Strategy consulting: what is it?

Strategy consulting is a profession that attracts many students every year from top business and engineering schools (HEC, ESSEC, ESCP, l'X, Centrale, SciencesPo...), but remains little known to the general public.

Nov. 27, 2023 Carrière

Back to summary

Le Conseil en stratégie, qu’est-ce que c’est - McKinsey BCG Bain - Couverture

Strategy consulting is a profession that attracts many students every year from top business and engineering schools (HEC, ESSEC, ESCP, l'X, Centrale, Sciences Po...), but remains little known to the general public. What's more, the missions of a strategy consulting firm are varied, and don't boil down to corporate strategy alone, whether you're looking at MBBs (McKinsey, BCG, Bain) or other firms. Strategy consulting firms work with clients in both the private and public sectors, drawing on their sector-specific and functional expertise, on short assignments lasting from a few weeks to a few months, from the diagnostic phase through to implementation. As well as playing a crucial role in the economy, strategy consulting also contributes to the development of society in areas such as ESG, artificial intelligence and employee well-being.

Our article takes a closer look at each of these elements to help you better understand what strategy consulting is all about.

Strategy consulting

The role of strategy consulting: problem solving

Strategy consulting firms aim to provide a solution to a strategic problem by offering their clients an external vision, precise expertise and different possible resolution scenarios. The strength of strategy consulting firms lies in their ability to intervene rapidly on a multitude of subjects, thanks to the skills of their teams and their proven methodologies. The ultimate goal of a strategy consult ancy is to solve the customer's problem.

Strategy consulting clients : private sector, investment funds, public authorities

The clients of strategy consulting firms fall into three broad categories: private sector, investment funds and public sector.

  • The vast majority of strategy consulting firms work with companies' COMEX or general management. These are mainly large groups with thousands of employees and sales of several billion euros, but they can also include small and medium-sized companies. In France, for example, McKinsey works with over 70% of CAC40 companies. In the same way, 4% of former strategy consultants are on CAC 40 COMEX boards, according to a Consultor study available here.
  • Investment funds are also major clients of strategy consulting firms, who advise them on investment strategies and portfolios. McKinsey, BCG and Bain have created dedicated Private Equity practices, while firms such as LEK and Advancy are recognized for their expertise in this field. Consultor's ranking of PE strategy consultancies in 2022 can also be found here.
  • Finally, the public sector, through governments, administrations and public bodies, is also a consumer of strategy consulting, but accounts for only 5 to 10% of business.

Strategy consulting, short missions upstream of projects

Strategy consultants work with a wide range of clients in both the private and public sectors on crucial issues. Strategy consulting assignments generally have the same format, with firms intervening upstream of projects, generally for a short or medium-term horizon, over a short period of time, from 3 weeks for the shortest to up to 6 months for the longest. Strategy consultants will alternate between working within the firms and travelling to the customer's premises, depending on the needs of the assignment. To find out more about the role of a strategy consultant , read our article on the subject.

The different types of strategy consulting assignments

Le Conseil en stratégie, qu’est-ce que c’est - McKinsey BCG Bain - Expertises sectorielles et fonctionnelles

The 3 main types of strategy consulting assignments

Strategy consulting firms are involved in assisting organizational leaders with their strategic issues. However, these firms are no longer pure-players in strategy consulting, and are also involved in other types of assignments.

  • Strategic missions: these are strategy-related missions that concern the whole company or only part of it, with a focus on a specific product line, activity or region, for example.
    • Entering a new market with a new offering and/or in a new region
    • Increase the company's organic growth by boosting sales
    • Increase profitability through cost reduction
    • Strategic planning and redesign of the company's business model
  • M&A and Private Equity assignments: these involve assisting major groups with their M&A strategies for sale or purchase, as well as advising investors on their investment strategies and specific transactions.
    • Strategic advice on M&A transactions
    • Strategic due diligence for buyers and/or sellers
    • Portfolio review
  • Organization and IT assignments: once the preserve of management consulting firms and IT specialists such as Accenture, major firms such as MBB are now also involved in these issues.
    • Closure of a foreign subsidiary
    • Digital transformation of the organization

The matrix organization of strategy consulting firms

To carry out these different types of assignments, strategy consulting firms are organized on a matrix basis, with sector expertise on the one hand, and functional expertise on the other. Functional expertise defines the area of the organization in which the firm operates, while sectoral expertise groups together the areas of intervention.

