What’s the difference between an “associate consultant,” “business analyst,” or “associate”? Short answer: not much.
In terms of responsibilities and time in role, the roles at the top three consulting firms (McKinsey, Bain, and BCG) are very similar.
The Analyst and Associate Levels: Early-Career In Strategy Consulting
In the early days, top consulting firms were led by people who had careers in other industries and specific expertise. As the scale and ambition of these firms increased, they needed more people to do the work and needed to develop internal pipelines of future partners. This meant they needed to hire younger people and train them.
Most of that hiring still happens at the grad-school level. While this used to mean mostly MBAs, all of these firms now hire PhDs, law grads, and people from other disciplines. No matter how much experience someone has (sometimes it’s only 1-2 years, other times it’s 10-15 years), everyone starts at the same level. So you might have a project where the Partner is 35 and is overseeing a project leader who is 28 in charge of three junior colleagues: a Ph.D. in neuroscience who is 36, an industry expert that’s 40, and a new grad consultant who’s fresh out of college.
The thing that makes this work is that the consulting process in these firms is a completely different way of working than you find in other industries. It’s often the case that the junior team members fresh out of college are able to adapt a lot easier than the seasoned expert.
Strategy Consulting Firms Hire Entry-Level Consultants, But Typically Less Than Grad School Hires
While all of these firms hire at the entry level, competition for these spots is much fiercer than it is for spots out of grad school. For example, when I was in the Boston office of Boston Consulting Group, it seemed like there were 8-9 entry-level “associates” each year compared to 30-50 “consultants” (or more). These numbers are always going up but the ratio is probably still somewhat the same.
While consulting firms get a lot of flak for hiring young people without any experience, this is actually the bread and butter of what makes these top firms so strong. Most partner and senior leaders started at the entry-level (either out of undergrad or after grad school) and have worked in every single job on the career ladder. This means they deeply understand how the firm works, how it makes money, and the different types of skills needed. It’s no surprise that places like McKinsey have much stronger cultures than other mid-tier firms that hire people at the senior level from a wide range of places.
Each Role Is About Two Years (and at Bain it’s three)
The tenure in role is most defined at the earliest points in the career path. For the post-undergraduate and post-graduate roles, the average time in tenure is about two years.
However, there is a lot of variation, especially across the globe. This often has to do with different educational timelines and labor requirements. For example, in Germany, there are often “fellow” positions that combine some form of Academic work with project-based work.
In the US, it’s mostly two years and two years separated by grad school.
Most people go to grad school because they want the experience AND the firms often promise to reimburse anyone who returns to the firm. Grad school is not a requirement but more of an accepted norm because so many people follow that path.
If you really wanted to jump from Business Analyst to Associate at McKinsey for example, that is definitely a possible path if you are a top performer. In this case, you likely would have to spend an additional six months or year in the BA role and it might come with the title “Senior Business Analyst.” At McKinsey and BCG this is more of an exception than the rule.
At Bain, this third year is more of a norm and often people spend a full year in Bain’s famous private equity practice (not to be confused with Bain Capital, but the firms do overlap a lot on the companies they work with). Generally, it seems as if Bain’s career path is the longest but more on that at a big
When Do Most Consultants Leave Consulting? The First “Exit Path” Is About Two Years After Grad School
One weird thing about the strategy consulting industry is that many people join the industry with an intention to leave.
About 2-3 years after getting hired in the Associate, Consultant, and Consultant roles, people start planning their next move.
The reasons are varied but the most common is that there are better options, the lifestyle is too demanding, or the person simply wasn’t a good fit at the firm or for the type of work.
The shift from the post-graduate position which focuses on data analysis and execution to the project manager position is the hardest in consulting. This is when many people realize that managing diverse teams while solving complex, ambiguous problems is either not something they are good at or it’s not something they want to be good at.
The Project Management and Pre-Partner Roles
While many people leave after a couple years, the most ambitious and most aligned with consulting work spend multiple years in the “project leader” role: engagement manager at McKinsey, project leader at BCG, or manager/senior manager at Bain.
This role is the “middle manager” of a consulting team and is responsible for leading and supporting the junior team members while also trying to work with the Principal or Partner to make sure that the project is aligned with the client’s expectations. It’s often seen as the hardest role in the firm because it’s the first time being hands-on with the client while also managing other people for the first time. This is a make-or-break role for many it it convinces many that a long-term career in consulting is not for them.
Bain has two roles at the project manager level – Manager and Senior Manager. People typically stay in the Manager role anywhere from 6 to 18 months and then typically 30 months in the Senior Manager role. This is contrasted to BCG and McKinsey where they have a more standard 2-3 years at project leader before getting promoted to Principal.
