These are five stories from my time at Bain & Co that reflect the reality of management consulting — and not the illusion that recruiting events try to convey.
I admit it, first up — I was an average staff consultant, at best. For one main reason: I am not good at being a employee. (Which is why I'm not an employee now, and don't seek to become one. I am, however, an excellent consultant... hire me as a contractor!)
Having had my share of great jobs where I thrived (Accenture, Groupon, Lyft), and terrible ones where I actually occasionally fantasised about accidental death (Bain, and a Hong Kong asset management firm you've never heard of called Unity Asset Management), I know that when people say "it's so political" that they were on the wrong side of politics and weren't doing well.
I wasn't doing well at Bain. I pissed off my managers and the firm's partners by questioning things and generally being hard to manage (one partner asked my manager to ask me "what's up with your attitude?"). My first boss in consulting gave me a copy of Machiavelli's "The Prince", and told me I should read it.
My other bosses at other companies told me I was hard to manage, too, but they liked me, and sometimes cherished this quality in me (it's what makes me do well as an independent).
But even so, I know that the experiences I had at Bain were far from what I imagined it would be like. And perusing forums like Reddit, I know they're far from what some people might imagine consulting to be like. I've met ex-consultants who hated their times at McKinsey and BCG, and none of us are idiots, and we all had similar stories.
So just for posterity, and in case anyone is googling what it's really like to work at Bain or in consulting (I know BCG is a lot like Bain) — here are five stories that might change your mind.
The Telco — The Slide that Barely Paid for our Fees
My first project was a meandering operations project for a big telecommunications client in Australia (I can say it's Telstra because pretty much every firm has worked for Telstra, as well as for its main competitor, Optus).
At some point, the client decided to pull the plug on the project and said "show us what you've got" in a week or so. The problem was, we had nothing at that point. We had a long runway and were using it; suddenly, with a week left to go before a wrap-up meeting, we had to produce some results.
I spent the next week running around doing client interviews and figuring out bits of software to cull that wouldn't affect operations. I came up with a list in the end that would save around $250,000 in two years.
"Well, that just about covers your fees then, doesn't it..." said the client.
The reality, of course, is that most recommendations barely get implemented, and rarely yield the full results. That might have actually saved them around $100K — and cost $25K in salaries to implement, anyway.
It was a beautiful slide, and it was miraculous I could throw it together in a week, as a junior analyst a couple of months into the job. But the client didn't seem too happy with it, obviously. And it seemed like a long way off what I had thought consulting was — saving clients hundreds of millions through huge re-organisations.
I didn't see that client again.
The Mining Company — Waking Up at 2am to call Mining Companies in Canada
Then there was the time I was trying to figure out an expansion plan for a mining products company in Canada.
The problem is that a) I was in Australia's east coast, which is a bad time zone to call anywhere, and b) mining folk like to get up really early, and they often get busy quickly.
This resulted in me setting my alarm for 2 am every day, getting on the phone, and starting to call random mines in Canada, trying to get interviews with engineers on what they thought of various mining products and expansion plans.
The best part about this is that it turns out that Canadian mining engineers are very friendly and willing to have a chat.
But the worst part came when I decided one day to sleep for a couple of hours between 7 and 9 am, and got an email from my boss at 9:30 am saying something like "You coming in today or what??" It wasn't that the question was inappropriate — it was the tone (and email definitely has tone, particularly when you know someone). I had barely slept all night, and all I got was this terse message. I was so mad I had to schedule separate time with him to explain how upset I was.
Some people out there would have given their right arm to be in my position. But me, no thank you. There were better ways to earn fees than that project, one where I stayed up all night for weeks and wasn't invited to the final meeting.
I was told be on standby during the final meeting, though. "Just in case I need to ask you to print something."
The Singapore Office — Not Being from a Asian Dynasty Family
This is a general comment on the Singapore office. I had the mixed pleasure of working there for six months, flying to and from other Asian countries.
In that time I made a few very good friends, and mostly earned the contempt of everyone else. I think so, anyway, or maybe it was me who had contempt for them, because never have I seen an office so stacked with the children of Asian business dynasties.
People said things like, "his father owns a Taiwanese airline", "his father is the fortieth-richest person in Singapore", and "her parents own a stuffed toy factory in China and are worth hundreds of millions". People wore daily ensembles that cost more than my post-tax monthly salary, and drove cars that most people will never afford.
I've written before about feeling out of place at Bain, and definitely I have my own share of insecurities. But Singapore brought them into sharp focus — I should have gone almost anywhere else.
Some people loved their time at Bain Singapore. These were generally either
- Those who managed to see the beauty in the chaos (hats off to you)
- Beautiful people
- Wealthy people from other parts of the world
- Oblivious gweilos (luckily the minority)
For me, I felt like I was a complete alien, more so than in any other part of the company.
I always remember the times when I'd say something in a mixed gathering, and everyone would laugh, and I'd feel they were laughing at me. The feeling would be confirmed when someone would later explain that what I had said was somewhat gauche.
I think the most memorable one was when I made a joke about royalty (I joked "Would you rather win a Nobel Prize or have a royal title?") to a small group of friends, including a girl I didn't know much about. Everyone laughed... and I could tell I had missed a mark. A somewhat-friend from the group later explained:
"We were laughing at your awkward comment about royalty because she is actually a Russian princess."
The South-East Asian Bank, or The Time I was Making Up Slides while being bitten by mosquitoes at 2am
Then there was the time I was told about an "urgent" meeting with the CFO the following morning where we had to present our work on a growth strategy for the retail bank.
The problem was... we had two months more research to do to gather the data to finish our work.
"No matter," said our boss. "Just back out the assumptions to show what growth should look like."
In other words: the partner was asking us to make up the data, but call them "assumptions" or what we'd need to get there. And do it all the next day, for four separate business units.
