Over the past three years we’ve observed the Strategy Consulting market diversify, with the inclusion of Digital, Data Analytics and Implementation practices alongside the traditional Strategy, Operations, and Transformation solutions that the leading consultancies have been offering to their clients. With the top tier strategy advisory firms branching out into these new service offerings there is now an even bigger opportunity for some of the boutique strategy consultancies to acquire some of the market’s top strategy talent. Why? What is so attractive about some of the leading strategy boutique advisory firms? Furthermore, how can such boutique strategy advisory houses attract and retain talent for their practices?
There are several advantages that boutique strategy consultancies have over their larger competitors:
Entrepreneurship is quite the overused term within consulting and sometimes an eye-rolling cliché. Many graduates become consultants expecting some entrepreneurial element to their work but soon realise that while new ideas are encouraged, it’s proven methods and repeatable success that are of highest value to the client.
However, boutique consulting firms, who tend to work with smaller clients who require innovation in their market to excel, provide a true entrepreneurial platform. This consists of helping employees to be more innovative in their solutions for clients at an early Consultant / Associate level. In fact, as consultants within a boutique consultancy find themselves less restricted by internal processes, rules and entrenched methodologies, they have the flexibility to be more productive and innovative.
The other side of that coin is that sometimes the roles within the boutique consultancies are not as clearly defined as within larger strategy consultancies. Fewer personnel available requires that sometimes Consultants will have to lead a project, but Managers may have to take the back seat on a project being led by a Principal or Partner, but might also get the chance to lead client relationships and pitches. For the right consultants, this allows the opportunity to take on ownership and responsibility that they simply wouldn’t get at the larger advisory firms.
Being a senior employee inside one of the leading boutique strategy firms, provides a real chance to build a clientele and practice within a short timeframe. It may be the chance to run a new service offering with supported collaboration from the current Partners, a new geographical practice or the chance to build a team and manage the P&L of such a practice.
Within some of the larger consulting firms there is relentless bureaucracy to traverse through to execute the decision-making process. In contrast, many of the boutique consultancies were founded by ex-employees of larger organisations to allow them to be more reactive and flexible. This is a refreshing change for consultants moving to a boutique when they need to make decisions future growth or planning for their internal practice. Some of the boutique advisory firms offer a more dynamic rapidly changing environment and flexibility for consultants with less restrictions around pricing and staffing models on client project bids.
Understanding the internal structures and limits of the Advisory arms of some of the Accounting and Audit firms is helpful when attracting top tier talent. Senior candidates who are thought leaders and specialists in a certain industry vertical are sometimes limited in the number of clients that they can approach due to conflicts with the Accounting or Audit side of the company. The smaller boutique firms are free from such client conflicts and commitments and this is a string that several of the Boutiques have pulled on to leverage and secure the strategy talent from the Big 4 firms throughout the market.
Boutique consultancies have more white space to work in. Whilst this alone is not an attraction to all candidates, for the right entrepreneurial candidate, and with the backing and right structure around him, white space can be an exciting prospect. Ambitious consultants want ownership of a practice they’ve grown themselves, or to be part of an innovative team which is creating new service offerings or delving into new parts of the industry. Considering this aspect combined with the nimbleness of some of the leading boutiques who range from 50 to 3000+ employees, consultants find the happy medium of the support and collaboration around them, with the white space to explore - creating, driving and building in the boutique consulting world.
Specialisation & Intellectual Capital
Whilst specialisation within a functional area or industry may not be enough to attract top tier strategy talent, Intellectual Capital and of course, a current client portfolio within that industry sector is a sure step towards securing some of the leading candidates in the market.
Examples of functional specialisation include Implementation (hands-on delivery), Restructuring, Procurement, and Digital Transformation.
Some consultants at the top tier strategy consultancies have already specialised in an industry sector, such as Financial Services, and wish to further specialise in a specific sector within Financial Services like Wealth Management, Asset Management, or Corporate Banking. Some boutique firms help candidates further develop such a specialisation, helping such consultants to become market leaders within their industry sectors.
A top tier consultant will see the value proposition of a boutique consultancy more attractive if they see a combination of an industry specialisation with the opportunity to further specialise within the industry sector, and/or on functional areas of expertise. Keep in mind the long-term goal of most strategy consultants is to take on a CXO position at a large corporation. To be a viable candidate for such a role they need to be viewed as an expert in that industry and have a wide functional understanding beyond just strategy.
