Breaking into Consulting from a Non-Traditional Background

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Have you ever thought about a career in Consulting? For some, it is a career path that enables you to collaborate with teams of bright individuals to solve highly complex business challenges. Others believe that a career in consulting can provide intellectually stimulating scenarios in a variety projects to help holistically develop the essential business acumen skills to give you a competitive edge, especially in the early stages of your career. On the flip side, consulting is also known for its long hours, tight deadlines, constantly changing projects, and lots of travel.

Ultimately, it is an interesting career choice where young professionals will have the opportunity to learn new skills and develop varied interests, and to have a job where no day is quite the same as the previous. In this article, we talked to copywriter-turned-consultant, Magdalene Chalil, who is currently with Accenture to get her to share her thoughts and experience on how you can successfully transit to the consulting industry, especially if you come from a non-traditional background.

Name: Magdalene Jane Chalil (Nickname: Mag)

Company: Senior Analyst at Accenture

Years of Consulting Experience: 3 Years

Brief Description of Job: Work with client to identify their challenges and collaborate with the Accenture team to develop innovative solutions. Daily activities include:

  • Translating strategic direction and business objectives established by clients into holistic digital, technology, change management and organisation strategies
  • Developing and driving approach to innovate answers to complex business and IT challenges
  • Recommending and implementing changes, and ensuring a successful transition to what’s new for the client

1. Why did you decide to transit to a career in consulting?

Two things really. Firstly, it was the last thing on my career bucket list to check off – working in an MNC. It was time to put it all together. Secondly, I had a secure job where the career progression path was focused and clear. This means I would continue to do what I do and progress with time. However, the skills I would learn would not deviate with the new roles I would embark on with any promotion. I considered the type of skills I could gain from consulting, which I deduced were highly sought after and relevant in the work industry.

I then considered the job nature against my personality and felt it was a good fit since the work is project based, multifaceted, non-routine and highly agile. It was the kind of environment I would thrive in, and I decided there’s no better time than now to embark on a career switch.


2. What is your background?

I graduated with a degree in biotechnology from Monash University but am prouder of the fact that I am a Canadian Pre-University programme graduate. The programme was an eye-opener on how learning could be different and effective. I continue to miss those days. Moving on, I decided I was going to be a little unconventional and move into a variety of jobs. At that time, I was already working as a Store Manager at a neighbourhood Starbucks. Initially I thought I could now test the validity of my degree but what no one told me was, the jobs available with a Biotechnology degree were largely sales based.

I knew early on I didn’t like being bound by a target so I started my journey in various industries. I joined the banking industry for a short while, then moved on to advertising (1 year) and served the longest (5 years) in the higher education publishing industry. In those five years, I managed the end-to-end production and editorial processes of university textbooks for an international textbook publisher.


3. As you were an experienced hire from a non-conventional background, how did you prepare for the consulting interview process and case studies?

I was very fortunate to be hired as an experienced candidate due to my accumulated years of experience and as such I was not required to complete any case studies. Thus I knew that the firm would look at my ability to answer scenario-based questions to assess my behaviour suitability. I researched online and combined that with interview questions I saved from my previous jobs to formulate a plan.

Essentially, I found that there are two parts to the formula. One is to talk about a goal, a challenge, a motivation and a problem-solving account in your previous jobs. When doing this, I chose the most suitable scenario to fit the consulting industry. Secondly, any company would ask you questions about yourself. When detailing these information, always state qualities which will be highly relevant to the job you’re applying for. I also realise that genuineness and a comfortable conversation is the backbone of a good interview. The interviewers should always get a sense that you are real. Knowing this, I do not over prepare so that I can remain natural in my responses.

Related: So You Want To Be a Chartered Accountant?


4. How did you cope with the transition to a high-paced and client-facing work environment? What were some of the tools and/or methods that you utilized?

It wasn’t much of a transition for me because my previous job operated on the same mode. However, the core difference with consulting lies in how projects typically do not span for more than a year. What this means is the learning curve for each project is often steep as you try to understand industry, work and client related context. What I find myself doing to cope is to spend additional hours outside of work when necessary, polishing up on the need-to-know and skills which need refinement to embark successfully on the current project. I also learnt that it’s important to prepare for work and prioritise daily.

Due to the high-paced nature, planning is vital but knowing that the plan will need to be iterated frequently to meet current demands (usually from client) bears a greater impact. To address any anxiety I may have when client-facing, I simulate the actual event by conducting dry-runs. If a presentation isn’t required, I then ask myself – “Does this piece of work provide an answer to the client? Will they understand my message/story?”. If it’s a yes, the sanity check is pretty much good on your end.


5. What has been the most challenging thing about consulting work? And how did you overcome it?

The most challenging thing about consulting is how it bears no recurring pattern. Every day could be different when compared to the previous. This means you need to be smart about how you use your energy. I endeavour to understand project peak periods and be aware that I’d need to work a little later those days. So, on days where things are less busy, I clock out at an appropriate time to catch up on rest. Consulting work also tends to throw you off tangent and creep into your personal time. I set fixed days in a week where I perform tasks such as paying the bills, doing laundry, meditating, socialising. I apply discipline to ensure that work never becomes a priority on those days.

Related: Goldman Sachs or McKinsey? Neither.


6. What advice would you have for someone breaking into consulting?

Know what you want to pursue, splash some realism to it; be prepared to work hard and play hard according to your own set definition. Build trusted relationships – be genuine in all interactions, be empathetic to your team and your client, and be observant. What separates a good consultant from an average one is how you frame your thinking, problem solve and understand people.  It helps you leverage on the strengths of others while you build strengths of your own, with time.


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