• Simon Blackburn

Size matters: Working in large vs. small Consultancies


Over the past few years I've been surprised about the number of people from my former gig as a big four consultant, getting in touch to learn more about what it was like to work in a smaller Consultancy. While the attraction of greater autonomy, flexibility, and career progression may be the obvious attractions to making the move, some other pros and cons can sometimes be lost in translation. I hope this summary of additional points to consider prove useful in any aspiring Consultants thinking of making the switch!

The well worn path

Whether you love it or hate it, large Consulting firms have established very clear, well worn paths to promotion, and greater things for their star performers. For those who want security in knowing where they'll be and what they'll be aiming for years from now, this can be a great benefit. On the path from Analyst to Partner, you can expect to receive structured learning, plenty of role models to draw from, and reasonably clear salary expectations

Smaller Consulting firms by comparison will vary far more. As they themselves go through a learning curve, there may be mixed opportunities to develop. that being said, many smaller Consultancies are founded by former top tier consultants who recognise the value of providing clear succession planning and developing their staff. Most will be able to deliver career advice, and ultimately help you go down the right career path for you

Typically, the sort of Consultant who would consider working for a smaller firm is likely to also be comfortable with a more ambiguous career path, but potentially also expect a chance for faster progression as a trade off. Consider what you can learn from the more senior people in the firm and whether the direction that they are growing is the direction you want to grow. In small firms who have just a few Partners, their individual ability to win work and develop propositions, will have a greater affect on your path than in larger firms!

Access to insights and experts

Size really does matter here! Global Consultancies buy into data, and have years of bench-marking and analysis from around the globe to leverage. There's also a strong possibility that they have an "expert" in any field you're interested in, to help you develop your knowledge and skills. the difficulty is sometimes getting access to the data, and getting time with the experts.

In comparison, smaller firms rely far more heavily on publicly available data sources, and the knowledge and experience of people at the top. If you're looking to sharpen your knife in a particular subject, be sure there's someone at the firm who REALLY knows their stuff, before you take the leap

Responsibility

At the risk of sounding to generalist, most people who go into Management/Strategy Consultancy love responsibility, and love having the opportunity to push their boundaries a little further. The type of responsibility you get your hands on can very due to the size of the organisation.

For example, let's say you're working for a large, globally recognised Consultancy. Unless you happen to be a god in your field, there's a good chance that there's a hoard of experts waiting in the wing. You may be responsible for delivering that expertise to your specific project, but ultimately you have "people who know better" to fall back on for advice.

Now let's look at smaller Consultancies. The pool of experts is likely to be significantly less (in quantity, potentially not in quality). You're still responsible for delivering that expertise to your project, but chances are you also have greater responsibility to shape what that is. Partners at small Consulting firms often love someone who can bring in a fresh perspective on things. It helps to challenge them and develop their thinking (and ultimately IP) to the next level.

That's not to say that the level of responsibility is diminished at larger firms. Far from it! It's just that you're more likely to have you're more likely to have your fingers in more pies, at a shallower depth, than your small firm counterparts. This is particularly the case for more "generalist" practitioners, who aren't aligned to a specific topic within a specific industry.

To try and illustrate this point, here's a summary of the responsibilities I had during 1 year of my career (a number of years ago now!). During the 1st half of the year I was still working for a global consultancy. The 2nd half I spent at a far smaller organisation. See the difference? Which would you prefer?

Socialising

Let's be honest, we all like an all expenses paid social. Whether it's free beers after work on a Friday or an all expenses paid weekend away in Malta, large consultancies realise the value in providing these "team bonding" experiences, and leverage them well.

And the story is no different with the Smaller organisations of this world. Any employer worth his salt will see the true value of a round of G&T's on a Friday night. Perhaps the main difference lies in the TYPE of socialising you're likely to do.

If you're into your large scale black tie events, then the life of a big four consultant should suit you. There will always be opportunities to go to something cool on the work account. There will always be someone who you haven't met, who could be your future opportunity to work on something great, or simply a future friend to have coffee with every month.

In contrast, I've found that smaller Consultancies focus on regular, intimate gatherings. They're less likely to be "big budget", but they're also more likely to be about quality one-on-one time. For example, A friend of mine used to work in an office that had a Jaeger fridge. Every Friday afternoon the boss would open it up and the team would enjoy a drink (read: 10) together on the balcony. Simple, but some would say effective!


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