Having worked in different corporate settings, I have gotten up close and personal to the differences in work ethic, structure and what is considered recognition / reward-worthy in each. Both the consulting sector as well as the industry sector of business have value and are needed. You certainly could not have consultants without business leaders in the industry needing assistance and you certainly could not maintain an industrial corporation without the aid and guidance of consultants. Though consulting firms are businesses that sell products and services like in the industry, their purpose is different and this leads to major differences in culture as well.
One thing to note as you read on is that there are exceptions to every rule, as you know. Keep in mind that this is an article about overall culture and not individual work ethic. While this article seems to vouch more for consulting firms, I have been on projects where my growth was slowed and I was told I was too new to do anything or have ideas. Additionally, I would not say that my industry experience was at the “hippest” of places. I have worked at places that still follow the mindset of 20 years ago. Regardless, if you have worked in both consulting as well as the industry you will find that what I list below holds true. If you have not worked in both sectors, you will reap a lot of insight into the general cultures of each area.
Consulting vs. Industry
1) In the industry environment, one thing you will notice very quickly is that many of your colleagues are more than happy to push their work on you so that they have less to do.
In the consulting world, this is often the opposite. In consulting, your colleagues are more likely to hog all the work.
2) In the industry, people are more concerned about keeping their jobs and making it through the next layoff than they are about getting promotions. There is not as much emphasis on doing your best or doing the most, it is more about doing enough or slightly better.
In consulting, this is the complete opposite. Consultants spend most of their time trying to out-do each other because the primary concern on their mind is on getting the next promotion. It does not help that in major consulting firms, promotions are only awarded once a year. If you miss a promotion, you have to wait an entire year before you will be reconsidered. In the industry, promotions can be offered more than once a year.
3) In the industry, go-getters are sometimes penalized and ideas are valued only if you have the “right” amount of experience or seniority. If you present ideas, you occasionally run the risk of being someone who challenges the status quo even if your ideas are valid and come from pure intent.
In consulting, go-getters are highly valued and it is not required that you have experience or some level of title. This does not mean that your ideas will not get shot down. They will. The difference is that you are seen as someone who takes initiative and the fact that you are stepping up is valued.
It is important to note that the extent to which you are viewed as a “challenger” or “go-getter” depends mostly on your manager. I have had a manager in consulting who did not appreciate ideas from those below him and I am sure there are many wonderful managers in the industry who appreciate ideas from any direction. See my book, 25 Things They Don’t Teach in Business School, for what to do if your ideas get shot down.
4) Tying into the previous point, in the industry change and ideas are not well-received. Those in the industry prefer to continue doing things the way they have always done them and feel threatened or unstable if new processes or systems or structures are implemented. It can take them a while to get back on track.
In consulting, change and ideas are very highly valued. Consultants understand that progress is all about change and finding ways to simplify and improve. Consultants understand that the more creative and flexible you are in your thinking as well as in your ability to adapt, the more successful you will be and the more value you can bring.
5) Continuing with this theme of change and ideas – in the industry, ideas take forever to get decided on, executed and implemented and there is not much ownership in terms of ensuring that everyone is on the same page regarding the changes and that training documentation is available. That is, unless consultants are brought in to execute, implement and train.
In consulting, ideas get decided on, executed and implemented ASAP. When it comes to deciding, executing, implementing and training clients, consultants will ensure a smooth transition from the old way of doing things to the new way of doing things. Furthermore, consultants are just as swift at ensuring this complete transition within their own company. At the firm I used to work in, there was tons of documentation available to each employee at the touch of their fingertips and the information was continuously updated as changes were made.
6) In the industry, your rate of individual career growth is much slower than that of consulting. In the industry, people are more focused on getting enough done to where they are “safe.” They are also more concerned with talking about how busy they are then actually doing work.
In consulting, you are sure to grow by leaps and bounds. There is a reason why they say a year in consulting is worth 2 years in the industry:
- You are exposed to so many experiences and you are expected to produce only the best. Your clients are Executive Directors, VPs and C-Levels.
- Projects usually only last 3-6 months at a company and then you move on to the next giving you exposure to many different companies and methodologies.
- Consulting firms value “best practices” very highly so employees learn how to do things the “best” way from the start.
- Consulting firms often share their deliverables, whitepapers, best practices, etc. across the organization when asked – a consulting firm is a web of information at your fingertips.
