According to Chambers Dictionary, the noun ‘boutique’ became commonly used in the 1960s to define a “small, expensive, exclusive dress shop for women, but [is] no longer so limited.” I’m pleased to hear that. What I know about selling women’s dresses though can be etched on the side of a peanut. The small, expensive and exclusive element of boutique is not too far off the mark though.
Turnover for vanity, profit for sanity
Boutique management consultancy firms tend to be small, expensive and highly specialist. Unlike the big firms, we don’t try to be all things to all men. Whilst we believe that we are the very best in our area (we wouldn’t be able to charge the day rates we charge if we weren’t), you won’t find us shouting about it in multimillion pound advertising campaigns, or sponsoring the Bolshoi Ballet’s latest tour of Covent Garden (not that we have anything against the ballet; we like the arts too!).
The fact is we’re SMEs (subject matter experts) and we don’t make anything close to the revenue that our big brothers do. However, just because we don’t turnover billions, don’t think that we are the poor relations. The costs associated with a boutique consultancy are negligible compared to those of large firms. Our margins are good and we have the flexibility to adapt quickly and innovate; as Shakespeare observed in Henry V, “the fewer men, the greater share of honour.”
A different way of thinking
Boutique firms are neither willing nor able to carry anonymous suits. When we’re not meeting clients we dress casually around our office. We socialise together. We’re encouraged to get away from our desks and go out for lunch together (not eating at your desk is good for the soul and for productivity). We don’t keep rigid timesheets and we don’t ban the use of new media; we encourage it! Our potential consultants are smart, professional, flexible and innovative. They challenge conventional thinking rather than conform to it.
They show an understanding of, and responsibility for, the commercial requirements of the business, as well as a willingness to become a technical expert. Working at a boutique firm, you are likely to quickly find yourself being an important part of a small but dynamic team. Your suggestions will really count and be considered. Furthermore, you will develop a personal relationship with your colleagues and directors.
There are potentially very good rewards to be had. If you’re really good, you will get spotted quickly by the people who count; and that’s when it can get very exciting. Fancy being an executive director by 30? Want to be earning six figures? Want to add more letters after your name, or learn how to set up your own business? It’s all possible in a boutique firm. All you have to do is show that it will add value to the business. In a boutique firm, you are often only limited by your own capability and ambition.
You might suppose that given the niche nature of boutiques there is a danger of project work becoming repetitive and boring. Not in my experience. In the last few years I have worked with clients including FTSE 100 companies, multinationals, government departments and agencies, regulators, legal firms and top barristers’ chambers. A lot of my work is high profile. I see my recommendations to government departments being announced to the public by ministers on the BBC news. That’s pretty satisfying!
Of course, there are risks associated with working specifically for a boutique firm. The specialist nature of boutiques means that there is always a risk associated with the viability of your sector. If a downturn adversely affects your principal business area, a boutique is more vulnerable than a big firm that’s likely to have a more diverse product portfolio and/or have more options to refinance.
My advice for anyone considering a career in management consultancy is to think seriously about boutique firms as well as the big boys. Put in as much effort to researching the right firm as possible. You will be in your career for a long time, so find a firm that has a culture that will suit your interests and support your ambitions; not just the one with the big name and the personality bypass requirement. Over 98% of enterprises in the UK have less than 50 employees and working for a successful small firm can be enormously rewarding financially, professionally and personally. It can pay big to go small.
Written by Nicholas Cahill. Nick is a consultant at CAS, a consultancy that helps highly regulated and asset intensive organisations develop governance structures to improve the behaviour and performance of staff and ensure management systems are fit for purpose.
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