The Transition to Industry

Introduction

River Partnership’s search division has combined expertise of over 35 years in the Strategy market, having managed hundreds of placements from Consulting into Industry.

This report analyses the motivations, decision-making and post-transition perspectives behind this particular career trajectory.

We surveyed nearly 250 Strategy professionals from the top-tier firms who have transitioned out of Consulting, to ask about their experiences.

We hope the results provide valuable insights for Consultants considering a transition, Hiring Managers who seek this sort of talent, and Human Resources teams who want to ensure they can attract and retain the best people for their organisations.

Participants Overview

Firstly, some words on our demographic. All survey participants were interviewed in confidence, and we do not expose their current companies here due to the sensitivity of the data and the opinions they provided.

100% of our participants worked with McKinsey & Company, The Boston Consulting Group, Bain & Company, Oliver Wyman, Roland Berger or Booz & Company (now Strategy&) and transitioned directly from those firms. We focused on global responses, with all 5 continents represented in our data across the majority of the largest commercial and financial centres.

In total we interviewed 249 participants, out of which:

  • 126 transitioned into Corporates

  • 88 transitioned into Start-ups / SMEs

  • 30 transitioned into Private Equity

  • 5 became self-employed / other

In addition, 35% had industry experience prior to joining Consulting, which is the approximate average across the six Consulting firms we had taken participants from.

In terms of commercial experience overall, we aimed deliberately for a fairly equal split.

19% had between 1 – 3 years, 27% had between 4 – 6 years, 22% had between 5 – 8 years, 20% had between 9 – 12 years and 12% had 13+ years.

My thanks to the ex-Consultants in my network who took the time to take part. 

Part One: Deciding to transition

Motivations for leaving Consulting almost exclusively fit into one of five categories: Salary, Working Hours, Travel Demands, Personal Circumstances and Professional Challenge (i.e. wanting a different role). Of course, there are plenty of individual situations which prioritise these factors differently, and personal developments which can change all the time and influence this (relationships, buying property, etc…), but these will always be the base “ingredients”.

Within this, there are trends worth noticing.  For example, individuals with between 1-3 years’ Consulting experience were 72% less likely to be turned off by travel demands. This makes sense; the demands made by business travel become more tiresome over time. Airport lounges are less exciting after the 10th weekly visit. Families start to grow, and the desire to spend more time at home increases.

Of the 35% of the participants in our survey who had industry experience prior to joining Consulting, 83% considered working hours at least “fairly important” when deciding to leave (compared to 45% of the rest of the group), highlighting a significant difference in priorities. This is because line roles in industry typically demand fewer working hours than Consulting. These individuals will likely receive a shock if they expect a Strategy team in industry to make less demands on their time – barely 20% found much difference after transitioning (see Part Three). This will inevitably impact job satisfaction, so whether you are a job-seeker or an employer, be honest about your expectations, and apply them to the hiring process.

Wanting a new professional challenge may seem like an obvious reason to look for another job, but the Strategy talent market is unusual because many job-seekers within it are not only looking for a different short-term challenge, but in most cases would seek a different role altogether, at least in the mid-term. The strongest motivations for leaving Consulting are to be able to execute and implement initiatives, and to take ownership of a functional area, P&L or team. None of these responsibilities are easy to get in Strategy Consulting, and in any case most individuals approaching Partner are disinterested in the addition of revenue-generation to their job description. As one ex-McKinsey Associate Principal mentioned, “if you want to be well-paid, stay in Consulting; if you want to be well-rounded, leave.”

By extension, we can advise Consultants to start considering their transition before they tire of the nature of the work they are doing; applying their project experience to a single “client” should be an exciting prospect. Spending a couple of years in a central Strategy team to build important internal relationships with key stakeholders and develop an understanding of how to execute an initiative or how to implement a solution operationally should sound challenging and exciting.

There is also pressure on employers.  Trends suggest that Consultants are increasingly interested in Start-up or SME environments, believing that they are more capable of making a substantial impact there. This generalisation is not accurate (of the 88 individuals we surveyed who transitioned to Start-ups or SMEs, 76% said that they felt they made an impact, compared with 72% of the 126 participants who joined a Corporate), but that perception causes issues in attracting talent in some cases.

Smaller companies also need to be competitive. Whilst they are lucky to appeal (at least on paper) to the “entrepreneurial spirit” of many Strategy professionals, the scope of their strategic drive, and the resources available to deliver it, are usually more limited.

It is therefore clear that all companies need to consider how to be convincing as a potential employer to the Strategy marketplace.

