Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

A Career in Management Consultancy

Posted in Articles, Careers, Management, My publications by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on November 30, 2002
I’m fed up with my job and I hear management consultancy pays well. How can I change to that job?
Management consultancy does indeed pay well. But you can’t change to another career purely for financial reasons. You must research your choice thoroughly to ensure it suits your strengths and goals. After all, money doesn’t buy happiness.
What is management consultancy anyway? I thought it was just selling stocks and shares in the City. It sounds like fun.
Not quite. You’re thinking of investment bankers. They spend their money on the stocks and shares most likely to gain in value, and take money away from those likely to lose value. Other professionals in the City include accountants, who keep track of an organisation’s finances, and insurance professionals, who assess and manage financial risk.
The United Kingdom’s Institute of Management Consultancy defines management as “the art of getting results through people.” Consultant is a little less easy to define, but the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition includes: “a person qualified to give professional advice or service.” In other words, management consultants are qualified professionals brought in to assist a company to get results through its people. They are brought in by an organisation when the management team believes they need help with a difficult problem.
What kind of problem?
There’s quite a range. A major airline might want to start competing in the low cost flight market. A mobile phone provider might want to research the best pricing strategy for its new high speed network. Two pharmaceutical giants might need help with the enormous change entailed in a merger. Or a large organisation may want to examine why performance varies from site to site, and to work with poorly performing sites to improve outputs.
Can I join even if I’m a doctor?
Entry to the profession usually begins at a junior (often called analyst) level, though it is possible, albeit rare, to enter at a more senior level. From here you progress up the hierarchy. Most people tend to leave along the way, usually to interesting posts within other organisations, but some will remain all the way till reaching partnership.
What happens next?
All new employees begin with an induction course lasting from several weeks to a few months. The induction allows the firm to accept graduates from a wide variety of disciplines, introduces the new employees to management thinking, and explains company practices. It is certainly more thorough than the induction period of your first preregistration house officer (PRHO) post.
The role of an analyst is similar to that of a PRHO. You are the eyes and ears of your team, gathering data on the problem at hand. More senior members of the team interpret this data and direct the next round of information gathering. The most senior members, known as partners, can be thought of as the hospital consultants running private clinics. They meet with clients, discuss what problems they would like help with, and suggest solutions their team can offer.
How do I start the job hunt?
Hang on. You haven’t properly weighed up the pros and cons. Like any career, management consultancy has some downsides that may not suit every taste. Perhaps the greatest three are the competition, the commitment, and the cruelty. Consider competition. Top companies employ an “up or out” policy. That means if you aren’t good enough to be promoted within a certain amount of time (usually every two to three years), then you’re not good enough to remain within the company. No matter how competitive you might think medicine is, consider that your field at least guarantees job security.
What about the time commitment?
The time commitment is considerable. Although there is no such thing as night on-call duty, 50 hour weeks are routine, 60 hour weeks are common, and 80 hour weeks are not unheard of. None of that time is spent sitting in the mess. The problem is worse given the international nature of the work, with much extra time spent in planes and hotel rooms.
And the hire and fire philosophy?
The public perception of management consultancy firms being brought in to fire workers does have some basis. Often, hard nosed business analysis leads to the conclusion that employee numbers should be reduced. If you are not comfortable with being responsible for such analysis, then you should not be in the business.
So what are the benefits?
If you are not put off by these aspects of the industry, then you are ready to weigh up the benefits. For example, first year salaries start at £35 000 and rapidly rise to six figures. Partnership could even bring seven figure annual totals. But few people can continue through the stress just because of the moneyrather they do so because they love the job.
The job provides a lot of intellectual stimulation from the problems that you work on and the people who you work with. Unless you are working for a niche player, each new project you work on can bring you into contact with a new industry and a new set of problems. Thus a fresh set of challenges constantly awaits you. Furthermore, the colleagues you will encounter at your firm are from many different backgrounds. Working with them is often cited as an education and a privilege.
The job also allows you to make change happen. By working at a managerial level, you are in a position to see an organisation’s problems and have the potential to identify the best solution. When clients take the advice of your team, you can see the results of your intellectual labour.
Is it possible to try it for a bit without quitting medicine?
Many do. At the end of the day, the best way to find out if you’d enjoy a career in management consultancy is to try it. It is perfectly possible to get hired for one year. More importantly, it is perfectly possible to return to medicine. Furthermore, your re-entry to the medical profession is marked by a much better understanding of management principles and practices. This can only improve your effectiveness within your healthcare trust.
On the other hand, you might have found your calling and decide to stay in management consultancy.
Now can I start the job hunt?
Competition for entry to the profession is high and increasing. As a doctor you have a head start as an attractive employee. Firstly, you have been selected for your intellectual and academic abilities, and, secondly, you have valuable practical, management, and communication skills gained from your workplace. But making the switch requires mental preparation to prove your potential.
Can you explain?
One common pitfall in career changes is that doctors apply for management consultancy jobs when they are fed up with the way their medical career is going. But no employer wants to hire someone whose career is not going well. Thus, if you fail your membership exams, you must retake them till you attain a pass. If you feel you are overworked, you must arrange a post with a lower workload that allows you time to recuperate. And if you are feeling bored with medicine, you must devote yourself to an aspect that you find interesting. Only when back on a high can you start your application process.
How do I do this?
Just as importantlyopportunistic applications do not succeed. You must tackle the application process with the same sustained and committed effort as you tackled medical exams. One book worth reading is What Color is Your Parachute?1 It gives good advice on choosing and changing careers.
At what stage should I switch?
Given this preparation, the stage in your medical career at which you move is of secondary importance. Some may leave medical school and go straight to work in the City. Others may prefer to gain experience from working as doctor before making the switch. Others consider the career after years of increasingly managerial roles within the NHS. All that matters is that you are clear during your interview about the reasons and appropriateness of your choice.
I am, so what’s next?
If you are sure it is for you, there are six ways get a job in management consultancy:
(1) Apply to job advertisements posted in newspapers and websites.
(2) Network with your existing contacts and seek introductions to people who might be able to hire you.
(3) Solicit professionals directly in the area you are interested in, and try to get them to interview you.
(4) Apply directly to each employer. This tends to be useless in the current environment unless you are going for the graduate training programme.
(5) Apply to recruitment agents in the hope that they will recommend you to their clients.
(6) Do a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and apply directly.
The last two methods are often the most helpful.
Are recruitment agencies trying to steal doctors away from the NHS?
They have better things to do than steal doctors. Instead they’re busy helping line up job applicants with the career that suits them best, and getting organisations in touch with the employees they need the most. The recruiters help at all stages of the application process, including training in interview technique, feedback on curricula vitae, and, of course, advice on career planning. The last aspect can highlight those who could benefit from doing an MBA.
What’s an MBA?
The MBA is a Masters in Business Administration. It’s a great addition to any curriculum vitae, but it is a serious financial commitment. You definitely should not embark on the course without taking advice from a recruiter or careers adviser.
Many doctors have returned to medicine after an enjoyable stint in the business world, while others have become hooked on their new careers. Most interestingly, many who have considered the profession have ended up enjoying their clinical work. After all, reminding yourself that there are other options available is always liberating.
Mohammad Al-Ubaydli, visiting research fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC
Career focus would like to thank experienced management consultant Penny Dash for reviewing and contributing to this article.
Competing interest: In the past, MA-U has worked as a recruiter for Medical Diversity.
Published on the 30th of November 2002 in the
British Medical Journal careers section