Management consulting “lingo” – words and phrases that applicants and interviewees should know

People make fun of consultants constantly for their lingo. Whether justified or not (I will restrain from turning this blog into too much of a soapbox), it’s important for anyone interested in the industry to understand SOME of the terms (because as an applicant/interviewee, the last thing you want to happen is for you to mention how much you love consulting and for the interviewer to ask you what being “on the beach” means).

As good coders code and great coders reuse, we came across an excellent post from a fellow blogger, Benjamin Tseng (who currently works at a Big 3). It’s reproduced in near entirety below (see original post), with two tweaks:

#1 We’ve split the terms between those that are “good-to-know” for potential applicants (with our rationale in yellow boxes) and the rest, which are useful only “if-you-have-too-much-time-on-your-hands”

#2 We’ve added links if there are any terms/concepts that relate to previously written posts

As an interesting aside, we once assumed that while consulting lingo existed at every firm, each firm had unique phrases for many of the concepts. Thus after reviewing the terms below, we automatically thought Ben was a fellow McKinsey consultant. This was not the case, and it goes to show the degree of commonality in day-to-day that you will encounter regardless of firm. Remember that, prospective consultants!

The “good-to-know”:

Boil the ocean: to embark on an apparently impossible, wasteful or fruitless task, usually preceded by an exhortation not to, as in: “Let’s not boil the ocean here, an 80/20 should be enough”; this term suggests that the amount of effort to be expended is not worth the potential payoff

Interviewers may bring this up to suggest that you reduce/focus your analyses – take hint that you’re either thinking about way too many things, or thinking way too broadly about the problem at hand

Development opportunity: a weakness, flaw or shortcoming that should be rectified, usually by the subsequent suggestion

Pay close attention when interviewers/recruiters/anyone mentions this phrase and work to correct the problem (eg, “I think one development opportunity for you is to develop more succinct responses to questions about past work experience”)

Directionally correct: essentially wrong

Don’t feel encouraged. You’ve got a long way to go in getting the right answer

On the beach (term not included in Ben’s post but added here): a consultant with no dedicated project(s). being “on the beach” rarely indicates free time (much less beach time); rather, being “on the beach” will indicate that for an undetermined period, you will worry constantly about your next long-term project while you’re shuttled from one short-term assignment to the next

Just know what it means. Integrate into comments casually if you want brownie points (eg, “I’ve heard from consulting friends that many have been on the beach recently”)

View from 30,000 feet: a very high-level, preliminary or cursory look at a particular situation, often used to suggest that pertinent details are inappropriately glossed over; however, one never speaks of the view from, say five or six feet, which might be more appropriate given the average height of a human being

Depending on context, interviewer either a) doesn’t have additional details, b) wants you to provide additional details, or c) wants you to provide a summary/high-level answer

The “if-you-have-too-much-time-on-your-hands”:

At the end of the day: a phrase used to attempt summarization, introduce an air of finality and perhaps close off certain avenues of discussion; since most consultants’ days do not end with the setting of the sun, at the end of the day most of them are still working

Bandwidth: capacity, free time, ability to do (additional) work; generally used to indicate that speaker cannot or would not prefer to do additional work, as in: “I don’t think I’ll have any bandwidth this Friday”

Buckets: categories; this is the extent of this word’s definition, so it remains a mystery why people choose to employ the former term; also used as a transitive verb to mean “categorize”

Buttoned-up: to indicate that a particular piece of work or analysis is comprehensive, accurate and capable of withstanding close scrutiny; this is an example of opposite terms with identical meanings

Buttoned-down: see buttoned-up

Buy-in: agreement, support; it is unclear why “buy-in” has come to supplant these terms, as no actual purchasing occurs

Circle back: to follow up with indicated individuals at a later point in time, usually to review progress on the current topic of discussion; this phrase is somewhat redundant, as it is impossible to trace a circle that does not connect back with itself

Crisp: an adjective indicating that the referenced work or analysis is thorough and complete, perhaps by gastronomical allusion to food that is fully prepared; it is duly noted that crisp objects, while ostensibly finished, are also far more brittle and prone to shattering

Granular: a detailed level of abstraction; often used in the context of increasing the fineness of the analysis, as in: “We need to get more granular here”

Hands: often prefaced with “client,” indicates the interpersonal skills of an individual in relation to a particular group of people, as in, “That manager sure has great client hands