But the partner went further than this with her ludicrous request.
"And the growth should look like a hockey stick. Not too steep... gradual, but then getting steeper. Like this:" she said, drawing a hockey stick chart on the whiteboard.
So basically: "This is what the chart should look like; now go make up the data to get there. By tomorrow."
Those of you doing hard labour laugh at this request. What am I complaining about? But it was a weird kind of torture, kind of the opposite of an honest day's work; it was a dishonest night's work.
My good friend Kons and I knew what we had to do to get it done, and we set to it. We went to the hotel lobby in our South-East Asian hotel (after all this time, I still can't say which city or hotel, because it'll give away the client... I just don't want some angry email from Bain) and started producing beautiful models with data we pulled out of nowhere. (Well, we pulled the data from somewhere. But it's not polite to say from where.)
We stayed up nearly all night doing this, swatting mosquitoes away as we typed on our tiny laptops, fighting off sleep. We'd work our way through one Excel sheet, emailing it back and forth (alas, this was before the days of shared online documents). We'd check each other's work and make sure that the ludicrousness at least was proportionate to reality.
There's something discomforting about being kept hostage in a five-star (or maybe six-star) hotel with all expenses paid but not being given time to enjoy it. We sat in opulence, but huddled over tiny laptops with spotty internet connections. We had a breakfast buffet, but had to wake up at dawn to have time to eat any of it. We had a bar fridge in our rooms whose cost was covered by the firm... and rumour had it that many consultants cleaned out the beer and wine in the bar fridge every single night.
Eventually at 4 am after almost ten hours of making up slides and data, I started collapsing. I went to bed, and tried to wake up at 6 am — failing, waking up at 6:45, to a slightly irate (but understanding) Kons calling me on the phone.
The following morning, showing up at the office with bags under our eyes but pressed shirts, we were told that that segment of the meeting had been pushed back a month. So the slides never got shown. I honestly don't remember what happened next, because rage consumed me. What was the point of anything? I sold myself out, stayed up all night, earned the ire of my team-mate for failing to wake up on time, and all for nothing.
My manager gave me a poor rating for that project, citing vague stuff that I know in retrospect was her reaching for an excuse in a poor economy when we had to cut analysts, offering me up to the leadership team as a sacrificial lamb or something. I didn't like her, and I don't like her. That apology for a human being is now a partner, and that speaks ill of the firm.
The Dark Thought Before the Meeting
I saved the best for last: this was the time I knew I had to quit.
I was on a project in Bangkok, flying there regularly back and forth from Singapore. I'd often stay in Singapore for a weekend maybe one out of three or four, and then be in Bangkok for the rest of the time.
Bangkok was work; Singapore was rest. But the reality was that I often was as busy on the weekends in Singapore (where I was supposed to be resting) as I was in Bangkok.
One time, I was on my way from Singapore to Bangkok. I was doing an early morning flight, trying to get some slides ready for a morning meeting.
Flying from Singapore to Bangkok for a meeting sounds glamorous, right? Before joining, people imagine consulting as glamorous. Business class flights, luxury cars, and expense accounts.
In reality it's more like this: economy class flights at odd hours (because you booked at the last minute and have a price cap), Uber, and doing our expenses using ancient software (and losing about 5% in the process).
So there I was, jammed up against the seat in front of me in the back half of economy class, laptop half folded while I tried to type, focusing on the working in the early hours of the morning as I prepared slides for a boring meeting I didn't even want to attend.
Then I had the thought that ended it all:
"Hey, if this plane goes down, then I won't have to go to this stupid meeting."
That was it. I had to get out.
Epilogue: Would I do it again?
I remember when one of my friends left Bain after 2.5 years, shortly after I joined. I was having a rough time, in the middle of my project calling Canadian engineers, and asked him what he thought of his time at Bain. He said: "Dana, I would have done it for free."
That simple sentence gave me a new perspective on the company. Was it really that valuable?
In retrospect, yes. If someone is considering an MBA, I always shoot them down and say "fight tooth and nail to get into Bain, McKinsey, or BCG, and then get paid to learn the same stuff for two years, instead of paying someone else".
I made good contacts, I learned enough to scoff at most MBA programs (except the touchy feely stuff I hear you learn at Stanford), and I definitely had beaten into me a feeling of "zero defect".
I left for a reason, and that's that it was killing me. The constant performance reviews where we were compared to our peers — I'm sure it must have been great for those on top (as it has been for me in other companies in which I've worked — I did much better in Accenture, Groupon, Lyft, and as a private consultant), but not so much for the rest of us.
I realised that I enjoyed about 10% of my life as a consultant at Bain, felt bored during 65% of it, and hated a full 25% of my life. That's too much. Hating more than 0.5% of your life (the unavoidable drudgery, like taxes or parking fines) is too much.
But despite that scathing review of life at Bain, I'm still appreciative for the training, the branding, for the few good friends it gave me, and for the new friends I still make through connections of years ago.
You can get those connections in a few other places. A high-power startup is one, although you wouldn't get the training. An established tech company like Google would be another, but then there will be people joining from consulting firms who will mysteriously be ahead of you, and find it easier to get the good jobs.
There are many paths I could have chosen other than to do a seven-year double degree and working in consulting. I could have skipped the second part of my double degree and gotten to building websites, as I'm doing now, and I'd definitely be worth millions now — but would I have been happy? I don't think so. Some part of me would feel like I never really "tried" corporate life (I have friends who feel this way).
If you really do want to try corporate life and see how far you can make it, I still think consulting is the best place to start. Hopefully, you'll have a better run than I did.
But don't have any illusions about what consulting life is like. Everyone has at least one story of a terrible project — and sometimes several. Assume one will be yours.