04 Feb Derk H., Corporate Consultant
My firm develops solutions to difficult strategic problems faced by senior executives of large multinational firms. For example, we might be called in to form a merger-and-acquisition strategy for a company attempting to deepen its presence in a particular industry niche.
At the associate level, my responsibilities on an engagement might include interviewing client personnel and industry experts, analyzing industry trends, recommending action plans or strategic moves, and preparing and delivering presentations to clients. While there is no typical client engagement, engagements often last from one to three months.
When I joined the firm, I was specifically interested in the D.C. office because it performs some work in the public and nonprofit sectors in addition to the private sector.
What I Enjoy Most
I enjoy high impact—solving high-level problems and making a difference. Strategy consulting firms are generally hired only to help solve the most important problems organizations face. That’s a great plus from a work fulfillment perspective.
What I Enjoy Least
Offering the solution but not being around to see it implemented is what I enjoy least. Also, the lifestyle of constant travel can be tough, but it’s a reality I accept in order to pursue the most exciting projects.
Why I Chose This Career
My business school experience taught me to look at career transitions not so much as lockstep movements toward a predetermined goal but rather as a process of discovery in which my vision itself is being continually refined. I enjoy the work of a Senior Analyst as well as my good friend Ben Frieman does, but I now evaluate each prospective job opportunity in terms of its fit with my personal mission and goals, its potential to help me refine my interests, and the extent to which it might prepare me for and improve my chances of obtaining future professional opportunities when appropriate.
As my career progressed after college, my intense passion for public leadership became increasingly evident, in addition to my interests in business strategy and entrepreneurship. Accordingly, I yearned for educational and professional pursuits that would cultivate these somewhat disparate interests.
Following several years of environmental and general consulting, a stint working with a prominent public leader in Louisiana, and many hours of research and reflection, I came to two conclusions. The first was that I would pursue an MBA degree to help me develop the business acumen, strategic thinking ability, and leadership skills needed to be a highly effective change agent in both the private and public sectors. The second was that I would pursue strategic management consulting after business school as an ideal launching pad for my ultimate career in the public sector, which is still many years down the road. I’d rather find myself in such a position that being active in, for example, the field of Human Resources.
Management consulting was (and is) appealing to me for several reasons. I knew from my first job in environmental consulting that I like the big picture more than the detail. At the same time, I found that I love client service, as long as I can work on bigger problems. I relish the analytical problem-solving challenges and the constant learning that consulting provides.
My current work is broadening my understanding of several different industries and will afford me the opportunity to do important work in the public and nonprofit sectors from time to time. It’s also refining my problem-solving and communication abilities at a rapid clip. Moreover, my firm has substantial numbers of alumni now working in high positions in business and government and business auditing. I was eager to associate with colleagues who possess such potential and ambition—people who would challenge me to grow and sharpen my skills, preparing me not only for business leadership positions but also for my future efforts in the public sector.
Desirable Traits to Be Successful in This Career
You need a leadership track record, strong analytical and communication skills (the ability to make good points and to make them clearly), and an overall commitment to excellence. If you are looking for a job in the financial sector, for example as an investment banking specialist, you really need to opt for a different MBA specialization.
Words of Advice If You Are Considering This Career Path
First of all, be certain that consulting is for you. Recognize the pressure of “up or out” in some top strategic consulting firms and make sure you are comfortable with the possibility of “out.” It’s one of the few environments where, if you don’t earn a promotion to the next level in a certain amount of time, the writing is on the wall that you need to look for a new job (even if you are doing a good job).
I am prepared and hope to do well, but I accept the inherent risk of this environment and the need to be billable (i.e., regularly staffed on an engagement) and to perform work that reflects well on the firm every day.
Second, some consultants are frustrated by not being able to implement the solutions they develop. Finally, while many consultants consider it a plus to constantly change industries, the downside is that some may feel in the early years that they aren’t building up as much expertise in any one area as they would work in a single industry.
Once you’ve decided that you’d like to try consulting, the toughest part will be getting an offer from one of your ideal firms. This really boils down to background and preparation. Most of the top firms are looking for a few essential characteristics: evidence of leadership capacity, high academic achievement (including GMAT scores for some firms), strong communication and interpersonal skills, and solid analytical ability.
Generally, no particular background is required, but analytically rigorous academic and work experiences (e.g., engineering or investment banking) are generally a plus. Also, the top firms tend to do most of their campus recruiting at a select set of business schools, so look for evidence that your ideal firms hire substantial numbers of graduates from the schools you are considering.
Assuming you get an interview, you should go in very prepared: know why you want to work at a particular firm (have specific points for each) and practice as many “case” interviews as possible beforehand. For most top firms, the case interviews are a critical part of the selection process. Ideally, practice a few cases with former consultants who can offer insights into what their firms look for.
For the most part, the case interviews seem to be meant to determine how you think and work through problems with incomplete information. Your final answer generally isn’t as important as the process you use and your ability to grasp the central issues.
