To some, a consulting career is a destination. You may target consulting firms as college graduation looms. If that attempt is unsuccessful, you may accept a job in another industry with the goal of acquiring a few years of business experience and applying with consulting firms again later.
While these are both valid strategies, like every industry, consulting isn’t for everyone. It is important to verify that you are willing and able to live the lifestyle of a consultant.
Before diving into a consulting career, ask yourself the following questions:
Can I handle the travel of a consulting career?
Depending on the consulting firm you work for, you may be expected to travel. This can vary from zero to 100%. As a consultant, you are at the whim of your clients and their location. You may be lucky enough to be assigned to a local client, or you may be sent out of town Monday through Friday every week. If you have family commitments that restrict your ability to do that, or if you simply don’t want to live out of a suitcase eating restaurant food five days of every week, then consulting may not be for you.
Do I like variety or a routine?
If you work in a non-consulting industry, chances are you will be assigned a cubicle or an office and work in that setting on a daily basis. Like most people, you will place personal items like family pictures, your softball trophy, and other mementos around it to make it feel like home. In a consulting career, you rarely have an assigned workspace in your firm’s office. You will spend most of your time in a temporary location at the client, only to move off to another client location when your work at the original project is complete.
Most consultants like the variety of moving from client to client and having different surroundings every few months. Some people are uncomfortable with that. They want to have a home base that they can go to day-in and day-out.
Do I like predictability?
I once received a call at nine o’clock on a Thursday night to report to another city the next day. I spent the following six weeks on that out-of-town project. In most cases, consultants are given better warning of an assignment, but a consultant must be willing and able to change clients and locations on short notice.
Do I need recognition?
Clients often hire consultants as a form of insurance. If things go wrong, the consulting outsiders are excellent targets for blame. When things go right, the client employees often claim credit for the project’s success. A large part of the consultant’s job is to make the client look good. If the client claims success, the consultant’s job is complete. Smart consulting firms often reward credit and praise to their consultants separately, but a consultant should not expect it at the client.
Do I need a standard schedule?
Workdays in a consulting career can vary on a regular basis. If an issue comes up and isn’t resolved at 4:30 in the afternoon, client personnel may be seen heading for the door while consultants are expected to stay until the issue is resolved. If you are tied to a train schedule or have family commitments at a specific time every day, you may not have the luxury of a variable schedule.
For more information, check out Getting In to Consulting
Can I balance demands from a manager within my firm and at my client?
In most consulting careers, consultants report to a manager within his or her firm and to a manager at the client. The two managers don’t always collaborate, causing conflicting instructions from the bosses. Consultants need to be able to balance following a manager’s orders and insuring the correct orders are being followed. Diplomacy is a critical skill.
Do I have a thick skin?
Consultants are paid high hourly rates. As a result, clients often have high standards and expect their consultants to be experts at all times. When a consultant makes a mistake, clients may be less than forgiving. The client response can range from a statement of disappointment, “I thought you were supposed to be the expert,” to chastising, “Why am I paying these hourly rates for you to just screw things up?” to a request to have you removed from the project
A consultant has to have the confidence and the ability to think and work under pressure to allow himself to make occasional mistakes and to deal with the client consequences.
A consulting career can be interesting and exciting. It provides opportunities that can lead to a long and fulfilling career. It is also demanding of time, energy, and wits. Anyone seeking a position in this industry should be certain they have the flexibility and wherewithal to work in it.
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com