Hard stop: used to indicate that after the time indicated, the listeners are on their own, because the person stating that they have a hard stop sure isn’t going to be around to help after then

Hope you’re doing well: a generally well-intended but insincere interpolation used at the beginning of most voicemails to replace the standard pleasantries that would be present in verbal communications; use of this phrase does not indicate actual interest in the well-being of the recipient; also found with alarming frequency in electronic mail

Key: critical, essential, required, important, central; the key analysis is generally the linchpin; often used as a noun, and with such frequency that its significance has been diluted, since everything is now “key”

Let me play this back: said when the listener wants to refract and color the conversation through his or her own perspective, under the pretense of reviewing the transcript of what’s been said; in this manner the listener can pretend he or she is a tape recorder

Low-hanging fruit: the initial opportunities, areas of exploration, etc. that are easiest to cover; intended to evoke visual imagery of fruit-laden trees, suggesting that much remains beyond the lowest boughs; syn. quick win

Provide color: a directive that translates roughly to “This is perhaps the most boring thing I have ever read, with the possible exception of certain lengthier legal disclaimers, and even then it’s pretty close”; this bit of jargon is nevertheless somewhat of an advance, since, back in the early days of consulting, people were encouraged to provide black and white

Push back (verb form) or pushback (noun): formerly the sole domain of airplanes leaving their gates, this term is now used to indicate resistance and/or disagreement, without actually using those terms; this phrase attempts to avoid any negative connotations of controversy

Quick question: the answer will be anything but; bizarre since the adjective “quick” is intended, by implication, to be transferred to the answer to said question and does not necessarily have any bearing on the length of the question

Rock star: an individual whose performance in a given area or success at specific endeavors is highly impressive, unique and/or admirable; this appellation is generally used sparingly; although the term is sometimes used frivolously to express purportedly extreme gratitude, as in: “Thanks for picking up my mail for me, you’re a rock star”

Sea change: in between lake change and ocean change

Sniff test: as in evaluating food for rancidity, this term is used when gauging the viability or reasonableness of a particular analysis; var. smell test

Space: a market, arena, field of endeavor, or general area, not to be confused with the area beyond Earth’s atmosphere; use of this term usually adds nothing in the way of descriptive value, as in “I don’t think there will be many opportunities in the technology space”

Straw man: a humanoid comprised entirely of the dried above-ground stalks of any of a variety of grasses; also, a construct presented purely for the sake of argument, with the implication that it is not designed to withstand repeated attacks

Take the lead on: a clever phrase often used by more experienced consultants when they wish to delegate a menial task, as in: “Why don’t you take the lead on putting together this document,” which may translate to, “I’m lazy and probably not smart or energetic enough to work on this, so go do it”; often appears in utterly irrelevant settings, as in, “Why don’t you take the lead on making dinner reservations for the team,” a manifestly silly request, since one is asked to “take the lead on” something which doesn’t require leadership of anyone and on which they will certainly be working solo

Takeaway: in other settings a British term referring to carry-out food, here this word has been transmogrified to indicate the salient point that should be retained upon the conclusion of the discussion, often prefaced with key

To be transparent: in indication that what follows will be particularly revelatory, although it often is not especially so; the troubling implication of this usage is that the speaker has heretofore been opaque

Value-add: quite simply, that value is added, mashed into a hyphenated noun form

Wordsmith: to make trivial or generally unnecessary edits to text that may only subtly change the meaning, if at all; incorrectly implies that one is a craftsman on the order of a blacksmith or goldsmith; sadly, wordsmithing rarely involves the deletion of jargon

We’re sure there are many more – feel free to leave comments below!

Thanks for reading! For more background info and if you’re just starting to read our blog, here are some recommended posts: Management Consulting and the Consulting Industry 101; Investment Banking vs Management Consulting; Day in the life of a Management Consultant

UPCOMING POSTS: Review of best articles/posts; Details on my coaching sessions

Good luck! Subscribe to my RSS feed here. We offer hands-on coaching sessions to help people break into management consulting and top business jobs – from re-writing your resume to simulated interviews/case studies to thorough Q&A. You’ll learn everything we know about recruiting for and working at the top businesses in the world

Get the Management Consulted email newsletter:

Filed Under: management consulting