The 10 Best Consulting Firms to Work For, 2005

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a consultant when I arrived, but now I don’t think I can ever leave,” says Nick Studer, 31, who joined Mercer Oliver Wyman eight years ago and is now a director. Studer isn’t the only one among the 5,048 consultants from 32 firms to wax poetic about the hold — sometimes described as a viselike grip — that their profession of choice has on them. Impacting people worldwide and having the opportunity for continual learning are just two of the benefits that outweigh the profession’s warts, which include long hours and time away from loved ones. But it is also clear that much of what keeps consultants in the business of advising has to do with their employers. We’ve heard consultants vow time and time again that if it weren’t for their individual firms, they’d leave the profession.

Now in its fifth year, the 10 Best Firms to Work For project polled consultants of all levels on their employers of choice through a Web-based survey, which ran between May and August. 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.

This year, one employer, Sapient Corporation, has been selected by the editors as our 2005 Career Champion firm. The 14-year-old company distinguishes itself by the leadership and career opportunities it offers its employees as well as its strong culture that encourages feedback and openness from everyone. “Everyone is encouraged to share their ideas and act on them,” says Laurie MacLaren, a vice president who joined Sapient about eight years ago, and one of many Sapient consultants who couldn’t resist adding some thoughts to put forth a stronger case and underscore their point-and-click answers. “People are encouraged to take risks and are not punished when things don’t work out. Honesty and integrity are rewarded here. We encourage feedback at all levels so that we can continuously improve our individual and company performance.”

The fact that such comments are made at a time when Sapient’s workforce is experiencing its greatest global transformation to date only draws more kudos for the firm’s leadership, who are today already recognized as pioneers in the offshore movement. What’s more, Sapient’s robust culture defies the conventional wisdom of consulting career-building circles, which continue to sing the praises of partnership over publicly held firms.

While the 2005 list closely resembles 2004′s, a number of other firms elbowed their way onto the six category lists of top performers. The Monitor Group, a Best Firm from 2002, was a hair’s-breadth away from the top 10 and found itself mentioned in five of the six categories. Consultants at employee-owned Abt Associates, where four out of seven officers of the executive management team are women, lauded the firm for the equal opportunities given to women as well as people with disabilities. The company also scored highly in mentoring, alternative work arrangements, offerings of convenience, and personal health. IBM, which was included in the firm-by-firm rankings for the first time, appeared on the Work/Life list due to its strong family support programs, flexible work arrangements, and personal time given to its employees. ZS Associates was extolled for the training and career development opportunities it provides. And, employees at Clark Consulting gave it high marks for the various ways the company supports them personally and professionally.

Feeling Good …

The healthier economy means that more challenging and meaningful work for brand-name clients is coming in through the door. As a result, our respondents are in high spirits. Very high or high morale at their firms rocketed to 73.2 percent from the 56.6 percent who reported the same last year. Just as significant, employees who say that their morale is low or very low plummeted to 8.4 percent from last year’s 18.3 percent.

It is actually rare to find a consultant who does not find his or her work intellectually challenging. In fact, nearly 90 percent of all respondents find their assignments very stimulating or stimulating. The flip side to all of this extra business is that utilization is high and our respondents are clocking longer hours. Because recruiting hasn’t kept pace with sales in some cases, some consultants are missing out on being staffed on their ideal engagements. The firms have come a long way from the layoffs of a couple of years ago: 96 percent of all respondents say that their firms are hiring versus the 80 percent that said the same in 2004.

Pros at Deloitte Consulting LLP and Hitachi Consulting were among those reporting a change in morale for the better in the past 12 months. Deloitte pros feel that their firm is regaining a solid footing and is strategically positioned to offer consultants a wide breadth of experiences.
Hitachi professionals praised the firm’s leadership, saying that it is in touch with the personal and developmental needs of the employees and quick to show appreciation. For example, at a surprise employee appreciation day a few months ago, there were iPods for everyone.
Morale is predictably low at firms that are political, and where salaries don’t seem to match output, senior management is ineffective or inflexible, and individuals feel that they are not evaluated objectively. Some complain of feeling expendable and fearing the loss of their jobs when work falls off or contracts are lost. Others grumble that managers seem to follow a “profit at any cost” strategy and are loath to reward extraordinary efforts with even compensatory time off or small bonuses. Disconnect among employees, lack of team spirit, and distrust among superiors were other reasons cited for poor spirits.

Leadership

The best leaders set the tone for a positive culture, listen to their people, and effectively communicate their firms’ business and strategy plans internally before their employees hear them from elsewhere. KSAers say that they’d follow their leaders off a cliff, and pros from the other top 10 firms are not far behind. Their leaders are business-savvy, value them, give responsibility to other smart people, and correct their own mistakes, their employees assert.
“The leaders are smart,” says a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. “That is incredibly reassuring to me, because you can reason with smart people. If our firm is doing something dumb, you can point that out to these smart people and they’ll understand and agree that they should change it.”

Consultants most satisfied with their base salary are toiling at Bain, PRTM, and MOW. New arrivals at Monitor, Watson Wyatt, and ZS Associates debated over who is the most pleased with their signing bonuses, while achievers at Clark, McKinsey, and Towers Perrin are among the most thrilled with the size of their performance bonuses. Consultants at IBM, BCG, and McKinsey claim that their 401(k) plans can’t be beat, while those at Celerant, DiamondCluster, and PRTM love their health benefits.

Having the proper tools and resources to get the job done has a major impact on morale. Consultants at Bain, McKinsey, and ZS Associates say that their firm’s organizational structure has a positive impact on their ability to help their clients, while those at ICF, Kurt Salmon, and Sapient say that they have no trouble delivering on commitments made during the sales process.

In keeping with tradition, respondents at strategy firms Bain, Booz Allen Hamilton, BCG, and McKinsey report the highest satisfaction with the amount of training and career-enhancing roles their firms provide. At these firms, two-week orientations are standard and are supplemented with annual training sessions. Mentoring programs are robust. The strategists expect that the quality training that they receive will open doors for them if and when they choose to look for careers in industry.

The strategy firms were closely followed by ZS Associates, PRTM, Avanade, KSA, and Accenture. At Avanade, a joint venture by Microsoft and Accenture, M, Avanade, KSA, and Accenture. At Avanade, a joint venture by Microsoft and Accenture, consultants get help in obtaining Microsoft certification and are given 180 hours of training per year. These hours are budgeted into their time so that they don’t have to train after hours. Avanade also provides expensive TechNet and MSDN subscriptions and exclusive Microsoft-related conferences and seminars held around the world. But the cherry, Avanade pros tell us, is the $2,000 a consultants get help in obtaining Microsoft certification and are given 180 hours of training per year. These hours are budgeted into their time so that they don’t have to train after hours. Avanade also provides expensive TechNet and MSDN subscriptions and exclusive Microsoft-related conferences and seminars held around the world. But the cherry, Avanade pros tell us, is the $2,000 a year they get to spend on gadgets and anything else that helps road warriors manage their lives better. This includes massages, health club memberships, and luggage.

Work/Life

Managing the consulting lifestyle can be an art form, but work/life balance is easier to do at Abt Associates, BCG, and IBM — or so their consultants tell us. Often, consultants confess, work/life balance gets out of whack not because firms don’t offer solutions to help mitigate the harshness of the lifestyle, but because Type A personalities have a tendency to overcommit. “This is a tough life, and you have to be disciplined about work/life balance,” says KSA’s Matt Katz, a 38-year-old principal. “There is no shortage of opportunity, and it can consume all the time you allow it to.”

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