Consulting Career Path – Roles, Salary, Progression

Consulting has a reputation for being a good industry to build a career. Many consultants will stay in consulting their whole career whilst others will leverage it as a stepping-stone into other industries or sectors.

This article looks at the organizational structure of consulting firms, the roles, and responsibilities at each layer, the salary expectations, and the exit opportunities the consulting industry provides. 

Table of Contents

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.


Firm Structure Overview

Junior Roles in Consulting

In the first four years of consulting you are responsible for delivering the content and analysis. This is regarded as the ‘heavy lifting’ and tasks too time-consuming for the expensive resources to carry out. The first part of most projects involves data gathering whether in the form of client interviews, scouring the internet, or sifting client data.

For large consultancies, there is no limit on the types of projects that junior resources can work on, however, in boutique firms that are already specialized it is possible that you will specialize by default. As a general rule, greater specialization and industry knowledge are expected the more senior the consultant is and so juniors will be required to specialize as they move closer to promotion.

As juniors are building out the data and analysis of projects they are usually staffed full-time on a single project at a time. As the average project length for strategy consultants is c. 8 weeks and management consultants is 6 months – 1 year it translates into roughly 6 and 2 projects a year respectively.

Consulting Managers

At the manager level, consultants are expected to have a good level of industry knowledge and exemplary consultant skills in order to manage both the client relationship and the junior team members. Whilst junior resources have to conduct heavy analysis or research, they will be responsible for the overall output. This often means providing guidance for junior team members on where they might find the right information and how to carry out the necessary analysis. It will also mean reviewing and iterating the work of the junior team members. Good managers will work with their junior team members to improve their work in order to upskill them and improve their technical skills.

As a consultant becomes more senior they will have more interactions with the client. Maintaining a good client relationship is an essential skill for consultants as often the client holds the information needed to carry out the necessary analysis in order to reach meaningful conclusions. On a day-to-day basis, the project manager will be the person interacting with the client and working with them on the project hence why managers in some firms are called engagement managers, as they are the ones engaging with the client.

Partners and Directors in Consulting Firms

At the top of the pyramid, the job role changes from delivery to two key responsibilitiesrevenue generation and industry expertise. Companies pay consultants to provide specialist skills and expertise that they do not have in-house. To trust that a consultancy is going to do a good job they want to be confident that they possess the expertise and competency to deliver what they need. This means that companies want to purchase work from the expert. In a consulting firm that is the partner. Partners are the sales force of a consulting firm and each one is expected to bring in revenue to the business. Often directors are only promoted to the role of partner if they demonstrate the amount of revenue they have and will bring into the firm that wouldn’t be generated otherwise.

Another responsibility of senior team members is to provide their industry and consulting expertise in an advisory capacity to the project team. There will be knowledge that they have that is required to complete analysis and research that more junior team members do not possess and cannot find using other research methods. This insight and expertise are extremely valuable to the client and it is what they expect from a consulting firm.

The final responsibility of partners and directors is quality assurance. They will sign off on deliverables and analysis before being sent to the client. This sense check will ensure that the content or point of view is in line with the client's expectations and comes across as a robust point of view that is valuable to the client.

Roles Overview

Unsurprisingly salaries increase as consultants progress up the pyramid. Salaries at the bottom layer are generous, ranging between $40,000 and $100,000 base, and will increase 20-30% at each level up to partner.

At the partner level, it is typical that consultants are invited into the firm partnership. This corporate structure means that partners will receive a proportion of the firm’s profits based on their personal revenues and the wider company revenues for the year.

Salaries vary depending on a number of factors such as location and firm. For further analysis on consulting salaries see our articles about salary in the UK and salary in the US.

Pyramid structures exist in most businesses and by their nature mean that not everyone can progress up the pyramid. This results in employees often leaving at every level.

Consulting is renowned for offering a broad range of exit opportunities for employees and is a popular career choice for people uncertain what it is exactly that they want to move into. The easiest transition a strategy consultant can make it into an internal strategy team for a company or into private equity as the skill set is directly transferable.

However, consulting alumni have gone on to become CEO at some of the world’s largest businesses, politicians, start-up founders, industry experts, and more.

Some notable consulting alumni are:

  • Sheryl Sandberg – ex-McKinsey – COO of Facebook

  • Sundar Pichai – ex-McKinsey – CEO of Alphabet and Google

  • John Legend – ex-BCG – Emmy, Grammy, and Oscar award-winning musician

  • Mitt Romney – ex-Bain – 2012 Republican president nominee

  • John Donahoe – ex-Bain – CEO of Nike

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