherding in great deliverables, are often horrible in dealing with people,” admits a principal in Illinois. “They kowtow to clients and then crush their own people to meet oversold deadlines and statements of work.”
Another consultant observes: “All management training seems to be on-the-job versus formal, and it shows.”
Top firms avoid this problem by proactively teaching the managers leadership skills. McKinsey, for example, has a program for consultants at nearly every level. There are workshops for engagement managers to learn how to build teams, lead the problem-solving process, and provide coaching and feedback. New associate principals attend a workshop to help them develop as leaders in client service, and even new partners are sent to a weeklong seminar, which is part celebration, to learn about their new role.
Some firms, like Kurt Salmon Associates and PRTM, can get away with not offering as many formal training days — and the professionals there don’t feel like they are missing out. PRTM’s 4:1 consultant-to-partner ratio means that training takes the form of mentoring. Likewise, KSA’s young consultants benefit from the firm’s apprenticeship model.
“The principals here are actively working side-by-side with the team in delivering the work,” says a Georgia-based KSA managing partner. “They do not just sell and show up for the final meeting. This is great, because it leads to better client results while helping the staff to develop.”
Mentors are needed in firms with strong, relational cultures such as Booz Allen, Hewitt Associates, and KSA, where nuances aren’t easily understood by newcomers. They are also a must in firms with unwieldy, bureaucratic organizational structures. Frankly, we don’t know of a firm where having a mentor has hurt anyone’s career. Internal processes and systems cannot serve as adequate substitute for a good personal network, advises a 42-year-old vice president.
“Be sure to select a diversity of mentors and role models and use those relationships to help pattern your growth,” says an Accenture principal in Plano, TX. “Sometimes, newer joiners fail to take advantage of the experiences and different approaches of the others around them.”
More than 60 percent of our respondents have a mentor, and of those who do, 88 percent find them valuable.
Our female respondents say that they still have a hard time reconciling their family obligations with their work, and that they are still finding it difficult to find working mothers as mentors. (One exception is Abt Associates, one of the few firms whose managers are predominantly women.) Often they just end up leaving during their childbearing years — an unfortunate fact for firms that have invested in them.
It all comes down to priorities, says a 31-year-old female manager who is unmarried. “If you want children and you behave in exactly the same way as before you had children — flexibility, long hours, full-time work, go anywhere, even abroad — then you will not feel a glass ceiling. If you don’t, career progression will be limited and you will be very challenged in your work and personal priorities.”
Some policies, even those considered to be good by the majority, could have negative effects on working mothers. For example, one firm has an unlimited sick leave policy. Great, right? Yet, one 35-year-old consultant in Indiana says that she would rather have a pool of sick days to draw from.
“With two small children, I am often running them to doctor’s appointments,” says the consultant of six years. “I’m told I have to lessen the number of hours I spend doing this or stay home when they are sick. Most of the people I work with are men who do not live here but travel home every week. I would like to know the last time they took their kids to the doctor or stayed home with them because they couldn’t go to daycare due to illness. I always feel like I have to work extra hours in order to make up for the time, and if I’m ill, I can’t take the time off without feeling guilty.”
But a female manager at another firm says that like everything else in the profession — from career development to seizing interesting projects — the onus is on the individual to set the boundaries.
“There is a strong culture of long hours, and you have to proactively watch your time,” she says. “I have children pickup commitments, which force me to watch my hours. People are supportive. It is the consultants themselves who put the pressure on to stay late — not management.”
We have evidence that consultants work crazy hours: Completed questionnaires were submitted at all hours of the night. Nearly half of our survey population, 49 percent, toils for more than 50 hours a week, with 3 percent putting in more than 70. Another 3 percent don’t have it as rough, working fewer than 40 hours.
“Don’t get into consulting if you have a family, significant other, pet, or non-plastic plant,” says one weary consultant at a strategy firm. “The entire strategy consulting industry is a poor one if you expect to spend time at home on a regular basis. Be prepared to get sent across the continent at short notice for months at a time. Be prepared to work evenings and weekends.”
