Authors: Vaidehi Agarwalla, Jakob Grabaak & Alexandre Lichy
As a management consultant, you will likely have acquired a broad range of skills that are useful in different sectors and roles. Consulting can provide some great exit opportunities, so it’s important to consider how to leverage your career capital to have more impact when you leave.
This article is based on interviews, inputs and feedback from over 15 consultants currently pursuing high impact careers. While we primarily interviewed consultants from top strategy consulting firms, some of the advice may also apply to the Big 4 accounting firms or local boutique consulting firms. We recommend readers do some independent research as well.
This article is part of a sequence of posts providing career advice on how to maximize your social impact as a consultant. In previous posts, we discussed how to begin your consulting career, and how to have an impact during your time in consulting. This sequence is a project of the Effective Altruism and Consulting Network (EACN). It does not represent the views of any firms mentioned nor that of all of the contributors.
3.0 Key Ideas
- The case for staying in consulting is that your influence and earnings (but not necessarily learning) continue to increase steeply over time (Read more)
- You may want to leave consulting because you have good exit opportunities; you can achieve a more sustainable lifestyle in a different job; you will get fewer great opportunities to learn or specialize in your prioritized cause areas if you stay (Read more)
- Exit options for consultants include non-profit entrepreneurship, operational or strategic roles in EA-aligned organizations, empirical global prioritization research, working to influence the government or other large organizations, and working for EA consultancies (Read more)
3.1 Is there a case for staying in consulting long-term?
The consulting industry typically has high turnover rates of 15-20%. This means that the majority of consultants choose to leave after only a few years, typically citing opportunities to pursue exciting options outside of consulting as a key reason. That being said, we think that it could be valuable for some EAs to pursue consulting careers long-term, for the following reasons:
- Direct impact: If you reach the partner level your influence increases significantly. Keep in mind that it is still possible to engage with partners and have some influence even with a few years of experience (read more).
- You are pursuing earning-to-give for funding-constrained causes: While the earning potential is quite high, to get to those earning levels you would need to reach the partner level which could take around 10 years. Your earnings potential as a entry-level partner is ~$500,000 to $1M USD, and as a senior-level partner (after 15+ years) could be ~$1M to $5M USD (the median is $1 to $2 million). Amounts are variable due to bonuses, geography and company. If you’re interested in longtermist causes Earning-to-Give has become relatively less impactful for people who may be good fits for direct work. 80,000 Hours estimates the value of an additional leader doing direct work such as running organisations or projects, generating scalable project ideas or grantmaking could be approximately USD $3-10M. If you’re considering earning-to-give, as a consulting partner it may take you 6-20 years to “break even” (assuming you donate $500k/year, and otherwise would’ve been a good fit for those senior roles) . Further, each leader will require several more people in more junior or supporting roles, such as “research assistants, operations specialists, marketers, ML engineers, people executing on … projects”. They say the value of an additional person in these roles could be approximately $400,000–$4 million per year.
- Building a strong EA network at your firm: You can grow the EA network within your firm and engage other managers and partners in EA ideas. As you advance in your career, especially at the partner level, your professional network will get much stronger, as you will interact with a broader and more senior group of people. It can take time to settle in among a group of industry practitioners and experts to build solid client relationships. You can then use your professional credibility and connections to advocate for EA to colleagues and clients and build a network of EA-aligned people.
- Unlocking even better exit opportunities: Staying in consulting until the manager level can open up new exit opportunities such as mid-level management positions in large organizations (big corporations, large nonprofits, or governmental organizations) or top-level management positions in small organizations (typically startups or potentially smaller EA-aligned organizations). Staying until the partner level can open up executive positions at large organizations as well (such as your client’s organizations).
3.2 When is the right time to leave consulting?
Some of the key reasons to consider leaving consulting would be:
- You get an excellent exit opportunity
- Staying is unsustainable for you because of work/life balance or other considerations
- There are decreasing marginal returns to spending an additional year in consulting when you could be getting more in-depth skills, experience or networks elsewhere. This could be because you are offered a good exit opportunity (see below), or that you need to actively seek one out.
It may be difficult to plan out and be very strategic about the right time to leave in advance. Therefore, it can be useful to pay attention to the exit options available to you, and check in every 6 months or so (or more frequently if you’re able to) about whether staying is the right option for you. It may also be worth setting aside time for an annual review, such as this one by Benjamin Todd of 80,000 Hours.
3.3 Which exit options could you take?
You will have many options when leaving consulting, even as a junior consultant. Which one you pick will depend on the causes you think are the most important, and which career paths you think you have the best fit for.
The following are some concrete examples of paths you could pursue. They are not comprehensive, but we hope they can illustrate the many ways you could have an impact.
If you are an entrepreneurial EA with a quantitative consulting edge you are well-positioned to start your own charity. Check out Probably Good’s career profile on this career path and Charity Entrepreneurship’s incubation program for more information.
