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Managing a strategy for career change

Timothy Barber
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IT&rsquo;S HARDLY unusual for people in their late twenties to decide that the area they&rsquo;re working in isn&rsquo;t actually the career they want to pursue. Tristan Smith had been working successfully in the airline industry for eight years &ndash; even moving from her home town of Sydney, Australia to the US city of Chicago &ndash; when she decided a change of direction was needed.<br /><br />&ldquo;I&rsquo;d been involved in strategy planning and analysis, and had been managing a sales team, but all my experience was within one industry,&rdquo; she says. Keen to widen her exposure to different business areas and challenges, Smith saw management consultancy as the perfect solution, with the possibilities it presents for project work with clients in a multitude of sectors.<br /><br />For those entering management consultancy with professional experience under their belts, the common route in is through taking an MBA, particularly for those intending to join one of the biggest firms. In fact, the masters programme and the consulting profession share similar attractions to candidates, from strong travel opportunities to the possibility of working in teams of high-calibre individuals from diverse business backgrounds. Smith decided to take her MBA while still working in Chicago, studying part-time over two years at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois. All the while, she knew exactly where she intended to end up.<br /><br />&ldquo;Bain and Company was my number one choice when I was doing my MBA,&rdquo; she says. &ldquo;It has a reputation as one of the best companies to work for, and it&rsquo;s truly global so there are opportunities all over the world &ndash; I could eventually go back to Australia with the company.&rdquo;<br /><br />Before that, however, Smith wanted to work in Europe. She got her wish, joining Bain in early 2008, and has been working in its office in London since then. In that time she&rsquo;s worked on projects in sectors including transport, oil and gas and utilities, and business problems including merger planning, procurement strategy, organisational effectiveness and customer debt reduction.<br /><br />&ldquo;Consultants work across multiple industries for several years, and this experience prepares them to select an area of expertise, as well as for senior leadership positions in industry if they choose that path later in their career,&rdquo; says Bain&rsquo;s recruiting partner Patrick Manning.<br /><br />The list of former management consultants who have gone on to high profile success in other areas is endless &ndash; ranging from HSBC chairman Stephen Green and US presidential candidate Mitt Romney to Adam Balon, co-founder of Innocent Drinks &ndash; and the notion of consultancy as a gateway career is seen as a key attraction for new recruits, at both graduate and post-graduate level. Accordingly, the industry has a high churn rate, with many consultants eventually exiting the profession to take up corporate positions.<br /><br />The recession has seen that churn rate slow, with consultants wary of making the leap to industry during a downturn. With clients reluctant to outlay cash for projects that aren&rsquo;t profit-enhancing in the short term, most big firms have seen significant recruitment cutbacks and redundancies, with some still ongoing. However, Bryan Hickson, managing director of Top-Consultant.com, expects this to change.<br /><br />&ldquo;At the moment there&rsquo;s certainly a surfeit of experienced consulting candidates on the market, but there&rsquo;ll be a tipping point into considerable recruiting activity instead of a slow, gradual pick-up, and that may happen within a year.&rdquo;<br /><br />Those beginning MBAs this autumn can hope to have healthy opportunities in the consultancy sector when they graduate in a year or two &ndash; if upturns are good for everyone, they&rsquo;re particularly good for management consultancy. But are experience and an MBA on the CV enough? Certainly not, says Nick Studer, partner at consultancy firm Oliver Wyman.<br /><br />&ldquo;Specific subject-matter expertise is increasingly important, and having people who have real experience of doing the day job on the ground is hugely useful. But you also have to have real intellectual curiosity, the ability to take calculated risks when it comes to problem solving, and it&rsquo;s very important indeed to be a fun person to work with &ndash; this is all about team-work, after all.&rdquo;

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