Imagine you’re an executive for a popular magazine in the middle of a dilemma. You’re noticing that your website is gaining traction while your physical copy sales are declining. You don’t have a great grasp on how web publications work, so this shift is putting you in a bind. You need to figure out a course of action quickly, but aren’t sure where to start.
If you were in this predicament, you would consider bringing in someone called a strategy consultant. Strategy consultants have a presence in virtually every industry and can give an outside, expert perspective on business challenges. They offer fresh, objective takes on difficult issues and ensure that businesses are considering every angle when it comes to big decisions.
In this article, I’ll explain what strategy consulting is, why business owners should consider it, and how to get into the field.
What is Strategy Consulting?
Strategy consulting is when businesspeople — generally executives, boards, or management — bring in a third party to offer an outside, expert perspective on their business challenges. Strategy consultants usually have considerable industry knowledge and are expected to assess high-level business issues objectively. They take a holistic look at specific problems companies are dealing with and give advice on how they should approach them.
Generally, strategy consultants support their clients for a fixed timeframe. Within that window, they are expected to dedicate all of their time, effort, and attention to a specific problem.
What does a strategy consultant do?
When a strategy consultant takes on a new project, they typically start by doing an in-depth analysis of their client’s business goals and objectives. The goal of this analysis is to understand if their current practices are in alignment with what they want to achieve. Based on their analysis, they will provide strategic recommendations the company can implement to drive better results.
In addition to their business analysis, strategy consultants can provide expertise on market research and the competitive landscape so the client can make well-informed decisions that are in the best interest of the health of their company.
When working with a strategy consultant, a company can receive guidance on the following:
- Budgeting advice — Input on best practices to cut costs and drive revenue.
- Production strategies — Recommendations to increase efficiency creating their product.
- Opportunity management — Highlighting new opportunities for revenue or product offerings.
After providing sound recommendations to their clients, consultants may have the opportunity to support the implementation process.
Strategy Consulting Example
In the example above, a strategy consultant with expertise in digital transformation could help the publication decide how to proceed.
Once the consultant was on board, they would begin by learning the ins and outs of the magazine’s operation, analyze their current web traffic and sources, review physical magazine sale data to find trends, and conduct in-depth competitive analysis on the print and web editions of the company’s main competitors.
They’d address issues like whether the website’s ad revenue would offset losses from reduced subscriptions. They could gather information on the company’s IT infrastructure to see if it could handle more web traffic. And they could make an educated projection as to whether people will still be interested in the company’s printed magazines a few years down the line.
With this information in hand, the consultant recommends a two-prong approach to capitalizing on the magazine’s web traffic, and to accommodate reader behavior. First, the company should implement a redesign to improve the reader experience and boost their SEO. Once the web content has been optimized, they can implement the second phase – a gated content system allowing devoted readers to access more content by paying a small monthly fee.
The consultant makes this recommendation to the executives at the publishing company, along with forecasted data to show the revenue they could capture, and how this strategy supports the company’s growth. Once the executive team has bought off on the strategy, the consultant can work with management on the implementation plan.
Why strategy consulting?
The concept of strategy consulting may raise some questions.
Why do companies need external industry experts? Shouldn’t executives at companies be experts themselves? Can they not pull other employees from within the company to help address these kinds of issues in-house?
The answer to all of those questions is mostly a matter of focus and impartiality.
In the example above, a strategy consultant would be focused solely on the issue of the publication’s transition from print to digital and the implications of that shift. The executives at the company wouldn’t be able to do that. They’d have an entire company to run. They wouldn’t have time to get fixated on individual topics.
Strategy consultants also offer level-headedness that can’t always be expected from people within the company. Boards, executives, and other managers have personal stakes in their businesses. Those stakes often come with biases and preconceptions that can cloud their judgment on specific issues.