Still, a PRTMer cautions: “Don’t take a consulting job unless you have a strong home situation. Being on the road is difficult enough without worrying about what is happening at home.”
Some individuals want to enjoy the benefits of the profession — the high-impact assignments — and discard the negatives. But they discern a stigma attached to people who lean toward alternative career paths. “The lifestyle is difficult with the travel commitment,” says a 43-year-old manager at a former Big Four firm. “The job advancement opportunities are very linear and very much defined by a culture of partnership as the only path to success in the organization. There is a culture of ‘If you are not a partner, you are not good enough.’”
Firms have tried to counter the harsh effects of the profession with a number of policies designed to avoid staff burnout, including offering sabbaticals, leaves of absence, and internal assignments, which limit travel. This trend was led by the former Big Five firms more than a decade ago, which adds to the irony that none of them appears on this year’s list.
At Mercer, consultants may choose to work a 10- or 11-month year to provide time to pursue personal interests outside consulting, and have their compensation adjusted proportionately. PRTM’s “family first” policy tries to assign road warriors who need a break to a project closer to home, and allows traveling consultants every Friday off to take care of personal business. Other firms address their employees’ personal well-being at work. ICF Consulting’s perks include on-site massage therapy, free Starbucks coffee, and corporate Happy Hours every month.
A big component of work/life balance is the opportunity to have a flexible work arrangement. Overall, companies are meeting their employees’ needs. Nearly 75 percent of our respondents say that they are very satisfied or satisfied with their firm’s offerings in this area.
Consultants at Bain, KSA, Hewitt, PRTM, and Booz Allen say that for the most part, their managers truly support these alternative workstyles. The professionals here find it easier to job-share, work compressed weeks, have flexible hours, or telecommute, and they don’t have to worry about jeopardizing their careers. Of course, even in firms where these arrangements are commonplace, you also need to work for a manager who will not look for excuses not to follow company policy.
At Hewitt, 10 percent of the firm’s 13,000 employees use some sort of alternative work pattern, while at Booz Allen, nearly half of all employees — 45 percent — participated in some type of flexible work arrangement in 2002. Both firms also have programs to help families when parents need to work but their children have the day off. Whether it be work/life balance, mentoring, training or compensation, programs impacting today’s consulting careers have permitted each of our Best Firms to have a hand in shaping the profession’s future.
Sidebar: How We Did It
We received 5,457 submissions from professionals at 50 qualifying firms. Qualifying firms needed to be listed on the CN 75, a list of the largest firms ranked by worldwide revenue and published by Consultings sister publication, Consultants News, and needed to have at least 200 U.S.-based consultants. The Web-based survey ran from July 11 through October 7, 2003.
Included in the firm-by-firm analysis are responses from the following companies: Abt Associates, Accenture, American Management Systems, Aquent, A.T. Kearney, Bain & Company, BearingPoint, Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, Deloitte Consulting, DiamondCluster, First Consulting Group, Fujitsu Consulting, Hewitt Associates, ICF Consulting, Kurt Salmon Associates, McKinsey & Company, Mercer, Milliman USA, Monitor Group, Navigant Consulting, Pittiglio Rabin Todd & McGrath, Sapient, Towers Perrin, Unisys, and Watson Wyatt.
Data from the following firms were insufficient and used only in aggregate: Answerthink, Aon Consulting, Buck Consultants, CACI, Corporate Executive Board, CSC, Digitas, Dimension Data, EDS, Gartner, Grant Thornton, Hay Group, Hitachi Consulting, IBM, Keane, Management Consulting Group, Novell, Oracle, PA Consulting, PeopleSoft, Segal, Tata Consultancy Services, and ZS Associates.
No responses were received from the following companies: Atos Origin, CGI Group, Ciber, Covansys, Convergys, Horwath International, LogicaCMG, SAP, SchlumbergerSema, Siebel, Telcordia, and Xansa.