  • Functional expertise: Strategy, Private Equity, M&A, Operations, Organizations, IT & Digital, Risk, Marketing, Human Resources
  • Sector expertise: Aerospace & Defense, TMT, Financial Services, Health & Pharmaceuticals, Energy & Chemicals, Logistics & Transport, Tourism, Retail & Consumer Goods, Luxury Goods

Our assignments generally combine functional and sector expertise. In the strategy consulting business, some firms are generalists, capable of providing all these areas of expertise, such as MBB, Roland Berger, Oliver Wyman and Kearney. Others may have a recognized specialty in functional expertise, such as Simon-Kücher, historically present in marketing, or in sector expertise, such as LEK, recognized in private equity. Click here to read our article on strategy consulting firms.

Examples of assignments from Top 5 strategy consulting firms

In short, strategy consulting assignments are rich and varied, providing exposure to a wide range of subjects. Here are 5 concrete examples of assignments carried out by Top 5 strategy consulting firms between 2021 and 2023:

  • McKinsey (2021) - Supporting the French government in planning and organizing the covid-19 vaccination campaign
  • BCG (2022) - Definition of the "New Horizon" plan for Air France-KLM, its new strategic plan following the end of covid-19
  • Bain (2021) - Vendor due diligence on the sale of Asmodée by PAI Partners to Embracer for around €3 billion
  • Roland Berger (2023 ) - Assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each country bidding to host the African Cup of Nations soccer competition
  • Oliver Wyman (2023) - Assisting UBS in the merger and integration of Credit Suisse to determine which activities and workforce to retain

Find out more about our e-learning training files on the best firms, with examples of assignments for each.

How a strategy consulting assignment works

Historically, strategy consulting assignments have been structured around three phases: diagnosis, development of solutions and recommendations. Nowadays, most firms, especially the larger ones such as McKinsey, BCG and Bain, also take care of the operational implementation of their recommendations, which until now have tended to be handled by management consulting firms. This enables strategy consulting firms to diversify their interventions and have a greater impact with their clients.

Diagnosis, the framing and analysis phase of strategy consulting

The diagnostic phase corresponds to the identification of the problems to which the strategy consulting team will have to find solutions. The aim is to understand the customer's needs through in-depth discussions on the various aspects of the assignment. Once the scope of the mission has been determined, the consultants can gather all the data they need to carry out their analyses. This includes both internal company data and information, as well as external data and information, for example, from the firm's experts on a specific sector or theme. Then the data analysis can begin, with each consultant dedicated to analyzing a part of the case to solve the customer's problem.

Solution development, the key strength of strategy consulting firms

On the basis of the analyses carried out, the strategy consulting firm communicates the results obtained to its customers. Then, in collaboration with them, they draw up different scenarios of possible solutions to meet the needs identified. The scenarios are prioritized according to the customer's objectives. The advantage of strategy consulting firms for organizations is that they are able to develop solutions in a very short space of time.

Read also: All you need to know about strategy consultants: assignments, careers, salaries

Recommendations, the final phase of the strategy consulting mission

Once the various solutions have been worked out and prioritized, the consultants draw up an action plan to implement the recommendations. The action plan defines each person's responsibilities, creates the workstreams required to implement the recommendations, and establishes a roadmap. Equally important, the consultants will determine monitoring and success indicators to facilitate operational implementation.

Finally, as mentioned above, if the strategy consulting firm is also responsible for operational implementation, it is they who will ensure the follow-up of the defined recommendations. If necessary, they can also adjust certain recommendations according to the evolution of the implementation and the customer's objectives.

Three future challenges for strategy consulting

Strategy consulting is an exciting profession that enables us to make a real impact on the economy and society. The role of strategy consulting firms goes far beyond the scope of their missions, as they are also leaders in innovation and the development of tomorrow's projects.

