Consulting: Stepping Stone or Career

Consulting-stepping stone
Consulting may be just a stepping stone

In days gone by, the terms job and career were synonymous.  Whether you were fresh out of high school, college or the military, you got a job and worked there until you retired. It was rare to have two or more jobs in one’s career

Today’s world is different.  Companies have massive layoffs. It moves people to new employers every few years or so.  Additionally, companies began dropping pensions and individuals started saving for their own 401(k) savings programs. The work force became much more portable. Employees were no longer beholden to stay at one company until retirement.  Finally, the pace of technological change has also caused great employment change.  Organizational needs change more frequently causing additional churn in their employment ranks.

All of these trends have created a much greater need for consulting.  Companies hire individuals to augment their staff. Or, they may bring in entire teams of consultants to manage and implement a major project.

Once someone enters the consulting industry, the conversation often evolves to whether that consultant is a “lifer”- a career consultant. Or are they simply trying to gain valuable experience to move on as an executive at another company. They may want to eventually start their own company.

Of the many aspects that make consulting an attractive option, future opportunity is one of them.  There are many routes one can take in her career after just a few years of consulting experience.

Why consulting experience is richer

Consider two comparable graduates from the same university.  Alex chose to work for a large insurance company in a major city.  Erica hired on at a top consulting firm in the same town making about ten percent more than Alex. They both majored in computer science and had similar GPAs at graduation.

Alex is assigned to work in the claims department.  He spends two years learning about claims and maintaining existing IT applications for his company’s claims department.  After two years, he is promoted to team lead.  He will continue to work on code, but will coordinate efforts of a few others that are more junior than him. He is now making about ten percent more than the rate at which he started.

See my related post: Reasons Not To Climb the Corporate Ladder

Erica spent her first few months in consulting on a project in the insurance industry at one of Alex’s competitors.  She worked with a team that wrote new applications to enhance their existing claims system.  After that project, she spent another four months helping design a new system for another insurance company.  Over that period, she spent time on four projects with different insurance clients. She learned the similarities and differences in how companies in the same industry do the same things. She developed significant industry expertise. After two years, she is making twenty-five percent more than her original starting pay.

It’s clear that Erica has learned more about her industry than Alex by working across multiple clients.  She has also been given opportunities to present to groups of people, participate in decision making, and manage teams.  All of these experiences make her more valuable to her firm and more marketable to other employers.

A career in consulting

Most firms have a well-defined career track for those that plan to spend their careers in consulting.  Many larger and mid-sized firms are partnerships.  The holy grail of career consultants is often to make partner.  If you are promoted up the ranks quickly enough, you’re said to be on “the partner track”.

The critical variable is your ability to sell consulting services.  One rarely makes partner at a consulting firm because of their stellar project management skills or even for their leadership.  Those are important skills, but they will do you no good unless you can complement them with the ability to sell. Rain makers become partners.

Once one makes partner, there are various levels within the partner ranks to continue moving up.  There are senior partners, executive managing partners, and other levels to keep the carrot hanging out there.

Some consultants don’t aspire to be partners.  Perhaps they’re in a more technical role, enjoy what they’re doing, and are content to do it for the rest of their careers.  Some firms have an “up or out” policy; an unwritten rule that states, if you’re not aspiring to – and achieving – the next level in the hierarchy, you’re not providing enough value. Out you go. If you don’t aspire to partner, you may want to find out how your firm deals with that.

Consulting as a stepping stone

Because consulting provides so many more opportunities to learn and gain skills, some people use that as a launching pad for what they really want to do.  Consultants have been known to put in three to five years in consulting simply as a training ground and a resume enhancer.

With a few years of consulting on one’s resume, a consultant’s marketability is in great demand.  Companies in other industries would love to get their hands on someone who has put in the hours and brings to the table valuable experience across multiple industries.  If the consultant wants to get an MBA, consulting experience can often help get him into one of the top business schools.

Consulting can also be a training ground for a budding entrepreneur.  After a few years in consulting, one learns not only the industry and other skills mentioned above.  Most consultants have been involved in sales training and have had some experience selling services.  These are valuable tools to have in your tool kit if you’d like to start your own business.

Not everyone in consulting has a detailed plan

When Erica graduated from college and became interested in consulting, she probably had no idea where she saw her ultimate career heading.  She may have had some understanding of the partner track and kept that goal in the back of her mind. But if she’s like most people, she will keep her options open.

Most consultants go into consulting because it looks more interesting than working in an entry level position in another industry.  If they can jump ship from consulting and be a manager in another industry, it may be a more interesting position with less travel and stress.

Most people find that consulting is a great launching pad to a career. They may stick with it until retirement or use it to gain valuable experience to do something they find even more interesting. It often depends on the opportunities that come up and how one’s needs change as they progress through life.

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

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

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