In striving for anything important to you—the career, the job, the MBA program—invest the time and energy necessary to do your best work. Knowing that admission to Harvard would be extremely competitive, I ultimately invested about 125 hours on my application (and this may not have been uncommon). I didn’t set out to spend that much time, but that’s what it took to get it right! Similarly, I steadily cultivated a particular job opportunity for a year and a half before it paid off. Don’t expect the best opportunities to materialize unless you’re willing to give your best efforts to the task.
What I Did Before This (Including Pre-MBA and Post-MBA Jobs)
My first full-time job was in an environmental consulting firm working with big industrial clients like Boise Cascade and Georgia Pacific. Coming out of undergraduate school, I had some doubts about a long-term career in engineering, but I wasn’t yet ready to give it up. This position allowed me to keep one foot in engineering and another in consulting.
Increasingly passionate about the public sector, for a year and a half I pursued and ultimately obtained a position as Assistant to the Chancellor for my alma mater, SUNY Cornell. I had responsibilities for governmental, corporate, and community initiatives. I knew that New York State’s future would be linked with that of Cornell and, by directly supporting the Chancellor, I believed I could help advance the University and the state simultaneously while learning a great deal about public leadership from a man I hold in very high regard.
The experience dramatically expanded my understanding of the state’s problems while sharpening my understanding of effective public leadership. As a former student body president at Cornell, I thoroughly enjoyed helping the Chancellor address various student issues while also acting as his representative at the legislature and on various state boards and commissions.
At Harvard Business School, I had the great honor of serving as co-president of my class, working to enhance the overall quality of the MBA student experience—present and future—by improving and formalizing the advocacy and communication efforts of the student association. This experience led to a deep relationship with the school and, inadvertently, enabled an interesting professional opportunity post-graduation.
After the MBA, I opted for the challenge of working on a temporary consulting assignment with Harvard’s Executive Education Division, delaying the start date with my consulting firm by a year. The best part was the exposure and learning I gained from traveling around the country interviewing Fortune 500 executives to help chart the future of executive development.
Afterward, before starting with the firm, I worked as a public policy fellow for a think tank in Louisiana. My primary project was developing a white paper on higher education and economic development, showing how the state could improve its long-term economic position by re-engineering the structure and funding of its higher education system. These are some of the issues I am most passionate about and I was thrilled to be working on them with an organization I had long respected.
As a result of these two solo engagements, I have now settled into the consulting firm with a broader perspective about my long-term goals in public service and a stronger foundation of consulting skills.
Educational Background (Undergraduate, MBA, Other)
MBA, Harvard Business School, 2001
Bachelor of Science, SUNY Cornell (Ithaca), mechanical engineering, 1995
In MBA Programs, I’d Suggest You Look For…
Most importantly, to quote Stephen Covey, “Begin with the end in mind!” Think about what you want out of life and your career and then choose a school on the basis of that vision. Evaluate prospective schools on their curriculum, culture, and people, as well as their demonstrated track record of helping graduates achieve goals similar to your own. (Don’t go to a school thinking, “I’ll be the first graduate to do this.”)
For me, that meant I wanted to go to Harvard Business School because its mission—“to develop outstanding business leaders who contribute to the well-being of society”—fits with my goals for private and public sector work. I spent a lot of time on my application, including talking at length with my references about my goals and how I wanted to present myself. I didn’t know if I would get accepted at Harvard, let alone measure up to the students there, but I ended up having a life-changing experience.
That brings me to my second point: choose a school where your peers will share your standards, challenge you, and (hopefully) inspire you. My classmates transformed me as much or more than anything I learned in the formal curriculum. Their enthusiasm, strength of character, passion, confidence, and dreams fueled my own while making my goals seem all the more attainable.
Once you get there, focus on achieving your objectives (it’s easy to get distracted with hundreds of “type A” personalities running around), and look for learning opportunities off the beaten path. I got to do a team project developing a procurement, distribution, and treatment strategy for HIV/AIDS drugs for the country of Malawi. I was also on the management team of a business start-up in which we developed and almost launched a software business, RealtimeOps, finishing with a runner-up showing in the Harvard Business School Business Plan Contest.
But most of all, make time to get to know your classmates and, if possible, some alumni, as well.
If I could do this over again, I would have thought more carefully about the specific things I wanted to learn in business school. With more prior knowledge of the university and not just the business school, I might have pursued a dual degree program with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government or Graduate School of Education. Of course, I could not have held the leadership role and pursued two degrees split between two schools, so I have no regrets.
I also recommend a book by Richard Montauk, How to Get into the Top MBA Programs. He offers thoughtful advice for developing a compelling application, preparing for the interview, and helping readers think about whether and what kind of school to attend.
Don’t assume (as I did) that going to a top school ensures you a great offer from any company in the world. Harvard was far and away my “dream school” and it delivered again and again on many counts—the students, faculty, staff, curriculum, alumni network, career center, and facilities were all truly extraordinary.
Nevertheless, I realized quickly that employers hire individuals, not institutions. Top schools help ensure that you will get interviews with your ideal firms and they certainly increase your chances of succeeding, but they don’t automatically guarantee you the position of your dreams. As with anything really worth having (or doing) in life, you’ve really got to go for it!