big three consulting firms career trajectories

Study: “Big Three” Career Trajectories, 2001-2014

We took the 2001 roster of one of the Big Three consulting firms’ major offices (all Partners through Consultant-level of that year), and did a “then and now” study of the 77 individuals, tracking their different career trajectories in or out of consulting up through today. With so many factors at play, what conclusions can be made? And how do they apply to your career specifically? Read on for the general overview of the 2001 class today, the 77 career trajectories, and some Raines Intel observations re: internal strategy roles, moving into industry at specific tenures, and your general consultant network.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of variety. People who left the firm did so in different years and economies and at different points in their respective consulting tenures. Undoubtedly, they also pursued options based on individual motivators toward their own personal career goals (e.g., a GM role running a multibillion-dollar P&L, largest paycheck, reduced travel, specific location, or a “feel good” cause). While we at Raines International have an eye for what a stellar career move looks like in a vacuum (hint: it has to do with building blocks and a long-term view over short term gains), you’ll encounter examples where the end goal may not have been the C-Suite. Or perhaps that was and still is the goal, but a large title right out of consulting at a struggling firm lured the person off track. While there are definite limitations to this type of exercise when it comes to drawing sweeping conclusions, we thought this to be an interesting perspective worth sharing as you consider your own class of consultants, and where you might sit in the mix. If one conclusion can be made, it’s that consulting experience alone is no guarantee of a successful “up and to the right” type track. What is your end goal, and how do you plan on getting there?


*For titles as defined below, Principal refers to the Pre-Partner role (6+ years of experience), Manager refers to ~3-5 years or experience (Engagement Manager/Case Team Leader/Project Leader), and Consultant refers to ~2 years of experience.



big three 2001 2014 career trajectories



On the move from consulting to internal strategy:

While some consultants are whole-hearted strategists and go into internal strategy with the aim of Chief Strategy Officer, the majority plan to use internal strategy as a base from which to transition to functional leadership or line roles. In order to isolate the latter group, we looked at individuals who left consulting (at consultant through Partner level) and went into strategy roles 5 or more years ago, at which point a move to operational or other capacities should have taken place if that was the aim/goal.

  • Of those who left consulting more than 5 years ago (47), the majority transitioned to corporate via a strategy role (36/47, or 77%).
  • Of those 36 individuals who went into internal strategy initially, a little less than half (15/36) have since moved into other functional areas.*
  • A few people also left consulting 5 years ago and initially went into a non-strategy role, but later moved into a strategy role (4/47).

*Note: The number of people who stayed in an internal strategy capacity after 5 or more years could be through choice, or through an inability to get beyond the strategy role. For consultants who want to use internal strategy as a means to a functional leadership or line role, they need to study different opportunities accordingly. Does the company appreciate the consultant skillset? Do they have a history of promoting consultants into line roles?

On the move out of consulting at the Partner level (versus Principal):

Senior level consultants are often interested in the different opportunities and trajectories of folks who leave consulting at the Principal versus the Partner level. Some isolated information below:

  • Of those who left consulting at the Partner Level (13), 11 went into initial strategy roles (85%), while the rest went into operational roles.
  • Of those who left consulting at the Principal level (17), 11 went into strategy roles (65%), while the rest went into a range of functional areas.

For Partners and Principals who went into internal strategy 5 or more years ago, have they remained in strategy?

  • Of the 6 Partners who left for strategy roles more than 5 years ago, all 6 remain in strategy roles today.
  • Of the 11 Principals who originally left for internal strategy more than five years ago, 7 went into other functional areas, while 4 remain in strategy.


In comparison to our 2006 MBA study (following 400+ 2006 MBAs who went into the Big Three post business school), this exercise drills into and iterates off of one moment in time in one particular office. The variety of trajectories does not just point to the numerous career paths of consultants in general, but to the range of paths that will be taken by the people you know in your own consulting network. Do you know who the stars in your consulting class are, or will be? Have you kept in touch? Re: the specific observations, current consultants considering a move to industry should note that not all strategy roles are created equal in terms of providing a clear path or opportunity for transition to different functional areas. Consultants at the Principal level aiming for line or functional leadership roles might find comfort in the data for making a move before Partner, versus staying on the Partner path.