There are typically 6 layers within the organizational structure of a consulting firm, 7 if you include internships. The career progression of a consultant is straightforward, starting at the bottom of the pyramid. Consultants are promoted upwards until they reach the most senior level in the firm, Partner.
The pyramid narrows as it increases upwards and that is because the number of employees at each layer decreases. It does not make commercial sense to have as many partners as it does associates for a number of reasons but the main reason is, that Partners command the most salary and therefore the wage bill would be unsustainable.
The pyramid also reflects the typical team structure of daily work. Consulting work is project-based and a project team follows the same organizational pyramid as the wider organization i.e. a higher ratio of junior resource compared to the senior resource.
As shown above, whilst there are 6 layers to the consulting organizational model, each firm uses a mixture of different role titles. This can be confusing for clients working with consultants and for aspiring consultants trying to understand what level they might enter the firm.
What is common across firms is the typical tenure time. For graduates, you can expect to promote to the next grade within 2 years and another promotion 2 years after that. Exceptional consultants can promote quicker, usually with Partner sponsorship to do so and if there is commercial reasoning for doing so (e.g. there is a vacant position to be filled in a particular industry at the level above). Once consultants have spent 4 years at a firm they will hit the ‘up or out’ point. This is where good consultants will be promoted upwards into managerial positions and those that do not meet the performance level will be asked to move on or be notified that they are unlikely to ever promote to the next grade (at which point the employee will likely leave voluntarily).
The career progression up the consulting pyramid is known to be ruthless (and political), especially at top strategy consulting firms such as McKinsey, Bain, and BCG. Top performers are rewarded whilst those that struggle to keep up with the pace will find it difficult to progress. This approach increases the reputation of senior consultants as it is deemed to be difficult to reach the higher levels of the pyramid.
Once manager and director grades are reached, the definition of good performance also changes, and promotions are increasingly based on commercial outcomes (amount of business won). This means that it can be easier to progress in industries that are growing or going through significant amounts of change.
The typical entry points into the consulting pyramid are at the bottom (graduates), middle (MBA / Ph.D. / experienced hire), and the top (senior industry leader). Firms typically make these hires because at the bottom they need to replace those that have moved up, at the middle they want to bring in industry expertise or those with experience from elsewhere, and at the top, they need people that can win work from senior decision-makers in the industry.