How ‘Super Boutiques’ Are Disrupting the Old Guard of Management Consulting

Today’s companies expect more than suggestions. They want an agile team that can bring a strategy to life.
Headshot of author Patrick Sheridan
Patrick Sheridan
Expert Contributor
April 27, 2021
Updated: April 28, 2021
Headshot of author Patrick Sheridan
Patrick Sheridan
Expert Contributor
April 27, 2021
Updated: April 28, 2021

The idea of a work-life balance is and always has been a myth — at least for employees of large management consulting firms.

It’s not that these firms aren’t trying to do right by their employees; many of them offer a variety of flex time and vacation options. But the “normal” 14-hour work days make it hard to find time to hang out with the kids. Indeed, a recent Harvard Business Review study of management consultants found that their grueling work demands were simply incompatible with the very concept of a work-life balance.

It’s another nail in the coffin for Fortune 500 consulting firms, which have seen their average lifespan drop from 50 years in the 1950s to about 20 years today. These organizations are quickly being supplanted by what I call “super boutiques”: smaller, more agile consulting firms that offer much more than just thoughtful recommendations on how to implement an ideal strategy.

Super boutiques deliver highly specialized engagements that scale quickly into full digital product implementation. They have the strategic chops to provide their clients with expert guidance, but they follow that up with the technical know-how to help clients put that guidance into action. As such, super boutiques give employees a chance to exercise their passions and show off their skill sets. They don’t get bogged down in a constant series of meetings. Instead, they get to be creative and collaborative (and they still get plenty of flex time).

Super boutiques aren’t about delivering a work-life balance. In fact, they’re smashing that myth, focusing instead on providing an atmosphere that delivers a better quality of life by making employees’ jobs more meaningful. Here are three ways they’re doing it.

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They Let Consultants Get Their Hands Dirty

When we think of a traditional consulting model, we tend to think in Mad Men-esque terms. Picture a person in a suit standing at the head of a conference table, whiteboard at the ready, laying out a strategy for what clients should do next.

But today’s companies expect more than suggestions. They want a team that can bring those suggestions to life. They want talented developers, marketing experts, sales consultants — anyone who can help them achieve their objectives.

Super boutiques employ people with expertise in each of these areas. Some have open-source development chops. Others know exactly what it takes to deliver a good user experience. Still others know how to sell and market the whole package. They take those skills, combine them with strategic guidance and help their clients execute like startups while delivering value for enterprise clients.

Working in this environment is immensely gratifying for consultants. They can think big, but get in the trenches too. At the end of the day, they can shut down knowing they’ve presented and created ideas and made those ideas a reality.

 

They’re Built for Today’s Distributed Workforce

Super boutiques don’t feel compelled to hire associates that focus on clients in specific regions of the country or feel constrained by physical locations. If a client needs someone with expertise with Atlassian tools, and that consultant happens to be located in California — or Virginia, or wherever — so be it. The boutique can deliver. And then it can deliver more, if and when the need arises.

This opens up doors for potential employees all around the world. A talented consultant in Romania may have the skills and knowledge to work on a high-powered U.S. account but would not be given the opportunity to do so by a traditional consulting firm. A super boutique can not only give them that international exposure, it can let them work from where they are, learn from their peers, help interesting clients, and advance their careers.

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They Offer Constant Challenges

Employees who work for super boutiques are guaranteed to be continuously challenged. Unlike traditional consulting engagements, which tend to last for years, a super boutique’s next project is usually right around the corner. That’s because companies no longer want to get locked into long-term expensive engagements that aren’t going to deliver ROI. They want to work with nimble partners that can turn on a dime and move from one project to the next.

It all comes down to competitive advantage: Clients don’t necessarily know what the landscape is going to look like five months from now, let alone five years. They need a consultancy that can move at their pace.

This is great for today’s talent pool of next-generation consultants. They don’t want to be doing the same thing every day for 12 hours a day for the next 10 years. They want to know there’s something new to look forward to next month, next week or even tomorrow. They get that in a smaller, more agile firm.

Of course, this is bad news for the Fortune 500 consultancies of the world. Those companies aren’t designed for today’s economic climate or preferred workplace culture. With their clients unwilling to commit to long-term, expensive contracts, they can’t afford to pay consultants the hourly rates they once did, and they can’t offer the flexibility of a smaller firm. They’ll need to significantly adjust their business models if they wish to attract and retain talent.

No matter what the big guys do, however, the super boutiques are here to stay, because they are purpose-built to meet today’s moment: the need for flexibility, fulfillment and an overall better quality of both work and life.

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