Andrew*, a 63-year-old partner at a small UK consultancy, found himself with too much free time and too little cash. Shamb, a 32-year-old associate management consultant in India, has the opposite complaint: His hours have increased dramatically as clients demand more work for the same fee.

Sierra, a 23-year-old co-worker in New York, feels “terrible” pressure to work so she doesn’t get fired.

The experiences of these employees illustrate the unique challenges faced by the global consulting industry, which has annual revenues of approximately $860 billion, according to US research group IbisWorld.

A profession built to help others cope with disruption has benefited from a surge in demand during the Covid-19 pandemic and has expanded accordingly. But that ended abruptly as clients from banks to technology companies cut back on advisory spending amid economic uncertainty.

“We have the largest consulting market ever. They have client work to do, so they hire them, understandably.” Yazdi Deb, senior client partner at consulting firm Korn Ferry (Yazdi Deboo) said.

Now, companies from Accenture to Ernst & Young and McKinsey are laying off thousands of jobs. Valuations of consultancies are falling – one of the reasons Ernst & Young scrapped its Everest program to separate its accounting and consulting units – while the industry’s reputation is under attack from scandals including corporate misconduct in South Africa.

Korn Ferry latest survey A survey from Consulting Partners North America shows the level of employee anxiety. Nearly 60% of respondents expect demand to decrease and cost pressure to increase in the coming year. More than 80% are worried there won’t be enough jobs, and almost half expect further layoffs.

Deboo said that while there was optimism about the industry’s long-term future, “it was a bit of a washout” after the boom period. Many individual industry members are experiencing burnout.

To gain a wider understanding of how the upheaval is transforming a profession that employs millions and affects multinational companies and governments, the Financial Times asked readers across the sector about their experiences.

The industry’s concerns were reflected in more than 320 responses received from consultants in Sweden, Singapore, Texas and Kazakhstan. Five clear themes stood out.

workload

Less than a third of consultants say they are working less now than last year. It’s not a scene of an industry in free fall, but it helps explain the anxiety. Many consultants who said they were working longer hours attributed the change to corporate layoffs.

Changes in workload are not evenly distributed: North American consultants and those working at the largest firms are most likely to say they have more work.

Some consultants say they work 60 to 70 hours a week to prove their worth. “I work harder to attract clients because the workload is less than before,” said one managing partner.

Those working fewer hours spoke of projects being delayed or curtailed in areas such as acquisitions and private equity investments. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years and this is one of the worst times I’ve ever seen,” said Matthew, a user experience consultant from London.

This echoes Korn Ferry’s findings. Six months ago, U.S. advisers were most concerned about meeting demand, the report said. “Now, people seem to be asking, ‘How do I keep all the teams busy?'”

Analysts at William Blair found that consulting job postings fell 63% year-on-year in September to the lowest level on record. Source Global Research found that new areas such as artificial intelligence are still growing, but more than three-quarters of U.S. clients have canceled at least some projects.

Overall, more than 40% of respondents said their work-life balance had deteriorated. While there’s a lot of focus on Gen Z’s workload issues, baby boomers are just as worried about work-life balance.

The reasons for concern varied: nearly three-quarters of the group complained about having too much to do; but about one in 10 said they had too little. “There’s no work to balance now,” complained one packaging specialist in Glasgow.

Want to quit smoking

For those who run advisory firms, perhaps the most concerning response to the survey is that a third of advisors said they wanted to be doing something else within five years. In some cases, this is because they are retiring, but more often, these messages come from young professionals.

Some people see consulting as a stepping stone to a career in the industry they consult for. But one 25-year-old vice president said it was “not a rewarding long-term career.” A 34-year-old project manager was even more blunt: “This is the job of the partners and a group of junior employees…”. . There’s no point in working here unless you’re a partner. “

Of the roughly half who plan to continue working in consulting, many describe it as a diverse and rewarding job. This echoes what BDO USA’s chief executive told the Financial Times in May: the accounting firm was finding it harder to recruit graduates to work in auditing because “they thought the consulting world would be more exciting”.

“The reward is feedback from clients…” said Nathan Owen Rosenberg, 71, a founding partner of a small U.S. firm. “I’ve been consulting for 38 years, and every day Tap dancing to work.”

The threat of artificial intelligence

This summer, McKinsey launched a generative artificial intelligence platform called Lilli, which promises to scour years of playbooks, case studies and research to predict issues, test arguments and allow employees to spend more time with clients.

Nearly every consultant who responded to the call believes that some of their work could be done through such models in the future, but few anticipate the massive upheaval AI will cause. Most expected some change but saw it as a complement to what they were doing rather than a threat.

“At the end of the day, consulting is a people-oriented business, and people trust people,” one person said. Another noted, “Consultants thrive in times of change and ambiguity. This is the exact opposite of AI models, which reexamine existing solutions and content.”

Iliya Rybchin, a partner at a small New York firm, said artificial intelligence can take some basic tasks away from his team but cannot implement their recommendations. “The impact of consulting . . . comes from rolling up your sleeves and delivering change,” he said.

Illustration of a man standing in the water and pointing
©Maria Elgueta

Operating mode

When the pandemic hit, the consultancy business, built on face-to-face advice and frequent travel, had to overhaul its way of working overnight. “(I) went from 100 percent on-site to 99 percent remote,” said one project management office director.

Even as firms try to lure more consultants back to the office, some say the drastic reduction in travel has saved time. Peter, a tax partner in London, initially spent the time he no longer commuted at work, but later “reclaimed” the time from his employer to do more interesting things, such as walking his dog. “This ‘guilt-free flexibility’ continues,” he said.

Even so, there are lingering drawbacks to the shift to more remote work. Some say it’s difficult to manage team members and keep customers happy from a distance, leading to more transactional relationships and misunderstandings.

A 60-year-old partner from Los Angeles said her firm’s desire to bring in senior leaders “for cultural reasons” adds to the pressure.

Another concern is that the lines between work and home are “blurring”, with people needing to be on call 24/7 and becoming slaves to “exhausting” video conferencing tools.

“Partners and clients tend to forget that behind those Teams meetings on laptops at 7pm on a Friday night there are real people with families and personal lives,” complains a consultant in Paris.

Is this all a big scam?

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of counselors reject the idea (popularized in the book of the same name) that counseling is a “big scam.” More than 70% believe they add value.

“Management should be able to do most of our jobs. But they just can’t. Our society vastly overestimates the median business executive,” said one principal. Some people say that the reason counseling fails is because clients don’t listen.

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Transformation senior partner Michael says public sector clients “spend huge sums on consultants whose main skill is delivering presentations that give everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling that something is happening” but ultimately reject greatness idea.

Some said they provided important independent perspectives. One partner suggested that counseling may have similar long-term benefits as therapy: “Just like you wouldn’t have your partner or your mother as your therapist, a fresh third-party perspective is necessary.”

However, a minority of advisers are highly critical of the industry. “(I have) little confidence that our work will work,” one person said. “Half the time we are there to provide an ‘independent’ view on something that has already been decided.”

Another put it more bluntly: “It’s predicated on building dependence,” she said.

*Interviewees asked that their last names not be published

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