“One of the key skills when starting a new charity is decision making and doing (applied) research. Working in consulting makes you comfortable breaking down complex research questions into smaller parts (e.g. making Fermi estimates or building a multi-factor decision model in Excel). These are very useful skills when you want to research a neglected cause area or want to pick the most effective intervention after you picked a cause area. Within the CE [Charity Entrepreneurship Incubation] program, there is plenty of room to learn these skills, but I really felt that I had a headstart compared to other participants in the program.” - Jan-Willem van Putten, Charity Entrepreneurship Incubation Program Participant 2021
Work in management, strategy, operations or M&E at EA-aligned organisations
Many EA roles can be as competitive as top consulting firms - so it’s important to have backup options - but it’s definitely worth applying because in general EA organisations find it difficult to recruit for roles that require more senior candidates and those with management experience. Consultants working full-time at EA organisations said that the transition was positive, and they found their new roles challenging and fun. They also had more autonomy and flexibility over their work.
“My consulting experience prepared me well for the role I went into at the Future of Humanity Institute and Global Priorities Institute. And I have not only had more impact working directly on problems I care about but also it's been so much more fun! It seems wild to look back and think I spent so much time in the corporate world.” - Habiba Islam, 80,000 Hours.
Empirical Global Priorities Research
As a consultant, you may be a good fit for empirical global priorities research. In consulting, you get exposure to top decision-makers, their thinking and how to communicate with them. You also learn how leading organizations make decisions. On the experience side, a lot of analytical work in consulting is about figuring out "what's big and what's small" or "what's tractable or not" - which are useful reflexes to have in prioritization research - breaking difficult, complex issues into sub-questions.
Position yourself to have influence in corporations, institutions and governments
Consultants have the skill sets needed to work for some of the largest and most powerful corporations and institutions in the world. By joining these organisations, you may be able to exert some influence on the trajectory of these companies through insider advocacy. The reasons for this path are very similar to the reasons for staying in consulting long-term.
- Work for large corporations that deal with developing countries to improve trade, push for changes in corporate policies regarding animal welfare or navigate complex transformations such as conventional energy players transitioning to renewables.
One former consultant now works for Kraft Heinz as a key account manager for a large client. This is a role with potential for promotion into the senior leadership in the future. His experience from management consulting enabled him to be a competitive candidate for this role.
He noticed his local CEO was supportive of effective altruism-related ideas and reached out to discuss possible initiatives they could kickstart. Through his role he was able to engage with the senior level leadership on EA-related topics.
The CEO was very supportive of a plan to do a large fundraiser for a Founders’ Pledge recommended climate charity, Clean Air Task Force (as of August 2021 it has been postponed due to COVID-19). The former consultant is also in talks with his local CEO to make their global ESG strategy more EA-aligned.
- Work as a grant manager to influence corporate philanthropy. Large corporations donate billions of dollars to various causes, influencing even a small percentage of these donations could be incredibly impactful.
- Work for large international institutions that determine global development strategies such as the World Bank, or in national governments influencing development budgets or trade policies with developing countries.
- If you work at financial institutions you could steer investments towards sectors with potential for positive societal impact. In some countries, Sovereign Wealth Funds are incredibly influential and you could influence large investments (e.g. Norway, The Netherlands, Singapore). For more on responsible investing, check out total-portfolio.org/.
|An ex-BCG consultant developed a market study with a venture capital firm focused on alternative proteins. After the project, she decided to move to the client organization to help the alternative protein market grow.|
Found or work for an EA consultancy
As the EA movement grows, one interesting future opportunity is a need for EA consultancies as EA organisations often require services that are difficult to hire for. Possibly services the consultancy offers could include research, marketing, operations and more. You can read more about this idea here.
Considering how to have an impact with your consulting career? Reach out to members of the EACN if you are unsure if staying in consulting is still the most impactful career path. We offer networking opportunities with a broad network of EA aligned consultants.
Would add to the list:
Organizations I talked to, which seem to be especially excited about hiring former consultants (and also have many) include OpenPhil, Charity Entrepreneurship and the Centre for Effective Altruism (not speaking on their behalf though)
Thanks Jona, agree! Also, many EA orgs seem to be experiencing growth pains at the moment, I think the case for helping them scale (in ops/mgt roles) is stronger than ever. Some consulting firms also allow their employees to do temporary (paid or unpaid) secondments with selected non-profits, which could be one way of exploring if this path is a fit.
There seems to be something missing in this paragraph: "If you work at financial institutions you could steer investments towards sectors with potential for positive societal impact. In some countries, Sovereign Wealth Funds are incredibly influential and you could influence large investments (e.g. Norway, The Netherlands, Singapore). For more on responsible investing, check out the ...."
Edited, thanks for catching that Mojmir!
Thanks! I think we meant to refer to https://total-portfolio.org/
Perhaps also some of Ellen Quigley's work on Universal Ownership https://www.cser.ac.uk/team/ellen-quigley/
Thank you for this post!
Would add this plug for ex-consultants interested in GCBRs and global health interventions: consider opportunities at well-resourced academic health systems. Examples in North America include Cleveland Clinic, Mass General Brigham (the umbrella for many of Harvard Medical School's teaching hospitals), Mayo Clinic, UCSF, and UHN in Ontario.
To pick one institution: if you go to this Jobs page and enter "strategy" in the keyword search, a number of roles oriented toward ex-consultants and/or those with MBAs and other business experience will pop up.
This list may give an idea of other opportunities in your region: https://www.newsweek.com/best-hospitals-2021