By Mina Landriscina
Bain wins again.
Yes, we’re whispering. It’s an attempt to deflect the consultants we’re bound to hear from with the announcement that the Boston-based strategy firm has garnered the top slot in our Best Firms ranking for the second consecutive year. Yes, Bain, with its irrepressible rah-rah culture, a firm that continued to add head count even in the downturn, tops our list — a development that only helps to certify its secondary credential as the firm most competitors love to roll their eyes at.
1. Bain & Company – Boston
Other companies have tried to entice Tim O’Connor away from Bain, but so far none has been able to match what Bain has to offer the 38-year-old partner.
“I have fun coming to work,” says O’Connor, who joined the firm 11 years ago. At first glance, we suspect that the Bainie — perhaps like so many others? — might have an iPod choking with 60 GB worth of REM’s “Shiny Happy People.” But when we take our inquiry a bit deeper, we find that O’Connor’s thoughts leap well past REM’s familiar refrain and appear to emphasize the quality of client work opportunities within a collaborative firm culture.
“I have worked for over 100 clients, ranging from Fortune 500 firms to small companies to private equity shops. I have always enjoyed the clients I work with, and have been tempted by many offers to leave, but I have remained at Bain — in large part because of my colleagues here. “Bain people work hard but do not take themselves too seriously. At Bain, we are ‘great teammates’ and won’t let another fail.”
The Boston-based firm has once again topped each of our six equally weighted categories used to determine the 10 employers of choice: Career Development, Compensation & Benefits, Culture, Leadership, On the Job, and Work/Life. Its consultants are more than happy to tell us why they think that Bain is the best.
Historically, says Anil Shrivastava, 34, a senior manager at Bain’s New York office, Bain has been a prime innovator in its chosen profession, a key attribute for any industry leader seeking to attract top talent. Shrivastava’s point has been underscored by such innovations as Bain Capital, the firm’s venture capital sister business, and more recently The Bridgespan Group, a not-for-profit consulting unit. Moreover, the firm has helped lead the way in private equity consulting, success fees, and part-time occupations at all levels.
But beyond all that innovation, he adds, “we have the most fun of anyone in the industry or even in professional services.” As Anil speaks, we can’t help but be struck by a faint background sound that once again appears to be REM’s familiar refrain. Be that as it may, we continue press on.
Pros here say that assignments are challenging, that the environment is intense, and that displays of work passion are frequent. The firm offers countless odd development opportunities, including externships, as well as flexible work arrangements and part-time options. Consultants work on two projects at a time, but most travel only two days a week on average. The low travel level makes work/life more manageable here than at other strategy firms.
“Results — and not face time — are valued. I am able both to be successful at Bain and to maintain a good work/life balance,” says O’Connor, a father of four children under seven years old. “I am able to coach Little League or soccer, as well as read Angelina Ballerina or Goodnight Gorilla most nights.”
And so go the Shiny Happy People at Bain, “where tomorrow shines” and “gold and silver shine.”
But while most Bainies appear to be challenged when it comes to hiding their delight for their firm, that enthusiasm was frequently matched this year by consultants residing within other firms, making this year’s Best Firms ranking one of the most competitive to date. For example, those at McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and ZS Associates lauded their company’s solid training programs. Professionals at Kurt Salmon Associates, Capgemini, and Hewitt Associates debated who had the most family-friendly policies. And, Sapient and Booz Allen Hamilton pros duked it out over which firm has a bigger commitment to its core values.
We received 4,891 responses from 38 firms to our Web-based survey, which ran between May and September. Companies were scored entirely by their employees’ responses in six equally weighted categories: Career Development, Compensation & Benefits, Culture, Leadership, On the Job, and Work/Life.
The race was a tight one, with only a 30 percent difference between the highest and lowest scores of the 38 participating firms. Moreover, there was less than a 10 percent spread among the top five firms. We expect this gap to get even narrower as the economy continues to improve and companies start to aggressively hire again. They’ll add competitive perks and benefits to attract and retain talent. So although we traditionally stop the list at 10, because of the slim margins it would be unfair not to mention that Clark Consulting, Hewitt Associates, The Monitor Group, ZS Associates, and ICF Consulting were nipping at the heels of the front-runners. (See the Honorable Mentions box.)
Looking at the List
Just as last year, the strategy firms McKinsey, BCG, Booz Allen Hamilton, Mercer Management Consulting, and Bain, dominate the list and occupy four of the top five slots. Whereas the consulting offspring of the former Big Five dropped off from the list in 2003 and have yet to return, it is the human resource consultancies that have disappeared this time around. (Accenture and Capgemini had strong showings in the Career Development and Work/Life categories, respectively.) DiamondCluster International is the newcomer to the list; Sapient returns after a two-year absence. Privately held firms still outnumber the three publicly held ones, DiamondCluster, Sapient, and Mercer, which is owned by Marsh & McLennan.
Among our top 15 firms, the majority of consultants at only four — Bain, BCG, DiamondCluster, and McKinsey — say that their firms do practice up-or-out. Booz Allen people were split on the topic, but this may have to do with the fact that the firm is split into a commercial arm, which is more of a traditional consultancy, as well as a government practice, which generally is not.
