Consulting Firm Staffing Models: What Do They Mean For You?

Consulting Firm Staffing Models

Building the right team for each client engagement is the central purpose of a consulting firm staffing model. 

Each firm puts its unique spin on this vital process, and with each approach comes a distinct set of advantages and disadvantages.

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • What does consulting staffing entail?
  • Why is consulting staffing important for the firm and for you?
  • Factors that impact staffing at a consulting firm
  • The different ways that firms structure teams, including a look at the McKinsey, Bain, and BCG staffing models
  • 3 questions to ask yourself when deciding on a consulting staffing model (and, therefore, firm) that suits you

Let’s get started!

What is a Consulting Firm Staffing Model?

When a client confirms that they want support from a consulting firm, the first thing a firm does is pull together a team. 

Imagine that a retail company hires Bain to help them streamline their procurement processes, or a logistics company engages McKinsey to help them boost revenues. In either case, the firm will build a core team to work with the client to solve the most important issues.

The size of the core project team can vary, depending on the scope of the work, but at MBB firms (McKinsey, BCG, Bain), it is usually 2 to 5 people, with 1 manager leading the team and working with partners. This core team will work with the client day-to-day, and report to one or two partners, senior-level consultants who lead the relationship with the client. This team may be supplemented with non-core team members, such as specialists or expert advisors.

A consulting staffing model is the way that a consulting company pulls these teams together, and these models differ by firm. Despite these differences, which we will look at later, the importance of the staffing process is paramount for all consulting companies.

Answering What Are Consulting Firm Staffing Models

Why Are Consulting Staffing Models Important?

For a client project to succeed, the core team must have the right ingredients, but consultants also need the right client opportunities to develop professionally. 

Team skills and knowledge: First, the client team needs the necessary skills and knowledge to provide true insights to the client, including industry and functional expertise. For example, if the project is an organizational redesign at an investment bank, then the team should include senior members who have experience in organizational optimization, and also members with experience in finance.

Team cohesion: At the same time, the client team must have internal cohesion because the better colleagues work together, the better the results will be for the client. For this reason, consulting staffing models often seek to bring colleagues who have experience working well alongside one another or are likely to knit together smoothly. It is also why building a strong internal culture is so important for consulting firms. 

Project Costs: The firm will seek to balance these priorities alongside a desire to keep costs low by staffing from offices close to the client location, where possible.

Consultant professional development: Staffing models are important for firms and consultants, as they can have a massive impact on professional development opportunities, industry exposure, and lifestyle. Getting staffed on projects that align with your interests or career aspirations, or alongside colleagues with whom you have built rapport, offers the chance to have a deeply rewarding project experience.


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Key Factors in Consulting Firm Staffing Models

There are 5 aspects that consulting firms consider when building project teams:

  1. The Industry: Whichever sector the client is from (whether it is chemicals, aerospace, banking, software, or any other industry), the consulting team needs members who have industry knowledge. This doesn’t mean that every team member needs to be an expert. Usually, at least one senior partner or manager has previous experience in the industry. This ensures there is industry credibility and the team can generate strong insights.
  2. Business Function: Similarly, there will need to be relevant functional expertise within the team. If the project is focused on operational improvements, the team will need some experienced consultants in “Lean,” which is a methodology designed to enhance operational efficiency.
  3. Geography: The consulting firm will also factor in geography when building the team. While aiming to bring the best expertise to the client, they will also try to keep travel costs down by using local consultants. This can lead to consultants being limited to working within the major industries in their region. Because of this, being based in an office like Chicago that has a good amount of business diversity (manufacturing, consumer goods, and financial services) can be advantageous. Being based in the Houston office, on the other hand, could mean becoming an oil and gas expert.
  4. People: The required team size and structure also matter, as does the need to build a dynamic where colleagues work together cohesively. Sometimes, consulting firms favor bringing consultants who have worked together in the past or have similar backgrounds to the clients.
  5. Timeline: The length of the project will also have a bearing on staffing choices, and will impact the experience for consultants. Some projects, such as due diligence projects for private equity clients, tend to be short,  typically lasting 2 to 4 weeks. Other projects, such as  change management transformations, can take over 12 or 18 months. These projects’ different requirements and rhythms will suit certain consultants better than others, and firms will bear that in mind when they assemble teams.
Why Are Consulting Firms Staffing Models Important?

Different Types of Consulting Staffing Models

Each consulting firm has its own staffing model, and it is often determined by decisions within 3 key areas.

