To which McKinsey or Bain office do you apply: New York, Chicago, Sao Paulo, Santiago, London, Dusseldorf, Prague, Moscow, Mumbai, Johannesburg or Dubai?
This is a critical question that is certainly worth answering in this longer post. This applies to candidates considering four choices:
- Staying in the home town.
- Applying to another country with an established office.
- Applying to another country where an office will need to be established.
- Applying to another country with a younger and smaller office.
We havelots of experience in this area and will provide some practical advice. It’s worth discussing the broad considerations when making this decision. Personally, we at Lillilooloo.com and Firmsconsulting.com love the emerging markets. They are vibrant and exciting places to be, but they are not for everyone. So read this and then decide how you want to pick your office.
Be careful of asking your friends whether it was a good idea of serving in a foreign country immediately upon joining. They will talk to you about the value of learning new culture, styles of working and so on. Those are not valid reasons. This is what you should ask:
- Are you a better consultant, because of the foreign office posting, then you would have been if you stayed? Be critical and apply the firm’s criteria for success when asking this question.
- What did the firm gain from this?
- What would you have done differently if you could do it over again?
- Why did you choose (city/country)?
If after reading this you would still like to start in a new country, or even return to your country of origin after many years, then do it. Only you know what is best and we can only offer guidance. We would appreciate your thoughts and perspectives. At least by thinking through the potential obstacles/limitations you may develop a plan to mitigate them. Hmmm…that’s a great idea for a followup post.
What is your reason for wanting to work in a foreign office? You need to be true to yourself. If you are salivating at the thought of spending winter in a beautiful city like Prague or watching a future superpower grow out of Mumbai; then cool down a little. Those are the incorrect reasons. Management consulting is tough. It will certainly be tougher than any other job you ever had. If you choose to go to a city then it must be because being there confers on you a unique competitive advantage that will make you a better consultant than in your home office. This is important. Moving to a newly developing office or new city is not a holiday. You will find it tough anyway and need to be looking for a competitive advantage. If the new city does not give you this, then it is wise not to do this.
Skill sets. Now that we know you have the correct reasons, let’s look at the skills needed. I am sure working in Paris is every consultants dream. It can be a nightmare. Do you speak French? Do you understand the culture? Did you graduate from the Grand Ecole’s? Each country has specific requirements for you to be accepted and become successful. Ask around and make sure you do not set yourself up for failure. Do not think only the emerging markets have quirks. Italy, Spain, France and Germany all their unique wrinkles. That’s why we love them.
How do you know what you will need to be successful as a management consultant before you join? Until you spend about 12 months in a management consulting environment, you actually do not know how you will cope. And if you do not know how you will cope, then it is wise to wait a bit before moving to a new city. Maybe you really need your family, friends and your home town or city where you studied. These coping mechanisms can be critical. They help you adjust as you settle into a new career. It is important not to be presumptuous about how you will handle the work load. Remember about 60% of consultants at the top firms are managed out. I can assure you that many are working in their home towns and are still struggling to make the cut. It is wiser to wait and understand what you need to be successful. After a 12 month period, you may change your first choice and want to go to another city.
What is the rush? Really, will Prague disintegrate into a soulless metropolis in 2 years? Will Mumbai solve all its transport problems in 5 years? Will Jakarta’s millions of poverty-stricken citizens’ vault into the middle class before you can move across? No, it is very, very unlikely this will happen. Whatever the rush, it can wait. Unless you have some pressing personal reasons for going away, take the time to make the correct decision. In fact, try to get yourself on an assignment in this city/country before moving there. Visiting as a tourist and working as a professional is a totally different ball game. If you think I am kidding, walk around Bangkok in shorts, sandals and a T-shirt. Now trying wearing a full suit in Bangkok with black socks and taking the subway, or heaven forbid a taxi. The experience is very, very different. Do you like walking around? Try visiting South Africa for a different experience. No one ever walks due to violent crime. Their streets are deserted. It is surreal. Make sure you can cope with these differences before you arrive.
Emerging markets are wickedly competitive. Let’s apply simple economics. The market for McKinsey, Bain and the BCG is smaller, as a percentage of the total business sector, versus developed industrial markets. So you have a smaller market and are still competing against your fiercest rivals. Since you target the top firms, and there are fewer of them, on average the best educated locals migrate to these few institutions. So you are likely facing Wharton and Harvard educated professionals as your clients, who are not so easily impressed with western credentials. In Eastern Europe, especially Russia, the problem is the same whereby Russians highly regard their local mathematics, science and economics institutes. So you have tough clients, fewer of them and more competition against which to land them. This does change the dynamic substantially.
For example, in the US, if things were tough, you could switch focus by changing cities. Did that work? No? Try targeting the public sector versus the private sector. That also didn’t work? Okay, try targeting another company in the same sector in another part of the country. The US economy’s size gives you options. In business and economics, options have value.
In some emerging markets all the major companies are state-owned. You have to work through one client – the government. Private companies are sometimes run by interconnected family concerns. Although you have options, there are less of them. One common problem is the concentration of business in just one city unlike the US, Germany, France and so on. This has its advantages and disadvantages.
The learning curve is different. Assuming you had the choice to go to a major established office like Cleveland or San Francisco versus Bucharest, the learning curve is different. In New York you will be exposed to more choices, more consultants and more of the firm’s culture. In the new office, you are likely to experience less of this. The top partners, the figureheads in the media, are usually resident in the established offices, although this is not always the case. You could get lucky and pair up with a Dominic Barton as he is opening a new office. Imagine how valuable that relationship and mentorship would be.
The flip side of this is that some offices, like the German offices, tend to be very strong and offer excellent training. So while the point above is about staying in your home office since the learning curve may be better at home, also remember that it could be better elsewhere. Just choose wisely.
Watch out for the “cool partner” syndrome. Consultants place a large part of their decision-making on whether they like the partner leading the new office or setting up a brand new office. Be wary of this. Most people are cool when you have never worked with them for an extended period, when you see them every now and again, or when your opinion is shaped via corridor chatter. These guys are cool because they also have another channel to vent their frustration. If you move to a new region, or open a new office with them, they will become your life. You will spend every waking moment with them and see a whole new side. If you can live with this, then go buy that air ticket.
Niche assignments. A young office will rarely have the resources to chase all types of assignments. It is prudent to go after a sector or a particular type of client and thereby build a critical mass and reputation. This means you end up doing similar kind of work more often than not. It is worse when an office is just setting up. The partner running the show will go for the path of least resistance and likely favour work or sectors he knows well. Although not always the case, younger or newer offices tend to have loosely defined niches and this may inadvertently force you to miss out on opportunities to gain a broader perspective.
Entrepreneurialism is nice…if you make it. Did you join Bain to be an entrepreneur or learn about business? When a new office is being opened or a really small office is growing, you will need to do mundane things that you take for granted. Now, why would anyone do this? If you want to be an entrepreneur go join a start-up. If you like answering phones, join a call-centre and get it out of your system.
Language, ethnicity and culture clash. We have come a long way in the last 100 years but the world is still divided by language, religion, skin-colour and ethnicity. While you may have always dreamed of back-packing through the steppes of Russia on your weekends, if you are dark-skinned the dynamics are different. Much of the world is still hostile to certain types of people. Accept that you may need to compromise some freedoms if you want to move.
Personally – If I could do it all over again. I would choose London, Prague, Vienna or Munich. There is so much happening in Europe, Turkey, Eastern Europe and North Africa. Any of these cities would be an ideal place. Of course you would need to speak Czech, Russian, German, Turkish or French to make this work.