While it is human nature to look at who rose and fell on the list, we urge our readers not to make these comparisons unless they also examine a firm’s individual scores. The natural assumption is that a drop in rank means that consultants are less satisfied. But note: This is frequently not the case.
Generally Looking Up
For the third consecutive year, the percentage of consultants who said that the level of morale at their firm was high or very high was 53 percent. Very low/low morale levels also did not waver too much, dropping slightly to 21 percent, from 22 percent last year. Surprisingly, the view is that conditions are improving. This year, we asked how morale had changed in the past 12 months. Interestingly, 40 percent reported higher morale levels, 36 percent said that it was about the same, and 20 percent said that it was lower.
Respondents at Mercer, BCG, and Clark Consulting, an executive benefits and compensation firm, were among those who registered the highest levels of company morale, while those at Sapient, DiamondCluster, and A.T. Kearney were among those who reported a change for the better during the past year.
At A.T. Kearney, consultants say that organizational changes from the parent company and a new leadership team, which is taking them back to their roots, have given them hope for a better future. “The firm is growing again,” says a New York–based A.T. Kearney principal. “Restored autonomy from EDS is benefiting us greatly. We are much more in control of our business, and it is showing.”
However, some consultants say that changing times are making the job a bit more stressful. “The consulting profession in general has become more demanding as a result of the economic downturn, in which many of our smartest colleagues have become clients now,” says a 38-year-old director at Capgemini. “That, along with the pricing pressure caused by the offshore consulting companies, is making this profession a lot more demanding than what it used to be five years back.”
Employees with low morale complain of ineffective managers, subjective review processes, lack of ethics, and broken promises.
“You may not be able to work on projects you like even though this is continually promised during recruiting,” gripes a 31-year-old technology consultant in Colorado. “I have been here two years and I have yet to work on a project in my service line, even though my performance has been rated excellent or exceptional on every engagement thus far.”
Forget perks, one poor soul groused — just give us the basics! “The working conditions do not meet health and safety minimums. The temperature in the office is 94 degrees Fahrenheit with 17 percent relative humidity, and management has refused to correct this for over eight months due to costs.” Leave it to a consultant to actually know the specific measurements!
It is not a coincidence that coming out of the downturn most of the companies with the highest morale are privately held. But, as past experience has shown, when the economy flourishes, publicly held firms that allow employees to share in the rewards do very well.
“When you choose public ownership, there is a relentless pressure for predictable quarterly revenue and earnings growth,” John Donahoe, Bain’s global managing director, recently told CM. “The objective advice business does not provide great stability.”
Since Bain is private, it was able to do things for it employees that publicly held firms would have trouble carrying out. “We didn’t cut a dollar out of our global training programs during the past five years,” Donahoe added. “We didn’t do layoffs. We didn’t cut back on our commitment to recruiting. We recruited fewer people, but we recruited every year because we said, ‘You know what? This is a cycle.’ Our revenues and head count were higher last year than in 2000, and now we’ll be at all-time highs again this year.”
One of this year’s big presidential campaign issues — losing American jobs overseas — did not play a major role in most respondents’ attitudes about their own job security. For the first time, we asked whether individuals felt that their current position is at risk due to growing offshoring capabilities. Less than 11 percent said yes or somewhat. Predictably, those who do IT do say that it is a concern of theirs. “I would warn anyone wanting a job in technology in general that the jobs are going overseas and that they should consider any technology job a temporary job,” says a 43-year-old senior consultant in Arizona.
Before the offshoring movement, one consultant recalls, her firm had a strong, risk-taking entrepreneurial spirit. “People were given opportunities, encouraged to take risks, and supported if those risks didn’t always pan out. That has completely changed in the last year,” says the consultant, who has specialized in SQA for the last eight years and is looking for another job. “I don’t blame my company. I think that they are doing what they need to do to survive in the global economy. It just comes down to that I am not as valuable to them as I used to be. I understand, but the end result is that it is no longer a good place to work.”
At Sapient, half of the new jobs being created are going overseas. Jerry Greenburg, the firm’s co-CEO, says that the offshoring move makes Sapient a stronger company in the end.
“It’s my belief that as the economy improves, which it has been doing, there will be a shortage of IT professionals in the United States, as there will be in many other countries,” Greenburg told CM a couple of months ago. “Rather than focus on job loss, people will be quite happy that companies that rely on technology for competitive advantage have ways to get that technology designed and deployed.”
Sapient employees apparently agree with his line of thinking. Only 15 percent of firm respondents say that they are worried about the longevity of their jobs.
On the Job
Consultants consistently tell us that above anything else, the biggest factor in choosing to stay at their firm — or in the profession, for that matter — is that they get to work on high-impact assignments that are high on the CEO’s agenda. In fact, we often hear that although a job in industry may offer a more competitive salary, the learning curve achieved in consulting is unsurpassed. Overall, our survey respondents are working on challenging engagements — 85 percent say that their work is interesting or somewhat interesting.