A strategy consultant brings an outside perspective. They’re not bound by personal investment in the company. Their judgment is supposed to be clear and impartial. This way, executives can get an opinion from a source that’s free of emotion and personal sensitivity.
How to Get Into Strategy Consulting
Get the Right Degree(s)
It may go without saying, but you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree to get into strategy consulting — most likely in business administration or a similar field. But a bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum when it comes to landing a strategy consulting gig. There’s no guarantee that it’ll get you there.
Though there’s no definitive education standard across the board for all consulting firms, they often prefer graduates with MBAs. Consulting firms are looking for mature candidates with a solid concept of business management, analytical skills, and a demonstrated knack for problem-solving.
You should also pursue internships — ideally with a consulting firm or within an in-demand industry — throughout your time in school. This will give you a jump on gaining the experience you need to land a strategy consulting job down the line.
Get a Lot of Experience Under Your Belt
Being a strategy consultant takes considerable business and consulting acumen, and there’s a lot that goes into that.
You have to know how to conduct yourself in a boardroom. You’re going to be working closely with executives, so you need to know how to communicate with them professionally and effectively.
Strategy consultants also have to make difficult decisions on a consistent basis. That’s what they’re paid to do. If you’re interested in the field, you’re going to need the confidence and judgment to make sure your advice is sensible and actionable. You’ll also need to be prepared to clearly explain the rationale behind it at any time.
Most people aren’t born with all of these skills. They come with experience. You’ll most likely need at least a few years working in business and consulting before you develop them. You should also remember that strategy consultants are often experts in specific fields and business subjects.
Executives need to trust the decisions you make. If you want to make pivotal decisions for a healthcare company without having spent any time in that industry, they probably won’t take you seriously. The same would go for a strategy consultant with no experience in technology implementation trying to work with a company looking for advice on that subject.
Know the Landscape
Before entering the field, it’s important to know where consulting has been and where it’s going. From 2008 to 2019, the consulting field experienced unprecedented growth and was valued at $160 billion globally.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a dent in the growth of the field, with a reduction of about 19% globally. However, with many companies and industries shifting how they approach work for the long-term, there may be more opportunities for consultants to help companies innovate and create a new vision for the future of work.
Despite the initial hit to the field at the start of the pandemic, the 2021 rate of job growth for consultants is 14%.
Familiarize Yourself with the Industry
There are two buckets that strategy consulting firms fall into. Either a firm offers strategy consulting exclusively — known as a pure-play firm — or it offers strategy consulting as one option among other services.
The three foremost pure-play firms are McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company. Other firms with either well-established or quickly growing strategy consulting practices include Ernst & Young, Deloitte, Accenture, Oliver Wyman, and CapGemini.
If you’re looking to get into strategy consulting, it’s worth knowing those names. They could be good starting points for a networking effort that might just get your foot in the door.
How to Succeed in Consulting
Now you may be wondering, once I get into the consulting field, how do I stand out?
The first step to succeeding in the consulting field is choosing a niche. What area of business are you most knowledgeable about? Are there certain problems you’re great at solving? The best consultants are able to leverage their expertise to drive results for their clients. When entering the field, think long and hard about the value you bring.
Also, adding value isn’t enough if you want to keep clients coming through the door. You must be able to demonstrate the value you bring to continue winning new clients. Whether that is sharing valuable thought leadership content, case studies, or having a roster of testimonials from previous clients and projects, successful consultants must be able to show what value they bring and demonstrate why they are the best candidate to support potential clients.
Additionally, to succeed in consulting it’s critical to keep your skills sharp. In 2020, 43.5% of consulting firms indicated the need for new skills as the top challenge. Continue looking for ways to improve your analytical and problem-solving skills to stay ahead of the curve.
Strategy consulting is an exciting field that serves an important purpose. It’s a way to offer businesses some clarity and help them stay on track. A job within the field isn’t the easiest to land, but you can set yourself up for success with the proper education, relevant experience, solid problem-solving skills, and flat-out hard work.