  1. What is the level of autonomy a consultant should have over their staffing? A staffing model can take a “high autonomy” approach, where consultants have more of a say over the projects they get staffed on, and a “low autonomy” approach, where consultants are told what their next project will be, with little say over the outcome. Often, the longer your tenure, the more sway you have to shape your consulting career.
  2. What office locations should we source consultants from? Geographically, a consulting firm can look to staff globally, locally, or somewhere in between. Global staffing means that the firm builds teams with consultants from any office location around the globe, and local staffing means that the firm will look to construct teams from consultants in the offices closest to the client site.
  3. How many projects should consultants work on at the same time? Many consulting firms, including MBB, staff consultants on 1 project at a time until they reach beyond the project manager level and are supervising the day-to-day work rather than actively running the spreadsheets. However, some firms, like ZS Associates, may staff consultants on 2 or more projects at once. 

Before we take a look at the way that individual firms manage staffing – a word of caution. It can be hard to generalize by firm, as staffing models can vary between different offices within the same firm. For example, McKinsey’s London office may allow consultants to apply for projects around Europe, while the Spanish office may be more hesitant to do so. 

With that caveat in place, let’s look at general MBB staffing models.

Different Types of Consulting Firm Staffing Models

McKinsey Staffing Model

The McKinsey staffing model is high on autonomy, with upcoming projects shared on internal notice boards so that consultants can apply to the projects that sound most interesting or rewarding. It is also possible for consultants to hear about upcoming projects before they hit the staffing lists through their own internal networks. But while McKinsey operates this high-autonomy model, it is still possible for consultants to be directed towards particular projects, if the fit is right.

Regarding geography, there is a misconception that McKinsey has a global staffing model, and that consultants can be sent to Australia for one project, then Washington, D.C. for the next. In truth, “bringing the best of McKinsey to the client” is more often done through knowledge sharing via calls or emails. McKinsey staffs regionally, meaning it leans towards consultants working on projects within their region, such as EMEA or North America. 

Core training classes, however, are still filled globally, giving consultants an opportunity to meet colleagues from around the world.

All The Different Consulting Firm Staffing Models

Bain Staffing Model

The Bain staffing model tends to be less autonomous than the McKinsey one, with consultants more likely to be delegated to work on specific projects. This reduces the pressure of finding just the right next project and can also limit consultant autonomy. 

That said, there is still the opportunity to circumvent the model through internal networking and mentors. For example, if you want to do a non-profit project, you should tell the staffing manager and your mentors. There may not be a current project available, but they may remember you noted your interest later down the road.

Bain tends to staff more locally than McKinsey, meaning that consultants are likely to be more focused on local or regional clients. This has the advantage of building more camaraderie as a smaller group of people work together more frequently. But this is a tendency, rather than a hard and fast rule. Many Bain consultants still travel weekly for their projects. There are also similar opportunities to McKinsey, such as a 6-month rotation to other offices.

BCG Staffing Model

The BCG model sits somewhere between the two. BCG consultants are staffed regionally, rather than locally, and tend to be more on the low-autonomy end of the spectrum than McKinsey. But there is still significant scope for travel and for carving your own path through networking and proactivity.

Questions to Ask Yourself to Decide What Consulting Firm Staffing Models Suit You

3 Questions to Ask Yourself to Decide What Consulting Firms Staffing Model Suits You

1. What Are My Career Goals?

Ask yourself what your career aspirations are. If you want to one day work in government, then you might want to work for a firm that has lots of public sector clients, and where there is some autonomy over staffing, so you can ensure you gain exposure in that industry. If you want to work for a firm with a local staffing model, apply to offices such as Washington, D.C. or London where a high concentration of government clients are based.

2. Do I Prefer Clarity or Autonomy?

If you are someone who values predictability and clarity, then working for a firm like Bain that tends to match consultants with their next project may be better for you. On the other hand, if you want to be the master of your own destiny – and don’t mind the extra effort that is involved – then you will want to work at a firm like McKinsey that gives more autonomy on how projects are staffed.

3. What Are My Expectations For Travel and Work-Life Balance?

Certain staffing models are more likely to have greater travel, especially when the firm has a global presence and its staffing skews regionally or globally rather than locally. This can be appealing to some people, but less desirable to others.

– – – – – – –

By reflecting on these questions, you can make a more informed decision about which consulting firm’s staffing model is the best fit for your career and lifestyle.

In this article, we’ve covered:

  • What a consulting staffing model is
  • Why a consulting staffing model is so important
  • Key factors influencing staffing at consulting firms
  • Different staffing models, such as the McKinsey staffing model, and various implications
  • 3 questions to ask yourself when deciding which consulting staffing model best suits you

Still have questions?

If you have more questions about consulting firm staffing models, leave them in the comments below. One of My Consulting Offer’s recruiters will answer them.

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