McKinsey, Sapient, First Consulting Group, and Proudfoot Consulting pros are among those who are most excited about the projects they are staffed on, while respondents at Pittiglio Rabin Todd & McGrath, KSA, Clark Consulting, and ZS Associates are among those who feel that that their work has the most positive impact on clients.
“Our work marries unstructured problem-solving with quantitative analysis,” says a project manager at ZS, which advises clients on sales and marketing strategy, operations, and execution. “This combination ensures that we consider all of our clients’ issues and, wherever possible, create strong quantitative arguments for our recommendations.”
At Clark, meeting client needs is made easy by managers who have confidence in their employees and who provide the best infrastructure to help them do their job. “Management stays out of the way of the consulting process,” says a reward strategy principal, who has also worked at two other executive compensation firms. “This is the most technically effective firm I have worked in over the past 20 years. Even after 20 years in the business, I am still learning every day. Clients do actually come first here.”
When serving clients, 90 percent of respondents believe that their companies very frequently or often maintain the highest standards of objectivity and independence. Deals closed by rainmakers at Hewitt Associates, ICF Consulting, and Navigant have the best chance to be completed on deadline and within budget, or so we’ve been told.
Compensation and Benefits
We wish that we could earn some spare change for every time we read the line, “You can determine your own future here.” But one firm where this concept takes on extra significance is Milliman USA. The firm’s model, in which partners own consulting practices that pay fees to and are backed by a central organization, gives them control over how much money they earn. As a result, Milliman advisers, along with those at Bain and McKinsey, were among the most satisfied with their salary, performance bonuses, and profit sharing.
Major layoffs in the past few years mean that many firms are revving up their recruiting efforts and doling out hefty signing bonuses. However, one downside to this is that the ones who survived the layoffs and are toiling long hours on undersourced projects are feeling neglected. “They hire in new talent at higher pay, but aren’t bumping up existing employees as they should,” says a 26-year-old consultant in Georgia at a former Big Five firm. “Financially, they should do more to retain top performers.”
At other companies, those who have been around the longest are definitely taking home larger pieces of the bonus pie. “Individuals get rewarded on past performance, not current performance,” one consultant complains. “Many partners continue to get their perks, even though most bill few hours and attract very little, if any, new business.”
It seems that many firms, including KSA, are making changes to their reward systems, and some worry that these changes may affect their close-knit cultures. “This tweaking can encourage focus on individuals, but leaders need to ensure that this focus does not discourage the team environment that has so successfully driven better results for our clients,” says a KSA consultant.
When it comes to health benefits, DiamondCluster leads the pack. And, it’s no wonder. The company pays 100 percent of the medical, dental, and vision coverage for their associates and their families and/or domestic partners. New DiamondCluster employees also don’t have to wait a single day to enroll in their 401(k) plan. Booz Allen Hamilton, which has consistently scored well in this category over the years, contributes 10 percent to their employees’ 401(k) plans, even if the individuals don’t.
One way that firms may want to differentiate themselves from competitors is to consider again beefing up training and development programs that were trimmed or shifted mostly to e-learning systems during rough times. For our entire survey population, 63.5 percent say that they are satisfied or very satisfied with their firm’s T&D programs. This is the lowest the satisfaction level has been in the four years we have been conducting the Best Firms survey.
In terms of the amount of training they receive, pros at McKinsey, BCG, ZS Associates, and Accenture get more hours of training than anyone else. In addition to the strategy firms, Accenture, ICF, and ZS Associates were places where consultants said that the training received is top-notch.
“When you do not have an important skill, it is viewed as a development area rather than as a skill deficit, and efforts to develop this skill are keenly observed and rewarded,” says Lauren Moore, a 23-year-old associate consultant at BCG. “Also, most project managers are very respectful of the time that you commit to training.”
BCGers have their pick of training opportunities from which to choose. The “Ambassador” program allows top-performing second- and third-year consultants to transfer to any of its 50 offices to gain international experience. Mercer’s ambassador program is even longer: Employees may spend up to two years outside their home country.
In addition to the time and money that Accenture invests in developing its talent, the company gives pros leadership responsibilities that constantly stretch and build their skills base, Accenture consultants told us. “You will learn more in one year here than you will in five years somewhere else,” says a supply chain project manager.
Networking and having a mentor still seem to be the best ways to navigate new company cultures and get staffed on the better assignments. Professionals at Monitor, A.T. Kearney, Bain, and Sapient had the largest numbers of mentors assigned to them, while those at Proudfoot Consulting, Clark Consulting, and McKinsey found them to be the most valuable.
“The learning curve at McKinsey is very steep,” says a 27-year-old energy consultant at McKinsey. “In an up-or-out firm, you have to learn quickly, perform under constant pressure and deadlines, and deliver results according to the highest standards. It’s important to get mentors as quickly as possible so that you can accelerate your development.”
There are places where employees say that they will walk over coals for their managers — or at least take that dull assignment in the middle of nowhere. At these firms, leaders consistently match the right people to the right projects and keep employees informed of firm strategy and direction.