Money talks (or rather, whispers…)

This paper does not seek to exhaustively review Consultant salaries, but of course it’s a topic we are very familiar with. These results expose salary as the least important factor in deciding to transition to industry (5.2 overall), which is unsurprising given the generous packages offered at the top firms. We noticed a trend that the package matters more to individuals with between 4 – 8 years’ experience (69% more than the other demographics), so if you are looking to hire within this bracket, be prepared to pay accordingly. 

The data in Part Three of this report shows that salary was the second-least impacted factor in the transition to industry, following working hours. The fact is that industry salaries remain largely competitive (particularly in Central Strategy functions) and most employers know what they need to offer. For Consultants, we offer the simple advice to be open to how your new package is structured. 

Part Two: Making the transition

In this part we will analyse the job search itself.

Strategy professionals are paid to be inquisitive, to look at a situation from every perceivable angle and to provide analysis on the information they gather. Yet strangely, applying this intense level of scrutiny to their job search was not represented in the findings of our survey. Less than 30% of participants looked at 3 or more options, and this figure is biased towards more senior individuals. 37% only looked at a single opportunity before deciding. These figures seem surprising in a traditionally busy job marketplace.

The reason for this is mostly due to time pressure. The first years in Consulting are arguably the most intense, where the workload is new and the challenge of managing the pressure is at its steepest. Few people reading this will be unfamiliar with 70-hour weeks and 80% travel. The fact is, Strategy Consultants rarely have the time to consider their next career step, let alone manage an extensive job search directly. 


It is then not surprising that search specialists account for 64% of the transitions represented in our survey, with professional referrals and introductions from the alumni community jointly accounting for a further 26%. These are the best channels for hiring Strategy professionals, and this remains a talent market where third-party partners can add significant value.

What is interesting is the correlation between participants who applied directly and who also looked at more than 3 opportunities (92%). There is a lesson here for Hiring Managers and HR (and recruiters): posting an advertisement and relying on applications will harvest you “active candidates”, and it will be more competitive to secure them. Utilising a specialist search agent or direct networks provides more exclusivity, and you have a better chance of completing the placement. Job-seekers, in tandem, should build relationships with a small handful of recruitment professionals who they trust, can offer good market insights and are deeply-rooted in this space, alongside some alumni or Partners who can provide further perspective. Start this dialogue early to maximise your chance of receiving levelled, unbiased career advice. The reward will be a more efficient job search. 



We saw strong and logical correlations in our collected data between levels of Consulting experience and certain factors which motivate the acceptance of specific job offers.

Whilst in all cases the role offered was deemed highly important, when pushed for further detail certain differences were exposed. Participants with fewer than 5 years’ experience were 78% more likely to be attracted by a position in a central Strategy / Corporate Development team than the rest of the group. This figure rises to 86% if we remove the 5 – 7 year participants. Why? Simply, Strategy professionals with more experience feel more readiness to adopt the responsibilities outlined in Part One. Added to this the emotional factors of leaving an employer after a longer tenure, and the message to Hiring Managers becomes clear – it will be more difficult to attract senior Strategy talent if your job opportunity looks like the role of an external Consultant.

They may be more open to the type of job role, but participants with less than 5 years’ experience were certainly more selective about their potential colleagues, placing heavier emphasis (68% overall) on the

team they would be joining – worth considering if you are Hiring Manager looking to recruit in this bracket. 


Conversely, some factors harvested similar responses regardless of the number of previous years in Consulting. Understanding and seeing evidence of the potential for career development is critical in capturing the interest of prospective hires, whatever their level of experience.

We talked before about the importance of “Professional Challenge” as a factor for leaving Consulting, therefore the speed at which someone can start to adopt additional commercial responsibilities is a critical part of the decision-making process when choosing a new employer.

Larger Strategy teams in industry often cause alarm bells to ring for the applicant for this precise reason (the perception is that it will be more difficult to progress with multiple people wanting the same development). If your business requires a sizeable Strategy team, consider splitting it by function so that individuals can gain more access to specific business areas, or provide a job title with a less generalist overtone (e.g. Strategy Manager – IT Transformation). We have seen this implemented in a few clients and the message it sends to the talent market is a positive one.

In all cases, hiring companies need to work hard to demonstrate that a career path for a Consultant can be timely and achievable. Strategy Consultants work in environments where the next step on the career ladder is highly visible, and the expectations to get there it are clear. Transitioning to industry most often removes this clarity, since career paths are more varied, and companies are not as obviously hierarchical outside of Professional Services. Ironically, of course, this variation is one key factor for Consultants looking to leave, so any reading this should equally be prepared to have their expectations challenged, and keep an open mind.