According to a friend at Bain, if you had experience as an Associate Consultant and were seen as good, you can typically skip the Manager role and go directly to Senior Manager after consultant.
Of course, these are norms and you can find all sorts of variations across global offices and within different practice groups.
The Last Step Before Partner: The “Principal” Role
If you succeed at the project leader level and decide to keep going, you’ll spend anywhere from 1-4 years at the Principal level. There are slight differences in name. At McKinsey it’s Associate Principal or “AP,” at BCG it’s simply Principal and at Bain it’s Associate Partner.
This role is even more demanding than the project leader role and the consultant will have up to three or four projects at once. This is compared to the single project that most people work on up until this point.
This role typically involves a lot of travel and a lot of juggling of priorities. Given that people have already proven that they can handle the pressures of the firm in terms of work at the project leader role, this is probably more focused on whether or not the person can cut it in terms of lifestyle, staying energized, and finding a niche where they might be able to grow as a leader.
In addition to client work, consultants are pressured to develop a “spike” or topic expertise where they can become a go-to person for many clients in the future. This can often be a hard shift for people. In addition to pleasing internal stakeholders and doing the work well, they need to start communicating ideas in a way that will gain buy-in externally and throughout the firm. This involves writing articles, doing additional research, and developing new approaches to client problems.
If you aren’t able to make it to Partner you are typically supported by the firms in a search for external roles. This isn’t as bad as you’d think though as most people are able to find great roles at clients or companies at the Vice President level or higher.
How Long Does It Take To Make Partner at BCG, Bain & McKinsey?
If you were to enter the firms at the entry-level and not leave for grad school, you could theoretically make it to Partner in as little as seven years at McKinsey or eight years at BCG or Bain. If you entered after graduate school, you could do it in as little as about six years.
Within Bain, it is known that the extra manager role means it takes a bit longer. A lot of people complain about this within the company. However, having worked at McKinsey and BCG, one thing they might be missing is that sometimes people hang out at the pre-partner Principal role a bit longer. I knew people that had spent more than four years at Principal at BCG.
McKinsey is probably the most aggressive with it’s up or out policy and thus it’s probably the shortest time to become partner. But it’s also probably the hardest place to make partner.
Far too many young ambitious types worry about the “partner track.” The treality is that 70-80% of people who start at the first two roles will have left the firm before making it to the pre-partner level.
What are Partners called at Bain, BCG & McKinsey?
While legally all the senior most people at the three firms are known as “Partner” – meaning they own a share of the company – they have different titles.
At McKinsey, there is “Partner” and then for distinguished long-term leaders there is Director. Typically only Partner is used externally.
At Boston Consulting Group, Partners are known as “Managing Directors” and then if they have been in that role 5-10 years they might get promoted to Senior Managing Director. Externally, on LinkedIn, most Partners list their role as “Managing Director and Partner.”
At Bain it is similar to McKinsey. They are known as Partner externally but can be promoted to Director internally.
Additional Leadership Roles For Partners
There are a lot more distinctions that a Partner can achieve internally such as sector or function leader, executive committee, regional leaders, and so on. This works like any other company that has leadership teams. The most ambitious Partners may one day attempt to become the firmwide Managing Director. This is a bit confusing because at McKinsey it is called “Managing Director” but at BCG they name the head person, “CEO.”
At each of the firms, this person is typically elected to a multi-year “term” by the other Partners and can be re-elected multiple times. A good example of a trajectory of a Partner is Dominic Barton at McKinsey. He went from the head of the Korean office, to the head of Asia, to the head of the entire firm for nine years.
One unique thing about becoming Managing Director is that when your tenure is over you may simply return to being a “normal” partner within the firm. Though in reality, these people often have a lot of status and power within the company and are given unique roles and responsibilities. Hence, Barton being named, “Global Managing Partner Emeritus.”
Reviewing The Overall Career Trajectory
Overall the career paths at Bain, BCG and McKinsey are fairly similar and there are three distinct phases before making it to partner.
- Entry-level: in the “weeds” doing data analysis, deck development, slides & light client engagement,
- Project & Topic Leadership: leading teams & coaching, interfacing with clients and internal leaders, developing expertise in specific domains
- Firm & Client Leadership: Responsible for the leadership of the firm, ownership of functional or industry topics, development and ownership of internal team processes, and deep relationships with clients.
Watch The Video On This
If you’d like a little more context, I created a video walking through these paths and the subtle nuances across the firms.
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