At Booz Allen, consultants say that they feel valued, that they are involved in decision-making, and that they work together as a team to deliver results that endure. Consultants at Sapient, who have consistently given leadership high grades over the last four years, say that leaders are very involved with each individual’s growth. Here, they say, feedback is encouraged from everyone.
“Sapient is not one of those companies that are strictly focused on growing for the sake of growth,” says a 38-year-old vice president. “People are not bodies here. Everyone has a say in the future of Sapient and can make an impact.”
Employees at DiamondCluster are still talking about the pains the firm took to avoid layoffs when times were tough.
“I was furloughed with partial pay and full benefits three years ago because we could not handle all of our new hires,” says Stephen Marik Brockman, a project manager who has been with the firm for four years. “Once attrition and regular performance review counsel-outs occurred and the economy returned to normal, I was hired full-time less than a year later. The firm invested a lot of money in the furlough program to be good to people, our greatest asset.”
Then there are places where the complete opposite is true.
“Watch your back,” warns a 47-year-old consultant in Florida. “Leadership looks for whom to blame when things go wrong only because they lack good IT management skills to get the job done or they lack the skills to communicate how the job should be done.”
Another confides: “There is a zero-bench policy, which they don’t tell you about when they hire you on. As soon as you are off of an account, you are laid off within a day. They will transfer you to another office and not even tell you until after the fact.” Lesson for the job hunter: Ask lots of questions!
Some firms — and especially the former Big Five ones, which were big proponents of the 3-4-5 schedule (four days at the client site, fifth day at the home office) — are finding that as clients are becoming more demanding, they are having a harder time offering this benefit to their employees. For those who traveled to start with, it’s becoming more common to be away from home five days a week.
“Most of consulting is moving to a more travel-heavy model, and the travel gets worse as you move up the ladder,” observes a BCG associate consultant. “So if you can’t stand the travel, you should seriously reconsider.”
Accordingly, the survey data shows that consultants are traveling more than they did last year. About 32 percent traveled more than four days a week, including 3 percent who traveled six or seven days a week on average, as opposed to the 27 percent who traveled between four and seven days last year.
“Traveling might seem glamorous, but when you wake up for the Nth time on a Monday morning at 5 a.m. or earlier, you might find yourself asking, ‘Why on Earth did I choose consulting?’” says a 29-year-old Booz Allener, who adds that her coworkers make it bearable. “When you spend as much time working and away from home as we do, people make all the difference.”
There are benefits to travel, counters a senior consultant at Capgemini. “Look for engagements that meet your career goals,” says the 28-year-old, who is based in Texas. “However, if work exists in the place you want to be and meets your career goals, consider that a bonus.”
His comments reflect an overall positive attitude about travel at the firm, where hitting the road is viewed as an opportunity to see the world. More than 40 percent of Capgemini pros travel five days a week, and more than 13 percent travel six or seven.
With clients’ needs always coming first, work/life balance is somewhat of a trick in consulting.
“Life balance is a continuous challenge,” says Randi Nolan, a partner at KSA who has three children between the ages of nine and two. “I don’t know if I have achieved it, as I feel like it is more like a pendulum. Certain weeks, I feel like I am too focused on work and am not spending enough time with my family, while others, I feel like I am ignoring work and am too focused on family activities.”
At KSA, work/life balance is a team issue. At the start of each engagement, project leaders meet with the consultants to develop a “Life Balance” agreement that specifies project objectives and strategies to be used to achieve work/life balance.
But much of the prioritizing needs to be done on the individual level. Nolan, who works a four-day schedule and travels about two days a week, says that she has embraced KSA’s “client first” attitude, but with limits.
“I always consider the client’s interest first, above those interests of KSA or personal gain, but not at the sacrifice of my family’s needs,” she says. “There were a few occasions early on when I made sacrifices — missed a school concert or a parent-teacher conference. I always regretted it. I just don’t do that anymore. I schedule those important moments into my calendar and treat them like an unmovable client meeting — and just schedule around them.”
Tim O’Connor, a 38-year-old partner in Bain’s Boston office, says that he has learned that he actually has more control over his schedule than he originally thought.
“In a client service business, we move mountains to meet deadlines and never sacrifice on quality. Over time, however, you realize that not all deadlines are immutable. When a client throws out Thursday afternoon — the day of the first Little League game — as the timing for an update, sometimes it does not matter to them if you meet Thursday afternoon or Friday morning.”
Consultancies have made things easier by offering programs to prevent burnout. ICF has a very flexible compensatory time policy. Someone may leave work early for his child’s soccer game and make up the time later. Some consultants work 30-hour weeks, while some parents with young children work 9 to 5 and get back on the computer at night. Anyone who is stressed out can also get a massage.
“Staff tend to come here and stay for a long time,” reports a senior vice president, who joined 14 years ago but had originally intended to stay for only three. “There is a real sense that we want to keep the best here, and the way to do that is to make sure that people have sustainable lifestyles.”
Mercer has a highly valued option to work a 10- or 11-month year and sponsors consultants to work at nonprofits for three or six months. Hewitt employees always tout the free meals and other conveniences such as dry cleaning and childcare on school holidays. The firm gives each associate up to two paid days a year to do community work in human services or in education.
