Event Recap: What is Consulting? Presented by Booz Allen Hamilton

Booz Allen Hamilton Senior Consultant and IU Alum Ryan Van Slyke (B.S. 2018) recently returned to Bloomington to team up with incoming Senior Consultant and current O’Neill MPA student Mitchell Watkins (B.S.P.A. 19, M.P.A. 20) for an informative talk titled, “What is consulting?” The two began their interactive address with an interesting claim: consultants are like doctors. Doctors ask their patients questions and carefully assess their condition in order to make a diagnosis. Based on this diagnosis, they create a treatment plan meant to bring the patient back to health. According to Van Slyke and Watkins, consultants do the same thing for their clients, leveraging their expertise and outside perspectives to identify and ultimately solve problems within organizations.

According to Consultancy.org, the global consulting industry is worth around $250 billion. There is significant diversity within this massive sector. Some firms advise federal, state, and local government agencies on increasing efficiency and implementing policy. Others focus on helping corporations increase profits. Still others help nonprofits achieve their missions. Large firms may specialize in one of these practice areas while still operating in the others. For example, according to Van Slyke, about 70% of Booz Allen Hamilton’s business comes from federal defense contracts, 20% from federal civil agencies, and 10% from international and commercial clients.

Despite the varied nature of the industry, Van Slyke and Watkins made some observations about culture and organization that hold true for many different consulting firms. In general, consultancies tend to be hierarchical, with a clear delineation between the consultants “on the ground,” the middle managers above them, and the executives at the top. The work they do tends to be client and product focused. Most of this work is done by teams of smart people collaborating closely together towards a solution.
Nonetheless, firms have certain individual traits that Van Slyke and Watkins advised investigating to find the best fit. For example, depending on their origin, some firms may be more focused on hiring graduates with significant experience in accounting and financial analysis, while others may value more well-rounded applicants who may or may not have direct business experience. In addition, some firms may focus more on placing consultants in narrow specialty areas, while in other firms consultants may be working on wildly different projects year after year. Furthermore, some firms may be more “suitcase” oriented, with consultants constantly flying around the country to advise clients, while others may be “static,” with consultants rarely traveling.

When asked about the traits of a successful consultant, Van Slyke and Watkins emphasized general characteristics over more specific skills. Consultants must be able to adapt to the specific needs of a client, so being able to think on your feet is critical. The work is inherently team-based, so being able to collaborate effectively with others is also important.

Of course, consulting is not for everyone. The speakers noted the industry is focused on research for application, so those passionate about studying a specific topic may not be well-suited. Some people may also be frustrated by the lack of control consultants have over the client’s eventual actions. It is possible that well-thought-out recommendations crafted over the course of a year may simply be ignored. In addition, people who prefer working independently may be out of place in the consulting sector.

Van Slyke and Watkins asserted that an O’Neill degree would be attractive to many consulting firms. To boost your chances of landing a job, Watkins offered a specific piece of advice: write a senior thesis. While consulting firms generally value more general skills, he said that demonstrating an ability to do “deep dives” into a topic and produce concrete deliverables would put an applicant at an advantage. This is especially true if the applicant demonstrates a depth of knowledge in a unique area, as Watkins did through his thesis on Aviation policy.

For O’Neill students interesting in careers in consulting, Van Slyke and Watkins advertised the Booz Allen Hamilton Summer Games Internship Program as the perfect opportunity to gain exposure to the industry. The program allows interns to experience a full consulting life-cycle – from problem ideation to solution development – within 10 weeks. Applications for the summer of 2021 will open this fall.

By Kaleb Mount
Kaleb Mount