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Managing Your Consulting Career

 

Managing Your Consulting Career
Managing Your Consulting Career

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.

Project work

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.

Career growth

Managing your consulting career growth
Managing your consulting career growth

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.

Networking

Managing your consulting career
Managing your consulting career through networking

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.

Personal branding

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.

Professionalism

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.

Approaches

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

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.

Conclusion

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

Images courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Consulting Communication Tips

Consulting Communication Tips
Consulting Communication Tips: Don’t text in meetings

Michelle bristled as she looked across the conference room table at Chris. The client presentation was going well. That wasn’t the issue. Chris sat across from Michelle staring into his phone, typing messages and smiling on occasion.

Chris was in his first year of consulting. Michelle had spoken to him several times about using his phone in meetings. This time was different. There were clients present.

She was tempted to ask Chris a question about the presentation to humiliate him, but that would just make the firm look bad. Instead, she waited until later that morning when they were back in their own building and she called Chris into her office.

“What did you think of our presentation today, Chris?” She asked.

“Uh…I thought it went well,” Chris replied without much enthusiasm.

“Were you listening? Because I couldn’t help but notice that you were using your phone throughout most of the meeting.”

“Oh,” Chris replied sheepishly. “That was just a quick text conversation I was having. But I was listening to the presentation.”

“It wasn’t all that quick from my observation. And regardless of how long it was, or whether you were listening, it wasn’t the best impression we could have given the client. You can’t do that stuff in front of clients.”

“I’m sorry.” Chris said quietly.

“Chris,” Michelle said as she leaned in to him, “we’ve talked about this before. If you can’t control yourself with your phone, you may have to turn it off for meetings or leave it in your car.”

“Okay,” said Chris. “I won’t do it anymore.”

Michelle looked him straight in the eye, “I hope so Chris, because this is the last time I’m going to warn you.”

Success in just about any business requires good communication skills. It’s even more important in the consulting industry. Consultants have to have stellar communications skills to communicate with each other and with their clients.

There are many aspects of communication that a consultant must consider.

Meetings

Consulting Communication Tips
Consulting Communication Tips: Make meetings productive

Pay attention. Unlike Chris, in the example above, it is professional and common courtesy to put electronics, and anything else that may distract you from the conversation, out of the way. Meetings take the collective time of everyone in attendance. Don’t be rude and waste everyone’s time by distracting yourself from the discussion.

Have an agenda. If you are in charge of running the meeting, you should prepare an agenda and share it in advance with all invited participants. This gives them advanced notice of the meeting’s purpose, and the topics you plan to discuss. It will let them know if they need to prepare anything for the meeting. If someone else is in charge of the meeting, ask them if they have an agenda. It might prompt them to prepare one.

Stay to the agenda. Whether you run the meeting or not, it is professional courtesy to stay on topic with the agenda. If you – or anyone else – want to discuss something off topic, suggest that it be put on a parking lot to discuss in case there is time at the end of the meeting, or to schedule another meeting for it.

Email

Email is probably the most common form of communication used in the business world. It is also one of the biggest time wasters. People spend a lot of time during each day sorting through emails, reading them, responding to them, and taking action based on the messages received.

One of the great advantages of email is that you can type it up, review it, and reword or correct what is incorrect before you send it to the intended recipient.

Few people go to that rigor. Most people type from a stream of consciousness and click the send key without much thought. The result is vague subject lines that don’t provide any information about the content of the email. Content can be so brief that the recipient has to spend time trying to figure out the request, or they have to reply back asking for more information.

On the other side of the spectrum, people will send a long, wordy email that causes the recipient to read through it and formulate a response.

Emails should be short, but provide enough information to get a point across. Subject lines should provide the reader with the topic, the main subject of why you are sending the email.

Always address the recipient by name. There may be others copied who don’t realize that the email may be intended for someone else and you are just keeping them informed. If possible, put your content into easy to read short paragraphs or bullets so the reader can scan it easily.

Get to the point and say what you need to without extensive and irrelevant information. If it requires a lot of content, it may be better to have a personal conversation.

Finally, proofread your email. Consider what familiarity the recipient has of the topic. Are you being too vague? Are you being too verbose, providing details that the person already knows? Make sure there are no misspellings and grammatical errors. It will distract the reader and reflect badly on you.

Most people, in an effort to be more productive, try to go through emails quickly. By following these steps for emails, you can help them be more productive, be more productive yourself, and communicate more clearly and succinctly.