But overall, our respondents are a bit unhappier with their firm’s flexible work arrangements, which include part-time, flex-time, and job-sharing options. A little more than 70 percent say that they are very satisfied or satisfied with their firm’s flexible work arrangements, as opposed to the 73 percent that were satisfied in 2003. Three HR firms, Hewitt, Towers Perrin, and Watson Wyatt, practice what they preach and are among those where consultants are most satisfied with alternative work arrangements.
Women in Consulting
While we often hear that consulting firms do a good job at recruiting an equal number of men and women, an often-heard complaint is that there are few female role models at the very top.
Women at one former Big Five firm say that they can succeed at the lower levels, but it gets harder to do so at the higher ones. A 26-year-old female IT consultant says, “The boys still go out at night and hang out together during the day. You’ll be at a disadvantage because you’ll be lacking the social time with your team members that others are getting. It’s not personal, but it’s very competitive, so watch your back.”
Even one male senior consultant in Illinois threw in his observation: “My female coworkers are very disappointed in the limited number and involvement of women at the top. Very few female partners exist, and those who are here ‘eat their young’ rather than nurture them.”
With only 32 percent of our responses coming from women, we don’t know how widespread this feeling is. But, we are told that there are some firms where women thrive. Consultants at Bain, Abt Associates, KSA, and McKinsey say that there is no glass ceiling for women at their firm.
Like many firms, Bain has good mentorship programs and lets women use office space for networking circles. However, says Phyllis Yale, a partner who worked part-time for 10 of the 22 years she has been with the firm, part of the reason women are so successful at Bain has to do with the firm’s operational model. Consultants at Bain work on two projects at a time and typically work a three-day schedule.
“It’s administratively simple for someone to work on one project at a time and to be as devoted to that project as anybody else would,” says Yale. “We have a viable part-time option for client-facing roles. We have an opportunity for our women not to be on a mommy-track but to be first-class citizens working with clients on a part-time schedule.”
And part of the reason for the success is that all of these options are available and used by men as well.
— Jack Sweeney contributed to this story
2. McKinsey & Company – New York
“McKinsey is all about personal contribution and leadership,” says Eric Roegner, a principal based in Cleveland, who joined the firm 10 years ago. “It is not a job where you perform specific tasks and roles and hit the repeat button!”
Like its competitors, the 78-year-old strategy firm is once again adding head count. And the morale level within the firm is at the highest it has been in three years, with 91.3 percent of respondents pegging it as high.
“It’s a phenomenal place, where you help the leading executives of the leading companies of the world make difficult decisions,” enthuses a business analyst who joined the firm two years ago. “At the end of the day, you will know that you’re having a real impact on the world.”
A Texas-based consultant, one of the 96 percent who said that the work is stimulating or somewhat stimulating, adds, “McKinsey offers the most intellectually challenging, interesting, and rewarding environment in which to work.”
The firm, renowned for its development programs, begins training consultants on Day One. All new consultants take a one-week course, which explains the firm’s methodology and core values. Development continues by working on small engagement teams of about four to five people on projects that last about four months. And geographic mobility among the firm’s 82 offices is very high. As a result, more than 90 percent of McKinsey respondents reported being satisfied or very satisfied with the training opportunities offered.
Pros also have an opportunity to work on pro bono engagements within the firm’s nonprofit practice, whose lead adviser is former U.S. senator Bill Bradley. More than half of McKinsey consultants choose to participate in nonprofit work during their careers here, according to firm officials.
Hours are long, but not as bad as at some of the other firms on the Top 10 list. A little more than 45 percent of McKinsey respondents work between 50 and 65 hours per week. The firm’s operational model requires consultants to work at the client site. Therefore, more than 60 percent travel between three and five days a week. Most often, however, consultants work out of their home offices on Fridays.
There is a clear up-or-out policy here, so consultants need to be open to feedback, which comes continuously, or may find themselves being asked to leave. Each consultant is assigned a McKinsey partner, who will provide advice on a person’s individual development. However, other informal mentors are also useful in helping to navigate the nuances of the culture, consultants say.
3. Boston Consulting Group – Boston
“Success takes on many forms at Boston Consulting Group, making the firm a place where people do not have to change themselves to succeed and make a difference,” says Aaron Johnson, a 33-year-old project manager.
The firm has the right mix of qualities, combining those of a small boutique in terms of sense of community and a nurturing environment with the brand and clientele of a larger firm, consultants tell us. The culture is described as a partnership of individuals. Individuals who are not curious, humble, and driven will not succeed here, though.
“Everyone, even someone just out of undergrad, has the opportunity for immediate impact,” says a newcomer to the firm. “Everyone participates in developing strategies and solutions. There really is a democracy of ideas at BCG.”
Pros here say that they are exposed to difficult client problems for which there is no “cookie-cutter” solution. But, the pace is fast and work/life balance can get out of whack unless you are careful. The firm practices up-or-out and, as a result, performance reviews can be extremely stressful.
