When is the best time to recruit strategy consultants?


by Chad Oakley 
CEO at Charles Aris Inc.

[Video transcript follows]

The other day a new client asked me a question that I’ve heard countless times during my 11 years as a recruiter: “Is there an ideal time of year to recruit strategy consultants?”

My somewhat confusing response was, “Yes, but it depends.”

The “depends” part has to do with the level of candidate you’re recruiting. As strange as this may sound, the ideal time to recruit pre-MBA consultants is different than the ideal time to recruit post-MBA consultants. Here’s the skinny as to why:

Recruiting post-MBA strategy consultants is a little more straightforward, so let’s start there. It all boils down to the consultant’s year-end bonus. Bonuses can a

mount to 25 to 50 percent of a consultant’s annual compensation; consultants therefore circle their bonus date on their calendars with a big, bold Sharpie! And given that consulting firms rarely prorate a year-end bonus for any consultants who voluntarily leave before the bonus date, consultants are highly unlikely to leave their firm before the bonus is paid. So if you’re going to recruit post-MBA strategy consultants, you need to know when they are going to receive their bonus – and plan for a start date at your company to fall after the bonus is paid.

With that in mind, let’s talk about bonus dates. Most firms – including the Big Three of Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Company – pay bonuses each December. However, there are a handful of strong firms, such as Strategy& (formerly Booz & Co.), Monitor Deloitte and L.E.K. Consulting, which pay bonuses midyear (and in the case of L.E.K., twice a year). So with a few exceptions, you should expect that most post-MBA strategy candidates are going to receive a large bonus every fourth quarter.

The implication? Strive to avoid starting a recruiting campaign on July 1st. If you fail to do so, the vast majority of candidates will tell you something to the effect of, “I can’t imagine starting in a new job until after I receive my bonus, so call me in November and we can talk about a start date in January.”

Does this mean that it’s impossible to successfully recruit post-MBA strategy candidates to start at your company in the second half of the year? Most definitely not! In most cases, however, the recruiting company finds itself paying a hefty sign-on bonus to help offset the sizable bonus the consultant is likely leaving on the table. To avoid paying a large sign-on bonus (because you’re likely to pay a small one regardless), try to start your post-MBA strategy consultant recruiting projects between the months of October and June.

The ideal recruiting window for pre-MBA strategy consulting candidates is a little different than their post-MBA elder brethren. Unlike post-MBAs, for pre-MBAs it’s not about their bonuses; it’s about the day they started work for the consulting firms which employ them. This is a little confusing, so allow me to explain:

First off, why is it not about their bonuses? Largely because the pre-MBA candidates don’t receive significant bonuses. In fact, some of the best consulting firms don’t pay their pre-MBAs any bonuses at all. If you’re recruiting a pre-MBA candidate who does receive a year-end bonus, you can usually offset it with a relatively small sign-on bonus.

So how does the day they started working in consulting impact when you should recruit them? Most consulting firms treat their pre-MBA consultants as a part of a “class” that lasts for two years. In other words, there’s kind of an unofficial “graduation date” for pre-MBA consultants, and that graduation date is effectively 24 months after they start. And the most common start date occurs in August. Why August? Because pre-MBAs typically graduate from college in May, spend the summer having fun, and then start working for their consulting firms in August.

So let’s imagine that you’re a pre-MBA consultant in your 18th month on the job, and you’re looking ahead to August, when your two-year program unofficially ends. You know that you want to do something new and different before heading off to get your MBA degree at a top school. Clearly, you don’t want to wait until August to start interviewing. You need to start interviewing earlier – like three to four months earlier. Back up three to four months from August and you’re in April and May. In short, pre-MBA consultants ideally want to interview for new jobs in April and May for start dates in July, August and September.

Here’s an important disclaimer: Like anything else, there are many exceptions to this ideal rule I’ve just described. For instance, strategy consulting firms will often extend a pre-MBA consultant’s experience for an extra year (in other words, turn their two-year program into a three-year program), and the firms will put strong incentives in place to retain these smart, young whippersnappers. In addition, the private equity firms which like so much to recruit pre-MBAs are known to start recruiting earlier in the year – in some cases as early as January, which might wipe out the best of the best from contention if you start your recruiting program in May.

As confusing and challenging as it all sounds, the good news is that we’ve seen companies successfully recruit pre-MBA strategy consultants at any time of the year. So if you’re off cycle, don’t fret – you can still land great talent. You’ll likely have to kiss a few more frogs before you find a winner, but it can definitely be done.

I hope you’ve found this helpful, and happy recruiting!

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