RUNNING A business is no easy task as maintaining supply lines and overseeing employees are only some of the everyday struggles of corporate management. The real challenge comes when firms look for new markets and strategies. Those who guide these ambitious companies through treacherous frontiers are the equally determined strategy consultants. The Yonsei Annals met with Yang Sun-a (Class of ’12, Dept. of Economics), a researcher and strategy consultant in the Lotte Institute of Economy & Business Strategy, who shared her insights and experiences in this respected field.
What is strategy consulting?
Annals: A lot of people seem to be confused with the different fields of consulting. Can you explain what strategy consulting is?
Yang: There are many areas of consulting: operations, information technology (IT), human resources (HR), and my field—strategy consulting. At times, companies decide to expand their businesses through new markets, strategies, and enterprises, but because they all entail huge budgets and extensive modifications in their management, it is difficult for the firms to carry out these projects alone. This is where we come in. Strategy consultants help firms in these situations by suggesting projects grounded on thorough market analysis and professional advice. Strategy consulting is also referred to as “management consulting” because our work involves decision-making in the management or executive level.
Annals: Can you please tell the readers the required skills of strategy consultants?
Yang: I think there are four qualities that every strategy consultant must possess. The first is analytical skills. As strategy consultants, we not only look through all of the raw data from markets but also analyze them and establish implications and connections among the scattered pieces of information.
Another important skill is logical thinking. As mentioned, because strategy consultants suggest new business directions, we need to logically convince our clients with our projects. Strategy consultants should follow the MECE* principle, which means that we have to think logically without overlapping different information or leaving out any details.
Strategy consultants are also expected to have excellent communication skills, since most of our clients are executives of conglomerates who have been in their industries for more than ten years. Despite this gap in career and age, we are required to have professional discussions with them regarding our projects. We also consider our colleagues as clients that we must convince and cooperate with because we always work in teams. Because of this system, strategy consultants are also expected to show good teamwork and a sense of ownership. Things become really difficult if there are members who lack teamwork or who are passive in their work.
Many university students think that strategy consultants should have excellent presentation skills from the start; in fact, that is not true at all. Although our work requires us to present our cases to clients, such tasks are mostly done by our seniors, so there is time for us to learn how to give good presentations. What we do instead is work on the details and facts that comprise those presentations, and this requires us to utilize the skills that I mentioned.
Annals: What are some of the most appealing qualities of being a strategy consultant?
Yang: One of the things that I really like about my job is the corporate culture. Although there are hierarchies in the workplace, there is almost no barrier between the seniors and juniors when it comes to work. In our discussions, we can point out each other’s mistakes, give suggestions and communicate freely regardless of ranks and positions.
Another merit of becoming a strategy consultant is the short amount of time it takes for one to be regarded as an expert. In my previous company, I was promoted into a higher position in a much shorter amount of time than it would have taken in other industries. I think this is because we always undergo intensive training that allows us to maximize our knowledge and expertise in our field prior to participating in actual projects.
Strategy consultants also have lots of opportunities to go on business trips abroad. As I have mentioned, much of the agenda in strategy consulting involves entering new markets, which in this case would be overseas markets. Because of this, it is important for us to visit the target country to study and understand its domestic market for primary data. Besides studying markets abroad, we get to engage in collaborative projects with our foreign counterparts.
The process of strategy consulting
Annals: What does a typical day of a strategy consultant look like?
Yang: Well, I don’t think there is a “typical day” in our office because what we do is heavily dependent on the clients and their needs. So, it is hard to accurately depict what an average day would look like for a strategy consultant.
But, in a narrower sense, there are some routinary tasks that we are required to complete such as analysis, verification, and modification. For every project, we start by analyzing raw data on market prospects and structures to extract their meanings. Then, we collect the analysis results and organize them to set up a hypothesis for our client’s business agenda. Once we formulate a hypothesis of the expected results, we have them evaluated and verified by experts that specialize in fields like statistics, like how journalists would conduct interviews to double-check facts. Next, we share the verified information with the team for a discussion followed by feedback. After making the needed adjustments based on the team review, our proposal is finally sent to our clients, with whom we will be going through another round of reviews and revisions until they are satisfied.
Annals: You mentioned that clients have their own projects. What is the average length of each project and how are they selected?
Yang: The length of each project is one of the main concerns of the clients because strategy consulting firms charge by weeks, not by a fixed rate. A program that is too long is costly, while one that is too short lacks depth. On average, a project lasts around 8 to 10 weeks, but some can be as short as 3 weeks and as long as 6 months.