The firm invests in growing and cultivating its consultants with myriad of training and development programs. The leverage ratio is low, so new consultants get access to vice presidents right away. And there are excellent support systems in place to ensure that a professional’s time isn’t spent on less-value-added activities such as tweaking charts for a presentation. Accordingly, nearly 90 percent of BCG respondents are satisfied or very satisfied with the firm’s training opportunities.
BCGers say that they work long hours — about 44 percent work between 50 and 65 hours per week while an additional 20 percent work over 65 hours — but are appropriately compensated. They are among the most satisfied when it comes to salary, 401(k) plans, health benefits, profit sharing, and performance and signing bonuses.
Travel is dependent on the type of work and can range from zero to four days a week, but travel requirements do vary significantly among BCG offices. Nearly half of BCG respondents reported that they travel an average of three to four days a week. But, they are quick to point out that the firm tries to be as family-friendly as possible within the client-first mission. Weekends and weeknights are theirs, as much as possible.
“We get to do great work, have amazing impact, and learn new things every day,” says a mother of three, who works 60 percent of the time in order to spend more time with her three young children. “I feel so lucky to be able to do all these great things at the client and then also raise my family.”
4. Booz Allen Hamilton – McLean, Virginia
Booz Allen Hamilton, which hired close to 3,600 people last year in just the public sector alone, is still adding consultant head count. And, the good news is that opportunities now stretch across Booz Allen’s increasingly integrated public and private worlds.
“If you are looking for a place that values out-of-the-box thinking and creativeness, embraces diversity, and stands very strongly behind its 10 business and individual core values, then this is the firm you want to join,” says Jean Dolan, a principal who joined the firm 18 years ago. “Here you will grow, be appreciated, and have the opportunity to excel at the pace that works for you and your desired life balance.”
For a couple of years, the firm has been working to integrate its commercial practice with its government operations, known as the Worldwide Technology Business, in order to provide better services to both public- and private-sector clients. This no-walls approach has opened up career opportunities by allowing consultants to move back and forth between the practices and enabling them to develop their functional capabilities and add to their client portfolio.
With much of the work coming from the Department of Defense, consultants here say that the challenges are meaningful and almost always meet clients’ needs. The firm does practice up-or-out — more so in its commercial practice — but it has a nurturing environment. The copious amount of feedback helps consultants identify areas of growth and work on them immediately. The culture, which consultants say is one of the firm’s strengths, is not intuitive.
“Be patient about learning the culture and how to adapt to it before making a rash decision to leave,” says a 40-year-old principal who today is involved in strategy work for a large government client.
Pros give Booz Allen high marks for providing family supports — the firm has an on-site day care center at its headquarters — as well as for sabbaticals and personal time off. Consultants here are particularly satisfied with their salary, performance bonuses, and 401(k) plans, and more than 78 percent are pleased with the firm’s alternative work arrangement options.
And, as the firm continued to grow during the economic slowdown, leadership scored very well.
“The firm is a true meritocracy that lives and delivers against its defined values both within the organization and at the client,” says a principal. “It’s a truly great place to work, with a conservative, perhaps old-fashioned passion for doing what’s right by clients and employees. The result: double-digit growth that continuously attracts new talent at all levels and keeps managers at their peak, and a culture that worries about your long-term career.”
It’s a collegial, team-building environment where politics are kept to a minimum. Standards of ethics appear to be upheld, with more than 98 percent of respondents saying that the firm always or very frequently maintains objectivity and independence when serving clients. However, hours are long, and there is little doubt that workaholics need to be careful about their health in this environment where opportunities are now reported to abound.
5. Kurt Salmon Associates, Atlanta/New York
After hearing how friends from business school waited more than six months before being staffed on a consulting engagement, Farzan Bharucha did not expect to actively contribute to client deliverables until the end of his first year. However, by the end of his third month with Kurt Salmon Associates, the 26-year-old consultant had already been staffed on three projects, and he finds himself frequently residing on the front lines when it comes to initial data analysis.
“At KSA, there is no doubt that if you show the aptitude to cope with the workload, no one is hesitant to give you greater responsibility,” says Bharucha, who joined the firm last July.
KSA advises consumer products, retail, and healthcare clients on strategy, process, and technology deployment. Consultants say that the firm has an entrepreneurial atmosphere and that leadership cares about their personal and professional growth. Results are recognized and rewarded.
On Bharucha’s first project, for example, one of his managers asked him to develop a white paper on contemporary inpatient bed models. The manager gave him boundaries for the content, suggested some sources, and monitored and encouraged his progress. The finished document has now been handed to several other clients.
“I love the fact that at KSA it doesn’t really matter how senior or experienced you are. If you come up with a good idea, everyone is ready to give you credit for it,” Bharucha says.
The formal mentoring program is not as robust as in other firms, but client teams are small and junior consultants are developed by having them work closely with their managers. Consultants work on a minimum of two client engagements but as many as four, forcing them to be very structured in managing their time and efforts.
As the economy improves, the firm is enjoying selling more business. However, one result of this is that managers are focusing more on client needs than on internal ones. Still, management has an open-door policy and is willing to listen to feedback.
“You won’t get in trouble at KSA for making a mistake with a client, but you will get in trouble for hiding problems and not asking for help,” says one consultant.
Nearly 70 percent of KSA respondents travel between three and four days a week and admit that it can be tiring. But, the firm appears to be advancing efforts to strike a better work/life balance for its people. Point of fact: KSA was one of the highest-ranked firms for consultant satisfaction with flexible work arrangements.
6. Pittiglio Rabin Todd & McGrath – Waltham, MA & Mountain View, CA
According to PRTM consultants, the firm’s culture is centered on the idea that each consultant be given the career building blocks that would allow him or her to someday become a director.
“The company honestly strives to create an environment where you can build a long-term career, not one where you’re going to burn out after a few years,” says Kevin Schwartz, a 34-year-old principal. Just what career building blocks a consultant chooses to deploy may depend on the professional and personal challenges a given consultant may face, explains Schwartz. “To this end, the firm prioritizes things like getting local projects when you have important family commitments or needs.”
The 28-year-old firm focuses largely on operations and process-related work predominantly for technology companies. The clients are interesting and the assignments are challenging, we are told. “I have learned more in the last four years than I did in the first 15 years of my career,” says a Texas-based consultant, Jim Alderer, 39.
The organization is flat, providing access to directors both on client projects and as mentors and coaches throughout consultants’ careers. Firm officials tout the rapid path to partnership, which is typically a six- to eight year journey.
Client travel varies by project, and there is the potential for a four- or five-day-per-week travel schedule for months at a time and demanding workloads of 50 hours or more. However, on the average, consultants travel less than half the time.
Consultants frequently told us that a family-like atmosphere nourishes PRTM. Surprisingly, the pinch of the economic downturn had little or no effect on PRTM’s family-like approach. Coworkers are down-to-earth, and managers here care about their consultants’ well-being, even exhorting one to “go to bed earlier.” Beyond good-natured ribbing, the firm has a “family first” policy. Leadership tries to assign to professionals who have been on the road for several months a project closer to home. It tries to cushion the heavy travel schedule with “Sunny Days,” which are two Fridays a month that road warriors can take off to take care of personal business.
Although the firm is very team-oriented, individuals who perform well will be rewarded and promoted appropriately. Consultants by and large report that performance evaluations are “extremely fair” and compensation is “outstanding.”
However, the firm is fiscally conservative. This means that in addition to their client responsibilities, consultants take on administrative duties such as practice area development and knowledge management activities. Still, many PRTMers say that they would not trade places with anyone else.
“The people at our firm are the most high-quality people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with,” says Robin Daverman, a consultant who joined the firm a year ago. “Every time I send out an e-mail asking for help, my mailbox is flooded with responses.”
7. Sapient Corporation – Cambridge, MA
“Even if you regard yourself as a seasoned cynic, you too are likely to ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ and become a passionate believer in this place,” says Jane Owens, a 51-year-old senior vice president and general counsel who joined Sapient four years ago. “Somehow, it enters your bloodstream!”
Consultants at the 13-year-old firm, which claims that it pioneered the fixed-price, fixed-time pricing model, say that they focus on delivering value rather than running up hours. “We insist on creating value for our clients and are really tied together with our culture to deliver what makes sense,” says a supply chain specialist.
Leadership, from the co-CEOs, who keep employees informed of the company’s direction, down to the managers, who are involved in consultants’ career development on projects, received high marks. Consultants tell us that feedback is encouraged and actually welcomed here. Candor and edge are as expected as creative thinking on tough problems, although the openness can come across as harsh to newcomers. Pros here strongly believe that the firm emphasizes a culture of inclusion.
Sapient people report that projects are intellectually challenging, coworkers are passionate about their work, and the growth opportunities are good. Politics are kept to a minimum, and bureaucracy is low. At the same time, new recruits should be prepared to roll up their sleeves. Translation: There isn’t a lot of “overhead,” and everyone pitches in where needed.
However, an almost-no-travel policy has become nearly a four-day-a-week travel policy for some people. Still, as a group, they don’t travel as much as most of their Top 10 counterparts; only 39 percent travel between three and five days per week.
Sapient has a flexible work environment and is creative even with its perks. New consultants get three weeks of vacation by the end of their first year. There’s a “Small Necessities Family Leave” policy in which employees may take up to 24 hours of paid leave a year to meet certain family obligations such as attend their child’s school play or take elderly relatives to medical appointments. The firm also reimburses $500 to employees, once every three years, for the purchase of computer equipment for their home. And, employees have access to over 300 cars in the Zipcar network in Boston; Washington, DC; and New York for a $25 annual membership. They can drive cars by the hour or the day for only $8 to $13. Gas, maintenance, insurance, and parking are included.
8. Milliman USA – Seattle, WA
Working at Milliman is “kind of like playing blackjack,” says Craig Burma, a 35-year-old principal in the firm’s Dallas office. “Every time you step up to the table, the dealer (Milliman) will deal you opportunity. You have to be the one to walk away to keep the rest of your life in balance.”