- The entire role of the consultant is to think high level while minding the details, critically and efficiently so you learn how to think effectively and holistically from day 1.
- You are asked to complete a lot in a short amount of time to meet deadlines so you get more accomplished than you would have thought possible.
- And there is much, much more.
I learned more in 9 months of consulting than I did in over a year in the industry. The feeling of accomplishment you get from all that you have achieved in consulting is very uplifting and gives you confidence in your ability to perform.
7) In the industry, if you do any kind of grunt work, you are looked down upon even though you are really the hero in my opinion. In the industry, colleagues will not do work that they see as beneath them and may consider you beneath them if you help them and have a lower title.
In consulting, all type of work is appreciated. Sure, grunt work is usually left to those below the managerial level. However, if you do the grunt work in the consulting world, you will be rewarded and recognized and appreciated for it. If you do the grunt work in the industry, you run the risk of being the person that everyone dumps on. You run the risk of being stuck with the grunt work forever. In consulting, those who do the grunt work just as diligently as they do other work get promoted. After all, you are the person who is making sure nothing falls through the cracks and that all details are accounted for. Why shouldn’t you be promoted? Without you, nothing would get done.
8) In the industry, employee training usually is not very good. Your colleagues and managers will talk about the best processes and how important it is to them, but it never really gets anywhere and they do not even follow it themselves.
In consulting, you are trained on the job from day one. You are taught the best processes from the start and you are encouraged to roll up your sleeves and give things your best try. Your managers are there to guide you in the best practices, help you improve and encourage you to try new things out and think outside the box.
9) No matter where you choose to work, people will always advise you to learn to become complacent or they will tell you that one day you will be complacent. I have gotten this advice in both sectors however I have seen much more complacency in the industry than in consulting.
10) In the industry, there are definitely intelligent people, but I would say it is about 50-50.
In consulting, the majority of the people hired are very smart, the cream of the crop, and they have very good work ethic. I say “majority” because there are always people who are hired solely on who they know. But, overall, the caliber of consultants is high.
11) In the industry, you often stay in one team and work in one area for a long time.
In consulting, you learn more about different personality types and how to work with various people because you are always being put on different teams and different projects.
12) In the industry, if you have the title of manager or senior manager, it does not mean that you actually manage. While there are definitely senior managers who manage, as well as some managers, it is often just a title.
In consulting, if you have the title of manager or above, it means that you actually manage people and projects.
13) In the industry, if you have a title below that of a manager, you do not manage at all.
In consulting, if you have a title below that of a manager, chances are that you will still be managing people and projects. On the last project I was on while consulting, I managed a team of developers, co-managed my clients with my teammate and managed half of the projects on my team.
14) In the industry, people only do “their job.” Anything outside of that is considered someone else’s job and someone else’s problem. The industry does not have a lot of teamwork and there are more silos.
In consulting, everyone pitches in to fill in the cracks no matter who is “supposed” to do what. The whole team moves together from the beginning of the project to the end and is involved in each stage. You will not hear people talk about “his job” or “her job.” The goal is to ensure a good end result and everyone is encouraged and expected to jump in wherever they can and help out.
15) In the industry, you will find more of the blame game. If a project does not get completed on time or turn out well, it will always be someone else’s fault or someone else’s problem. For example, if your portion of the project did not get completed on time, the excuse is usually because person X did not get you the information you needed on time. If the part after your portion of the project did not get completed, the argument is usually that it is not your problem because it is “their” part of the project and therefore “their” problem. In the industry, it is often less about trying to get the ball rolling again and fix the problem than it is about pointing the finger at someone else.
While there will always be the blame game no matter where you go, in consulting it does not last nearly as long. Most of the time, everyone is more focused on picking things up again and salvaging the project. Granted, on my first project in consulting the rule was to always blame the person who was not there because they could not defend themselves. However, overall the blame game is very short lived and the primary concern is on finding the solution.
Depending on your personality or your circumstances, you will naturally favor one sector of business over the other. I really enjoyed doing consulting work, however the politics get dirty fast. I enjoyed most of the people in the industry, however I did not like the old-school culture at all. Consulting is great for wanting to grow professionally and truly provide value. However, there are many people who have children and families and college educations to pay for and do not want the stress that comes with consulting. Both areas of business have their merits and they teach you to grow in different ways.
For information on how to succeed in these sectors of business, check out my book 25 Things They Don’t Teach in Business School: A User’s Manual for Surviving Office Politics!