ESG with environmental urgency as the main focus of strategy consulting

Against a backdrop of climate urgency and growing social responsibility, strategy consulting firms have accelerated their focus on ESG issues in recent years. In fact, a quarter of all acquisitions by strategy consulting firms between 2021 and 2022 were ESG or CSR firms, according to a July 2022 Consultor article. The development of this activity within firms reflects a fundamental trend in society, where everything is now linked either to the environment or to social responsibility. As a result, there has been an increase in demand from strategy consulting firms for specific ESG assignments, particularly those related to environmental issues. For example, how to reduce one's carbon footprint to comply with the Paris Agreements. But ESG issues are now integrated into every assignment. For example, a company seeking to increase its sales to boost growth must take into account its social and environmental impact. Last but not least, this is also in line with recruitment logic, since consultants who join strategy consulting firms on leaving school are increasingly sensitive to the firm's ESG orientations, whether on assignments or internally.

Artificial intelligence, the new technological challenge for strategy consultants

Artificial intelligence is another hot topic in strategy consulting. Leading strategy consulting firms have been working on artificial intelligence for several years now, including BCG with BCG X and McKinsey with Quantum Black. However, the artificial intelligence phenomenon has really accelerated with the release of ChatGpt to the general public in 2022, with Bain even partnering with ChatGpt to train its consultants and integrate Sam Altman's AI with its clients. As with GSS, demand for AI-related assignments is likely to grow rapidly. Beyond this issue, the immediate interest of strategy consulting firms is to be able to rapidly upgrade their skills in exploiting artificial intelligence by training their generalist consultants to become more productive and truly expert, and thus better able to serve their customers. Click here to read the Consultor website's excellent analysis of the subject.

Consultants' well-being, the main internal issue in strategy consulting

The final topic in our article on strategy consulting: consultant well-being, an internal priority for firms. The number one competitive advantage of strategy consulting firms is their human resources, in other words, their consultants. But once they've attracted the best talent, they need to know how to keep it. Being a consultant is a difficult job, particularly in view of the long working hours and frequent travel to customer sites. Attractive remuneration is no longer enough, and consultants are increasingly looking for meaning in what they do. In terms of work organization, firms have introduced a number of measures: telecommuting, opportunities to take a break after a long assignment, night-off systems (for example, at Bain, where consultants have one evening a week with a guaranteed 7pm exit from the office), and so on. PMP Strategy, for example, offers a 4-day week with 100% pay after the birth of a baby. In the medium-to-long term, strategy consultants can also take career breaks of 2 months to 1 year to carry out a personal project. Similarly, they have the opportunity to go and work for clients of the firm, if they want a change of scenery. Last but not least, the quest for meaning is also important for consultants. In addition to assignments, talented individuals are looking for strategy consulting firms that are committed to social and environmental causes. In this respect, numerous pro-bono missions are carried out by firms every year.

In a few words, strategy consulting is an exciting and essential profession.

Strategy consulting is therefore an essential field for organizations in need of a fresh, enlightened look at strategic issues. The strategy consulting business is rich and varied, driven by the different areas of expertise within our firms. It is also constantly evolving to meet the challenges of the future: ESG, artificial intelligence, consultant well-being, and many others.

Read also: Top 5 reasons to join a consulting firm strategy consulting

Do you want to work in strategy consulting?

Then join us and be part of the 90% of our candidates who integrate a TOP 6 every year. PrepaStrat is the first interview preparation program for strategy consulting firms, with :

  • 6 years of expertise, we're the oldest player in strategy consulting interview preparation
  • 6 bootcamps per year, comprising 35 hours of training over 5 days
  • 1 referent coach from an MBB for each supported candidate
  • 100% of our coaches are Senior Consultants and Managers from McKinsey, BCG and Bain
  • 6 online training modules to prepare you for interviews and understand what Strategy Consulting is all about
  • 50+ corrected case studies that have already fallen into the hands of top strategy consulting firms
  • Aim for excellence and join the top strategy consulting firms with Prépa Strat

Discover our bootcampour on-the-job interviews and our e-learning platform !

Back to blog