March 16, 2024

Retention of demoralized young consultants: is project rotation the only hope?

Minutes to read
Minutes to read

Young consultants are a hot commodity - eager, energetic and bursting with fresh ideas. While few arrive as the full package ready to be put in front of clients, most possess the core characteristics that will see them become key contributors in time. Increasingly however, time isn’t on your side: industry and big tech fight for your talent after just one or two years, now considering your young consultants proven through association with you!

Partners who invest in the development of university leavers, only to see them leave at the point they become capable, often find themselves sat ruing sunk costs. With even medium-term loyalty no longer a given, can leadership be blamed for allocating less time and resource to professional development in early years?

"I was working on one client for my whole time there. The first few months were exciting as we explored and implemented a solution, but after that the support work got very repetitive.” Arjun, 26, formerly at a Big 4 consultancy

In this post, we’ll be hearing the views of individuals in their mid-twenties who have either left consultancies recently or are considering leaving in the upcoming 12 - 18 months. Though many highlighted salary as a key decision factor, can the value of spending the early stage of one’s career at a consultancy be reduced to financial renumeration alone?

Read on for our five-step method to introduce regular staff rotation as a key retention policy.

*names have been changed for anonymity.

1. Instill a culture of learning new skills through job rotation plan

“A lot of the appeal of consulting was the variety of industries and clients. I want a range of experience, but I was stuck on banking projects only. The more experience you get in one sector, the more fixed you are on that path.”Sheng, 25 - formerly at a Big 4 consultancy

Working a variety of projects with diverse clients provides young staff with a breadth of experience they can later reference when settling on their career direction. This contrasts with early exit opportunities at technology and in-house firms which, in return for higher salary and seniority, often pigeonhole poached hires into prescribed career paths before they have time to consider if they are truly suited. 

Despite this competitive advantage available within consultancies, why then do staff so often receive a limited range of experience? If a junior consultant has been on a long-term project for over 12 months and does not see a way out soon, they are at heightened risk of accepting an outside offer. Even medium-length tenure on particularly unexciting engagements or unsustainably high-intensity projects can lead staff to look elsewhere. 

“The project I was stuck on became really repetitive after a while. I felt like there wasn’t much more left to learn from the experience.”David, 24 - currently at a Big 4 consultancy

Reading comments from Sheng and David, it appears the benefits of variety are well understood by new joiners. We recommend consultancies take things one step further and include commitments to job rotation program within recruitment and onboarding materials, setting yourselves apart from the competition.

2. Make sure all project accountable individuals are on board

It's no secret that senior managers are often the ones most reluctant to facilitate staff rotation. Having resources constantly stream in and out of a project can be disruptive to team dynamics and lead to a loss in productivity. So, how to convince them?

“It sounds silly, but in many ways seeing others leave contributed to me leaving too. The domino effect!”Louise, 26 - formerly at a Big 4 consultancy

Comments like Louise’s are not uncommon; with each resignation impacting project performance, you need your senior managers ready and willing to arrest these trends. Here are a few tips to bring them on board:

Clearly communicate the reasons for staff rotation, emphasizing the impact attrition has on wider company success.

Host open consultation sessions to take on their input and feedback early on, helping them feel a degree of ownership over the process.

Provide the necessary guidance and technology to facilitate smooth handover and onboarding processes.

By taking these steps, you can increase the chances that rotation will be a success.

3. Set a staff rotation length to suit all parties

"I think 6-month rotations are the sweet spot. Enough time to understand the project and add value, without the dread during tough times where you can’t see an end in sight.”David, 24 - currently at a Big 4 consultancy

Having consultants regularly move between projects has its challenges. Day-to-day project working knowledge, familiarity with client stakeholders, and active input into ongoing deliverables all make clean transitions difficult.

To overcome this, rotation frequency should be set at a schedule which balances project continuity with the provision of a rich early career experience for young consultants. Making use of work handover software can also help to extract the full picture of roles, responsibilities, objectives and stakeholders from departing consultants, allowing those incoming to become self-sufficient faster.

4. Be mindful of varying skills and interests

“I felt like I had to leave to avoid being forced down the project manager career path. I prefer using my technical skills.“Jamie, 27 - formerly at a technology consultancy

To keep consultants engaged, it's important to consider their skills and interests when rotating them through projects. By doing so you can ensure their wellbeing and enjoyment - both leading to higher motivation and productivity – while challenging them to attain new heights. When consultants are excited about the work they are doing, they're more likely to go above and beyond to get the job done.

“I learn by doing. There was too much sheltering, bureaucracy and risk management to allow proper learning. Instead of finding novel ways of achieving an objective, we were instructed to use existing ‘proven’ cookie-cutter processes and slides.” Arjun, 26 - formerly at a Big 4 consultancy

Where possible, try not to restrain work to seniority level. If you have a consultant who particularly enjoys and is skilled at presenting, consider involving them in bid processes to give them a taste of future business development work. Or if you have a consultant who shows an interest and aptitude for SQL or Python, perhaps involve them in a vendor partnership to understand how these building blocks are productionized into solutions. The more often you rotate, the easier it is to match consultants newly on the bench to work that will excite them, and the lesser employee leaving. 

“I’d annoy Senior Managers with my CV and stalk the pipeline spreadsheet for my projects while others expected the resourcing team to make their dreams happen.” Louise, 26 - formerly at a Big 4 consultancy

While Louise’s dedication is admirable, we recommend you ensure that other less-insistent voices are also heard. Consider involving personal/career managers in resourcing meetings, who will more accurately be able to communicate the needs and desires of their juniors.  

Having your consultants work on projects that suit their skills and interests keeps them engaged and motivated, ultimately benefiting both project performance and your retention goals.

5. Transitions should be comprehensive and clean

“I was seconded into a different team to assist in a domain where I had virtually zero experience. There was no handover or onboarding provided so it took a lot of time to really understand the work I was doing. Straight into the deep end, I worried the quality of my work reflected badly on me.” David, 24 - currently at a Big 4 consultancy

Instilling formal handover processes is the best strategy to avoid knowledge loss when consultants rotate, giving them the best of chance of hitting the ground running.

The clean break is perhaps the most critical element in effective rotation programes. Once knowledge is shared, all communication should be cut off between the outgoing consultant and their former team. This will avoid messy situations where consultants are not able to fully commit themselves to new experiences as they are still tending to former engagements.

"Just before I resigned, I was assigned a project where I’d be holding multiple roles, each at a higher seniority than my official one. When considering my previous project onboarding experiences, I knew it was time to leave.” Louise, 26 - formerly at a Big 4 consultancy

Teams, roles, responsibilities, processes, documents, stakeholders, events, milestones - just a selection of the many items included in a quality handover. Succession plan software like imprend can assist in capturing this information cleanly.

Reducing attrition in young consultants

The difficulty of holding onto young consultants will not be alleviated by any one solution. Staff rotation however represents a potentially low-cost strategy that can keep consultants engaged through continuously fresh challenges, also increasing their long-term value to your firm.

To maximize the benefits, it's important to implement a considered plan incorporating senior management and project objectives, with controls in place to streamline employee handover process.  

By offering a rotation program, you signal to recruits that you're an innovative company with a strong commitment to employee development, a potential key differentiator against rivals. After all, variety is the spice of advice!

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