Going for growth: Top tips on how to build a strong consulting bench

Some consulting firms have been taking advantage of the economic environment to strengthen their businesses through mergers and acquisitions. Whilst firms may add specific new capabilities through acquisitions, it will typically be hiring that most consulting firms will choose to build on their core capabilities. As the market and opportunities for candidates improves, retention will become a more pressing challenge and firms will give greater focus and investment towards their talent acquisition and retention.

Having specialised in management consultancy for 10 years, Mindbench understands the strategies that different consulting firms use to attract, select and retain the best candidates. We have distilled six suggestions on how consulting firms can select, retain and motivate the best consulting candidates:
1.      Take time to get to know your candidates and new recruits  
It is important to get to know the personality and “soft skills” of a new recruit and for them to get to know your firm and evaluate whether or not they fit, which is often difficult through a standard formal interview process.
We have seen some strategy firms have an “informal” dinner at the beginning before any interviews are decided upon. This has built trust and interest, which helps sustain candidates through what can be a long process. Other firms have had a dinner at the end of the process, and this has paid dividends. It also provides a useful way for consulting firms to see how candidates handle more informal situations.
2.      Foster an open and honest dialogue about what the firm can and can’t offer
Alongside understanding the motivations of candidates is a need to be honest about what the consultancy can offer.
In the case that hires don’t work out it is typically either because the candidate is underperforming or there is a mismatch between the candidate's underlying motivations / aspirations and what the consulting firm can realistically deliver. Some simple issues around transport and work flexibility need to be fully explored. Consulting firms need to fairly represent (and communicate via their recruitment agents) the travel flexibility which is required from the candidate. Sometimes firms will over-emphasise a particular type of work they do to get candidates excited, but this can be counter-productive if the candidate is then found to not enjoy the main work of the firm.
3.      Don’t use academic achievements as a proxy of learning ability
Academic achievements are a poor proxy for learning ability. This is because exams are often effectively “memory tests” for past thinking and problem solving, and so are what we would call ‘crystallised intelligence’. Consulting firms often use case studies to show a candidate’s problem solving ability (‘fluid intelligence’) and we recommend that clients use some form of aptitude testing to show a candidate's learning capability (and preferred learning style).
4.      Not all recruits are the same
Too often, large firms fail to identify the potential stars from their recruits and don't give them the support and mentoring to progress quickly in the organisation. Large management consultancies hire hundreds of graduates. Whilst they will all contribute, there is a smaller number that will really make a very significant impact to the business if they are developed well.  
5.      Be a champion of diversity and it will pay dividends
The ratio of men to women in consulting firms at entry level is broadly equal across the industry, but it is widely known that the percentage of women falls dramatically after manager grade. We have seen some consulting firms being successful in requiring less travel for mothers returning to work, and providing support and mentoring to manager and senior manager female consultants.
6.      Offer opportunities for secondments and career breaks
Many candidates say that they leave consulting firms to join industry because they want to have “line management experience”, P&L responsibility or to make a longer term impact, which they cannot typically do within the project-to-project matrix consulting environment. Other candidates want the excitement of a start-up, or to “give something back” by working in a charity or social enterprise. It has often puzzled me why consulting firms don’t offer these opportunities to their consultants who are looking for them, via their client networks. Whilst the loss of a good consulting resource in the short term may seem counter-intuitive, this would surely be better than the alternative of many consultants leaving permanently to join industry. We do see a few consulting firms embracing this approach and actively encouraging their team to take these opportunities, enriching the consultants’ experience, enhancing retention and potentially building client relationships further as well.
Richard Stewart, The Managing Director of Mindbench would welcome a discussion with you on the consulting market and how we could help your firm grow. Please email richard@mindbench.co.uk