Most of the time, we have to be selected by our clients. For example, if a company needs a strategy consulting service, it calls in 3 to 4 different consulting firms so that they can analyze and compare the programs and agendas. Upon receiving the request, each consultation service works on the project for 2 weeks to 1 month and comes up with a proposal for the client, who then selects the offer that is deemed the most appropriate for their direction. The selected consulting firm then goes into the process of solidifying its proposal. The whole process is similar to an audition, where each consulting corporation must prove its ability in order to be chosen.
Annals: What are some of the most challenging aspects of your job?
Yang: One of the most important yet also the most exhausting part of my job is the discussions with our clients. To polish our proposals to perfections we have to constantly exchange ideas and apply what has been shared in the discussions. Sometimes this can be physically and mentally stressful. For example, if a meeting with a client ends at 6 p.m., we would have to go back to the office to make changes to our proposal. If the project is under time pressure, we might have to work on it as late as 2 or 3 a.m. and come back to the office only after a few hours of rest. At times, our clients might reject our changed proposals, which can be disappointing after countless hours of work.
There are also times when the client cancels the contract midway, which results in a full-stop of all our work. Sometimes, even individual tasks can be discarded by our seniors if they don’t comply with the general direction of the whole project. Situations like these can be depressing considering how much time and energy were put into the work.
For aspiring strategy consultants
Annals: What were the steps that you took to become a strategy consultant? How did you prepare for them?
Yang: Like most consultants, I started preparing for my career through a student consulting club. In retrospect, joining a club wasn’t essential, but I can say that it motivated me to work harder and allowed me to network with those in the same field as me. I was able to receive a lot of help for interviews and other career details that I needed to know. For these reasons, I highly recommend joining a consulting or business study club.
To become a strategy consultant, one must work as a Research Assistant (RA) at one point. RAs are in a way similar to interns, but the difference is in length. While interns typically work in a company for 6 months, RAs are recruited on a project basis, which only lasts for around 2 to 3 months; RAs are dismissed as the project ends. Although the duration is short, RAs get to learn a lot about strategy consulting as they actually participate in the consulting process. Becoming an RA is crucial as most of the resources and expertise required of a strategy consultant comes from this experience. Although I became a full-time employee after my first RA program, many work in two to three companies as an RA before employment.
The last step is the interview. Interviews for strategy consultants are known to be extremely difficult. There are two parts to the interview: one is the typical job interview that every industry has, and the other is a case study interview, which is what makes the overall interview challenging. In the case study interview, you are given a hypothetical situation a company is in and you are expected to devise a thorough solution to the given premise. Interviewees are judged by the coherence and logical soundness of their proposals. As this is the most demanding stage of becoming a strategy consultant, some even study from six months to a year ahead. Although I studied alone, you can always find people for group studies, so I recommend joining one.
Annals: Are there any specific majors or licenses required of strategy consultants?
Yang: I can confidently say that there aren’t any, because I am an economics major myself. Some of my colleagues are from engineering departments as well. The field of study matters less than the diversity of experience. This is because strategy consulting requires consultants to be “generalists,” who can adapt to different portfolios of the clients that come from diverse industries. However, it doesn’t mean that consultants are excused to have shallow understandings of what they have studied because there are times some degree of expertise is required.
Annals: To whom would you recommend your job?
Yang: A lot of people equate strategy consultants to high salaries and professionalism, but those qualities are just the tip of the iceberg. Those merits can only be earned in exchange for one’s time and energy. Pulling all-nighters and working on weekends are only some of the hardships that we face in our job. This gets even worse when we must cancel all appointments during some periods to direct all our energy into the proposals. Although what you gain from these efforts may be appealing, without the will and determination, you will not be able to push through. Unfortunately, I don’t expect the work conditions to change because of the characteristics of strategy consulting. Thus, I would highly recommend this job to those who are self-driven and passionate about their goals in life.
Annals: Do you have any last words to our readers and Yonsei students aspiring to become strategy consultants?
Yang: I can confidently say that strategy consulting is indeed one of the most rewarding jobs. However, the doors are only open to those who are motivated and determined. As I mentioned, I hope nobody pursues this job only because of the reputation it boasts. I know that the road to become a strategy consultant is tough, but always believe in yourself; you will be able to push through any obstacle.
*MECE: A term used in strategy consulting that means mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive