I had lunch with a former client the other day. As we talked, I realized how different our careers had evolved. We both got our undergraduate and MBA degrees at the same universities. But he got a corporate job and I chose consulting.
By looking at his LinkedIn profile – and his face – I would guess him to be around 50 years old. He started working at his company right out of college and has worked there his entire career. By contrast, I’ve worked for seven different firms in about the same period of time.
While his approach to stay at the same company over the course of his career is becoming less and less common these days, it is almost unheard of in consulting. I was once at a large consulting firm for six years and people asked me why I stayed so long.
It highlighted the fact that managing one’s career in consulting has some unique considerations than other occupations.
The sky is the limit
When you graduate from college, the world is your oyster. The potential is entirely up to you. Large corporations and consulting firms come to most universities and try to recruit the top graduating students. Those students have to make a lot of decisions for their life. One of which is whether to go into consulting or the corporate world.
You may not have the option. Consulting firms usually seek the top ten percent of students. Some only go to the top schools to recruit. If you didn’t go to a selected school, or didn’t get good enough grades, you may not be considered.
Consulting firms also hire experienced people. If you aren’t able to get in as a college grad, you may be able to get a corporate job, get a few years of experience, and reapply.
One of the bigger differences you will see in consulting is that it is usually a series of projects. Clients usually hire consultants to help them run a project. Consultants may serve on a project for a few weeks or months and move on. You may get assigned to a multi-year project where you’re at the client for an extended period, but that’s fairly rare.
Most projects have a deadline and interim milestones where work products need to be completed on time. Many consultants find that they are always on a sprint to meet one deadline or another. When the project is finished, or your work on the project is finished, it’s on to the next project, probably at another client.
Consultants should be aware that they are only as good as their last project. Providing good work occasionally will rarely work out well. Consultants need to be at the top of their game at all times. Clients expect it and the consulting firm expects it.
You have great skills? That’s nice
So you think you should get a job in consulting because you have an advanced technical degree or some expert skill in some technology. That’s nice, but it’s not enough to make you a good consultant. Consultants need to be top performers and manage their career accordingly.
Consulting is a growth industry. When a project is sold to a client, the firm immediately begins looking for more opportunities to sell more projects. If someone at the client leaves for another company, they immediately begin seeking consulting opportunities at the individual’s new company.
Consultants are expected to grow as well. If you are a software programmer, you will be given more and more responsibility over time. You may have people reporting to you, or be put in the role of a technical lead. Doing the same thing for most of your career is rare in consulting.
Learn from failure. You will inevitably make mistakes throughout your career. Rather than hiding them and forgetting about them, learn from them. It’s hard to grow and learn if you don’t take advantage of your mistakes and learn from them.
Continuing Education. You may work for a firm that sends you to training and professional conferences on a regular basis. If they do, take advantage of it. However, it is your responsibility to stay up to date with your skills. You will have to do the minimum of reading books, blogs, and articles to maintain your skills and remain aware of the latest trends. You may also have to attend training at your own expense. Consultants more than most occupations need to be willing to invest in their own career advancement.
Up or out. Moving up to the next level is something that is on most every consultants mind. In other industries, one can find a job they like, that they may be good at, and work in that job most, if not all of their career. It’s true that many others are climbing the ladder, but it’s a personal choice. Many consulting firms have an unwritten rule that you should always be moving up. If you’re not, you must be complacent. Firms will often weed out the ones that don’t have the ambition or the ability to grow to the next level in their career.
Although it is rare these days to find people who work for one company for their entire career, there are plenty in existence. The thing I’ve noticed about these people is that, if they do have a LinkedIn profile, they have very few connections. People who stay in the same job with no intention of looking for a job, see no reason to use the networking app.
I once knew such an individual. I looked him up and saw that he did have a profile. But there was no picture and he had only 27 connections. A year or so later, he lost his job due to a merger. I now see that he has a professional picture and over 300 connections.
LinkedIn is a great tool for networking to look for a job. But waiting until you need the job is almost too late. Your network should be a pipeline. You meet people and develop quality relationships with them. You help them out with efforts like connecting them with others and providing articles they may be interested in. Someday, if you need them, they may be able to help you out.
But networking is about more than just a job search. Companies are always looking for quality people. Having a strong network can help you help your company with staffing and recruiting. If you meet someone who would be a good fit at your organization, you can have some say over the people you work with.
Business development is another reason to develop your network. In consulting, everyone is responsible for some sales. Even at the lowest levels, you are expected to have contacts that you can introduce to the higher levels. And the more you advance, the more you will need to seek out your contacts to develop new business.
When you think of Nike, it may evoke images of their famous swish logo or perhaps Michael Jordan. Those images are due to the intentional marketing of Nike. Just like Nike and Coca-Cola, you have a brand. It might just be the unintentional result of your personality.
Smart consultants are intentional about their brand. They have defined how they would like to be perceived by others and behave in a specific manor to perpetuate that image. Consultants know that their credibility is an essential component of success. They need to be seen as credible internally by the bosses and their coworkers. They must also be seen as credible with clients. Having a personal brand strategy helps the consultant be seen in the way they desire.
While professionalism is important in many businesses, it’s critical in consulting. Consultants are usually under the watchful eye of clients. In an effort to be seen as credible with clients, consultants must act professionally. This includes the way they dress and how they behave with the client. It includes responding to client requests promptly and showing up to meetings on time.
Another aspect of professionalism is knowing when to play politics. Consultants will deal with politics within their firm and at the client. Politics generally occur when people have conflicting priorities. A professional gets involved in politics only when necessary. Using politics for political self-gain is a short term strategy that usually won’t work for the long term in consulting.
Being successful in consulting involves a lot more than having a skill. It’s less of a matter of what you do than how you do it.
Attitude. It’s important to have a positive attitude as a consultant. He must approach everything with the can-do attitude of a good problem solver. Negativity and a pessimistic attitude that we are all doomed whenever a problem occurs will rarely result in success.
Be prepared. Like a good scout, a consultant is prepared for anything. Going into work every morning can bring about new and unexpected challenges. Being prepared for anything to happen will help you deal with those unexpected moments.
Flexible. A consultant can find out on one day that he’s being taken off of a project and be expected to be in another city, for another project the next day. Consultants should be flexible enough to make quick changes of their assignments at a moment’s notice.
Focused. Someone who meanders through his day and through his career should probably not try consulting. Consultants should be consistently engaged and keep a strong focus on work at all times.
Leadership is one of the most critical skills a consultant should carry. Clients look to their consultants for leadership in many aspects.
Decision making. Consultants need to be decisive in how they will lead projects. Clients may have the final say in many decisions that they make for their organization, but they lean on the client to provide sound advice to help in those decisions.
Mentoring. Consultants have a lot of business and industry knowledge to share with clients. It is important for them to share that knowledge to make the client better at what they do. They also need to share their knowledge internally to help develop the next generation of consultants and leaders.
Problem solving. Consultants are generally hired to solve a problem. Consultants should seek out business issues and enjoy solving problems.
Consultants rarely become consultants because it is a job. Consultants recognize it as a career. The successful consultant approaches that career in a strategic fashion. Managing your consulting career successfully involves planning, developing a network and behaving in a manner which clients and coworkers take you seriously.
What mistakes have you made that have helped you learn about managing your consulting career?
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
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