Expectation setting

Consulting communication tips
Consulting communication tips: Set Expectations

Former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson used to cite a very simple approach to public speaking. “Tell them what you’re going to do. Do it. Tell them when you’re done.” It is a simple approach that can be applied to many other things including consulting communication. It is a simple way of keeping people informed along the way.

One of the best ways to communicate clearly is to communicate to people what they can expect and then live up to those expectations. People often have the best laid plans. They know exactly what they want to do and are certain that it will work perfectly.

But when it comes to executing those plans and nobody on their team has any idea what is going on, it can fall flat on its face. Plans are almost certain to fail when the rest of the team doesn’t know what to expect.

Communicate the plan. Consulting is often project based. As a result, there is usually a project plan that maps out what needs to be accomplished on the project. This can be as detailed as a thousand-line Microsoft Project plan, or a list of milestones that will be met. Letting all project participants know what the plan includes allows them to set reasonable expectations for the project.

Team member assignments. When team members are working on a project, they need to know what is expected of them. They should be informed of the tasks they will work on, when they are supposed to be completed and the level of quality expected. When the task is done, the team member should know how that completion is to be communicated.

Business stakeholders. At the beginning of a project, a project charter explains at a high level, what the project hopes to accomplish. This is the first step in letting the business know what to expect.

On a periodic basis, project status should be communicated to the business. This allows the business stakeholders to know how far the project has come, and what has yet to be completed. Daily communications such as emails and face-to-face communications should be clear and concise helping the business stakeholder to know what to expect from the remainder of the project.

Listening

Consulting communication tips
Consulting communication tips: Listen

There is the old adage that human beings have two ears and one mouth, so they should spend twice as much time listening as speaking. I’ve met few consultants that actually practice that. Many in consulting feel they need to justify their existence by spouting out on all that they know.

In reality, consulting should be a conversation. A doctor wouldn’t treat a patient based strictly on what his specialty or interest is. A good doctor listens to the patient’s symptoms, asks questions and listens to the patient’s answers.

A consultant should work in the same way. Many consultants have expertise in certain areas and try to cram a predefined solution down the throat of the client. This approach can create the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

Listening to the client’s issues allows the consultant to understand the problem before they begin to solve it. It also makes the client a partner in the solution.

The consultant is not expected to know everything. But when consultants act like they do, it can stifle listening and lead to a solution that doesn’t match the problem.

Collaboration

It’s the famous kindergarten grading system: Doesn’t work well with others. Few consultants can be successful if they can’t work with other people. Communication is essentially about one’s ability to collaborate.

Advisor, not a salesperson. Consultants often go into clients with the expectation that they are the expert. They go into sales mode and try to convince the client to implement a certain solution. Instead, they should assume the role of an advisor. Learn the client’s business, find out more about their problem, and work with them to solve it.

Leaders as team players. Many associate leadership with barking out orders and punishing anyone who disobeys or disagrees. Managers shout out orders, leaders get things done. A leader isn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and pitch in to get a job done. A leader facilitates a solution, getting ideas from the entire team and coming up with a plan that everyone can get behind.

The ability to work with others to solve problems together is collaboration. It is how people solve problems better. It involves communicating clearly, listening, and utilizing every team member’s skills to get to an optimum solution.

Conclusion

Consultants are challenged to succeed if they have poor communications skills. At its very essence, consulting is about communication. Consulting is about problem solving. Few business problems are so simple that one person can solve them in a vacuum. If a consultant does not communicate clearly to her team and to her clients, she can’t solve complex problems and won’t bring value to a client.

How well do you communicate as a consultant?

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

Images courtesy of stockimages and David Castillo Dominici, at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Client Relations for Consultants

Client Relations for Consultants
Client Relations for Consultants

“I’m just a programmer. I’ve only been brought in here to write code for this client.”

That’s the general attitude I’ve gotten from many consultants on past projects. Some consultants just seem to forget that their really outsiders.

There is a double standard. Employees have their assignments. Their employers have expectations for them. When employers bring in consultants, they usually have higher expectations for those consultants.

Consultants are expected to be experts. Consultants are usually paid at a higher rate. Never mind that consultants have overhead costs. Whether the consultant is independent or associated with a firm, there is still health insurance and vacation time buried in the rate.
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Getting In to Consulting

getting in to consulting
Getting in to Consulting

I could tell by the look on his face that the interview was over. I was sitting in an interview with a top tier consulting firm in my college’s career services center. The interviewer had explained what it was like to work there. He said there would be a lot of travel. It could be up to 100% travel if I was working for an out of town client.

My response was nothing short of sophomoric. I told him, “Oh, I like to travel. My girlfriend and I went on a trip last winter.” I told him a little about our trip for a few seconds before I read the look on his face.
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