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Woes Beset the Global Consulting Industry

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Sep 18, 2023


The expansion of the global consulting industry, propelled by increased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, has come to an "abrupt end, The Financial Times reported.

The industry, which generates annual revenue of about $860 billion, according to U.S. research group IbisWorld, has now suffered from a retraction, as clients cut back in the face of an uncertain economy.

“We had the biggest consulting market ever,” Yazdi Deboo, a senior client partner at consultancy Korn Ferry, told the FT. “They had client work coming through the door, and understandably they hired.”

Now, thousands of jobs are being cut. More than 320 consultants working in the industry responded to a request from the FT to share their perspectives, with five clear themes emerging from the responses.

First is workload. While one-third reported having a decreased workload, others—particularly in North America and at big firms—had more work. Some said that they worked 60 to 70 hours a week to prove their worth. Others spoke of projects being delayed or cuts in areas such as acquisitions and private equity investments. Overall, more than 40 per cent of respondents to the callout said that their work-life balance had deteriorated.

Second is the desire to quit. One in three consultants said they hoped to be doing something else in five years’ time. In some cases that was because they were approaching retirement, but the sentiment came mostly from younger professionals. A 34-year-old engagement manager told the FT, “This is a job for partner[s and] a bunch of juniors. ... It makes no sense to work here unless you are on a partner track.”

Third, almost all of the respondents saw change coming in the form of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), but they did not fear being replaced by it. “At the end of the day, consulting is a people-focused business, and people trust people,” said one, while another said that “consultants thrive in times of change and ambiguity. That is exactly the opposite of AI models, which rehash existing solutions and content.”

Fourth, working patterns have also changed. While some lauded the flexibility of remote or hybrid work, others said that managing team members and clients had become more difficult. Some complained about blurring the boundaries between life and work. “Partners and clients tend to forget that behind a Teams meeting on their laptop on a Friday at 7 p.m. there are real people, who also have a family and a personal life,” one consultant from Paris complained to the FT.

Fifth, the respondents overwhelmingly rejected the premise that consulting is "a big con," as a recent book suggested. More than 70 percent said that they added value. "Management should be able to do most of our work. But they just can’t. Our society massively overestimates the median business exec,” one principal said. Another was more critical: “It’s premised on creating a dependency,” she said.

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