Milliman has an atypical consulting model similar to franchising, in which partner-owned consulting practices pay fees to a central organization.
However, unlike with franchising, the firm’s entrepreneurial model is dependent on strong collaboration among its four part-owned practices: life insurance, property and casualty insurance, employee benefits, and healthcare. Principals share in what their specific profit centers make or lose each year. The company is a member of Milliman Global.
“Milliman is designed to compensate the people who execute on strategy and stretch to develop new products and the revenue stream that flow from them,” Burma says.
Employees say that their work is interesting and has impact. And, that it is also easier to have good work/life balance here. Since practices are responsible for certain regions, travel is low, too — 81 percent travel one day or less per week. The firm’s decentralized structure means that it is sometimes difficult to pool resources. But on an office level, consultants say that they are able to get their work done effectively. Creativity is encouraged and good ideas are rewarded, we are told.
Take Lee Straate as an example. About 13 years ago, Straate had an idea for developing a software system called MARC that could be used by clients to increase the understanding and appreciation of their retirement benefits.
“I was encouraged to move it forward,” says the 55-year-old principal who is based in Wisconsin. “Today, the fifth version of the system is under development and MARC is used directly by clients in one-half of our firms’ pension practices as well as for Milliman’s pension outsourcing efforts. I doubt if there’s another firm where I would have had such an opportunity.”
However, Milliman does not have an up-or-out culture and definitely has room for those who prefer to take it a little easier or put more emphasis on family. Burma says that he just made principal after five years with the firm — along with another consultant who had been with the firm for 25 and had only recently decided that he wanted to take the next step.
9. Mercer Management Consulting – New York
“Working at Mercer is like being paid to go to business school but learn more than any formal education program could ever teach you,” says Nathalie Corredor, a 24-year-old consultant in California. “I work hard, but every day I do something different, so I am constantly learning.”
One of the biggest benefits of working at Mercer is that the firm has the environment of a smaller, more collegial company and yet the resources of its parent, Marsh & McLennan. “The firm is small enough that everyone contributes to the culture and that we all feel a part of the same team,” says a 25-year-old consultant in Massachusetts.
Pros say that the Mercer brand may not be as well known as the other strategy firms’, but that even this brand deficit is getting smaller. They say they feel fortunate that an up-or-out culture does not exist here. “The advancement speed is much more flexible than at other firms,” says a 31-year-old project manager in New York who joined the firm two years ago. “You can move up more quickly or more slowly.”
It is possible to make it to the associate level and beyond without going to get an MBA, and the metrics and incentives encourage development of all staff. The review and promotion process occurs every six months rather than annually, so there is more room for advancement, we are told. Compensation is competitive, and pros have heaps of praise for a number of the firm’s developmental programs, including externships and nonprofit fellowships.
“Our focus on strategy and on operations allows us to create the solution, and then to make it work for our clients,” says a principal. “Many other firms are in one camp or the other, but for us being in both is very rewarding.”
Mercer is increasingly moving toward being a practice-specialized firm and away from general strategy work, a move that has supporters as well as detractors. But respondents say that they work for top-tier clients, often advising the C-suite, and that they have a strong alumni network. They boast too that they have some unique offerings — including a boutique in-house investment bank for engaging private equity, venture capital, and other transaction advisory services. Travel is increasing, but being able to work a 10- or 11-month year is also a big benefit.
Coworkers are described as energetic and enthusiastic, and also humble and dedicated. “You can do interesting work at many firms,” says Andrew Watterson, a director based in Texas. “The difference in your happiness comes from the people around you. On that measure, you can’t do better than Mercer.”
Responses for the survey were submitted by Mercer Management Consulting and its financial services and risk management division, Mercer Oliver Wyman.
10. DiamondCluster International – Chicago
“We are a small, scrappy firm that demands a lot from our people,” says a 37-year-old partner who lives in San Francisco. “We work hard at all levels and enjoy ourselves along the way.”
Around here, people say that they feel valued, and offer a number of examples to prove it: Development opportunities are plentiful, nonpartners share in equity rewards, and benefits are actually employee-friendly. For example, all consultants get four weeks of vacation and have medical benefits for themselves and their families or domestic partners that are paid in full. Pros are allowed to live anywhere they like.
“We say that we are a premier management consulting firm, and in order to prove that, we have to have the best people,” says Ed Brady, the firm’s chief people officer. “While we feel strongly that Chicago is a great city, we wanted to ensure that we could source the best talent across the country.”
DiamondCluster, only 10 years old, is the youngest company on the Best Firms list. The firm’s “live anywhere” policy has been around since its origins as Diamond Technology Partners. The firm merged with Cluster Consulting four years ago. The policy has a practical purpose as well, says Brady: “We tend to do most of our work at our clients, so our need for physical space is a bit less than that of larger firms.”
Consultants say that they get to work on intellectually challenging assignments and are given lots of opportunities to take on additional responsibility and grow. There is a rapid, 6- to 8-year path to partnership. The firm has a low leverage model — currently one partner to six consultants — but the target model is one to seven, Brady says.