Successful boutique consultancies publish intellectual capital which clearly identifies them as the experts within their industry sector. Such intellectual capital is attractive to prospective employees seeking a consulting employer who shares their passion for that industry sector, and will help them develop into a subject matter expert backed by a brand that is respected within that industry.
A factor easily overlooked is work/life balance. It’s good to understand that a good number of younger consultants’ love time on the road, visiting new cities, new clients every month, meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures. However, this excitement is often replaced by a desire for some work-life balance by those in their late 20’s and early 30’s due to family and other life commitments. The usual response to this is to leave consulting and join an organisation with more stable work hours and less travel.
However, many consultants who still enjoy consulting, overlook the opportunity to join a consultancy where there is a better work/life balance. Some boutique consultancies have built a model to gain a healthful balance, enabling their consultants to stay longer in consulting. Elements such as a guaranteed percentage of work in your home city, working from home on Thursdays and Fridays, and limited overnight stays, are attractive. In contrast some strategy consultancies are working on client sites up to 18 hours per day, 5 days a week. They fly home Friday night and back out again on Sunday. Some find themselves working late at night completing paperwork which is required to support the consulting process but not necessary for the end client.
Lifestyle balance can also be better achieved through programs such as designated time-out for exercise, working hour flexibility, and help for those with younger families.
The leading strategic consultancies focus their client development on the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 C-Suite. This leaves many medium-sized companies in high growth markets as clients for the boutique strategy consultancies. This type of client is attractive to consultants because their work can have high impact, allowing them to put their strategy plans into action and see the bottom line results. Some consultants from the top tier consultancies are frustrated when their medium and long-term strategic plans get shelved by clients who don’t always execute such strategy, or the consultants aren’t around to see it happen.
Boutique strategy advisory houses also often work with Private Equity funds, partnering with them on delivering results for their portfolios through short-term strategy and operational improvement. This is viewed as interesting work by most strategy consultants, seeing the opportunity to further develop their skills and experience, and carry out high-impact short-term work.
Structure and Growth Opportunities
Being part of a smaller company that has a less ‘corporate’ feel about it can be attractive to some candidates.
Another advantage of the boutique set up is compensation structure. Models which reward those who contribute to business and client development, higher sales based commission, and bonus model based on individual performance rather than company performance, are attractive to many.
With less employees and the encouragement of organic growth of internal consultant talent pools, boutiques can offer a faster track to Partnership based on key performance measurements. In general, at the leading strategy consulting firms, from entry point Analyst level to making full Equity Partner can take anywhere between 10 to 14 years whilst being part of a smaller consultancy can somewhat decrease the timeline to Partnership for high performers.
Being part of a smaller management consultancy can bring further advantages some of which include getting your voice heard internally. A chance to speak with and share your ideas and opinions with your Managing Partner isn’t uncommon even at an Associate or Manager level. Having that interaction with the Leadership team can make all the difference in acquiring some of the top tier talent in the marketplace.
Within a select number of countries, some of the top tier consultancies suffer from top-heavy pyramids with Principal level candidates having to wait for several years at the same position with no promotion despite meeting the qualifications for entry-level Partnership. Such Principal level candidates would qualify for Partnership at some of the smaller boutique set ups and could be given the opportunity to take on a leadership role whilst being able to keep themselves and their family in their home country. Their own firm may only offer them a Partner opportunity if they relocate to a growth region. This of course has a knock-on effect for Manager / Project Leader level consultants in the same top tier firms who are due promotion to Principal and so on.
Due to their size, most of the larger strategy advisory consultancies have natural geographical restrictions on where their employees can develop their clients before they are infringing on another Partners’ clientele. However due to their smaller nature, Partners in strategy boutiques have a wider geographic responsibility, something that sits well with those consultants who are currently part of the top tier firms who feel restricted by their current firms’ boundaries.
The Corporate Strategy Development teams in Corporation are littered with ex-management consultants who left the consulting sector for a taste of the corporate world. A proportion of these return to the consulting space, however they often find that rarely does their time spent in the corporate world get credited toward their climb back up the consulting ladder. In contrast, many of the boutique consultancies who focus on a niche sector can credit this industry experience toward the candidate’s new position.
All factors discussed above make boutique strategy consultancies a highly attractive place for consultants wanting a new career challenge. Andersen Steinberg work with many of the most reputable boutique consultancies in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia Pacific.