The good news for companies based in the middle of nowhere? Location was deemed only “fairly important”, scoring an average of 5.2. It will certainly be more challenging to find a top Strategy talent in Zanzibar than Zurich, but you can be sure to attract people if the opportunity offers a high degree of the other factors discussed here. Lower emphasis still was placed on companies with a questionable market reputation (3.6 average). Why? “When a company is facing difficulties in the marketplace, and there is still an appetite to hire Strategy professionals, this means there are changes to affect and results to own”, was one comment from an ex-Project Leader from BCG. “This should be seen as a positive opportunity”.

Part Three: Post-transition shock syndrome 

In many ways this is the most difficult part of our report to analyse. Our survey represents 249 employees with different personalities from an equal number of working environments. Some environments will suit certain characters more than others. What is clear, however, is that most of our participants benefitted from having some parallels between their new job and the one they just left.

Interestingly, it seems more important for Consultants to have good senior leadership once they are in the job compared to how much they prioritised management during their job searches (nearly 2 points higher overall). The reality for most Consultants is that industry -  whether Corporate, SME or Start-up - demands very different soft-skills and relationship-building capabilities. Most need help to adjust culturally, and in some cases some become frustrated with the slower pace associated with longer-term “internal” projects. This explains why so many placed high importance on having a clearly-defined role; this is what they have been used to in their project work. And, for all the intention of moving into Line Management, some regretted pushing this too quickly. An ex-Bain & Co. Manager, now managing a sizeable salesforce, put it this way: “I became very bored very quickly when I joined a functional team directly after Consulting. I missed the diversity of project work. My brain was not used to thinking about the same problem all the time.”

When our survey asked how different certain elements of their working life were in comparison to Consulting, quite clearly there are significant adjustments the average Consultant needs to make.

But to consider the full picture – the answers above are in reference to only the initial transition, and actually only a handful of these differences were perceived negatively (decision-making and available resources).

For others, these differences are a critical, and largely positive, part of the learning process. Several participants told us they were pleased to find that they learnt a lot from new colleagues with longer tenures in the organisation, who could provide insight and advice on process, share thoughts on previous external Consulting impact, how to position yourself as an influencer, and what the best day of the week was to eat in the staff canteen. More surprising was that having less clarity over tasks and career progression had less of a negative perception – the reality many ex-Consultants found, was that whilst these were indeed different post-transition, they also had the opportunity to influence them over time.

This represents a learning curve many felt had disappeared during their later years in Consulting. Developing new skills and ways of working, no matter how difficult, is clearly a core motivator for this type of career move. Employers should nurture a culture which allows for this, and Strategy Consultants should remember that this is more achievable with a “softer landing”, so seeking an initial role entirely different from Strategy Consulting could turn out to be counter-intuitive to their wider career objectives.

The transition to Industry is a major consideration for most Consultants – arguably one of the most important moves in their career, regardless of seniority, and usually a significant investment (financial and political) for employers. Having greater awareness of what to look for and expect on the part of the job-seeker, and how to help the transition be rewarding on the part of the employer, should benefit all sides in this high-impact, highly-competitive recruitment market. 

Recommendations

Further to the suggestions outlined throughout this report, I would highlight the following.

  • If you are interviewing Strategy professionals for a role in Central Strategy, consider including one or two meetings with senior stakeholders / Line Managers into the assessment process. Understanding the relationship between a Strategy team and the business is clearly a critical consideration and providing visibility of it will strengthen your opportunity in the eyes of your applicants
  • When hiring talent into central Strategy functions, incorporate a formal (possibly even contractual), bi-annual HR review to discuss internal career progression. This sends a strong message to potential employees that their development is important
  • Job-seekers in this market should know how to ask questions relating to their mid-term goals during the recruitment process. Focusing on direct comparisons between external Consulting and industry will cloud the picture, and our data tells us that other criteria were more important in determining a successful transition
  • As a company, if you are struggling to attract the best Strategy talent, think about how you can change what you can offer them. The findings in this paper suggest that Strategy professionals would more likely take a position with personnel or P&L responsibility with a lesser-known company in a second-tier city, than they would a standard Strategy role in a more “conventional” company
  • From an HR perspective, consider having junior team members in your Strategy team (perhaps high-potentials from within the organisation) who can be directly managed by mid-level Consultants. Moving high-potential talent around is never a bad idea in any organisation; giving direct management responsibility to Strategy hires will develop their soft-skills more quickly
  • As a Hiring Manager, be fully alert to succession-planning. A quick transition into Line Management by someone in your team will become a big problem if there is a headcount gap as a result. The recruitment of Strategy professionals can take time; be prepared for it
  • Having regular touch-points to the wider job market is a good way for Strategy Consultants to develop a stronger awareness of what skills industry demands, and how career development looks post-Consulting. Take time to form relationships with search firms and alumni, and be in touch with them every few months, even if you are not looking to change yet

To downloads the whitepaper in full please click here: The Transition to Industry

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