After a 5-year hiatus from consulting, I recently reentered consulting, joining a Chicago-area consulting firm. I left consulting because I had never done anything else and wanted to see if the grass was greener. In many ways it was. I had a nice office with a view of the city, a pretty standard work schedule, and a consistent routine. I always went to the same office and worked with pretty much the same people. Although it wasn’t the same job every day, there was a consistent routine about it that I liked.
It also gave me the opportunity to be a client. I hired and managed consultants and it gave me an appreciation for clients that I couldn’t have otherwise had.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
But the main reason I’m glad I worked in a non-consulting environment is that it made me realize how much I missed consulting. I liked the variety of working on different projects, clients and locations. I also found that, while there was usually a project to work on in my industry job, there was a lot of time spent maintaining existing systems and processes. Consulting was almost always focused not just on projects, but high profile projects. More stress sometimes, but more challenging most of the time.
When I announced to my co-workers that I was leaving to get back into consulting, I received a variety of responses. Some were in my boat. They had either left consulting to see how the other half lived, or were laid off during the ‘great recession’ and were waiting for the economy to improve enough to safely and securely return. There were two types of responses that surprised me:
Never tried it, never will
Some crinkled their noses and wondered why I would ever consider consulting. It reminded me of a time when I was talking with a client and he asked me what consulting was like. I explained that I would work anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months going to various client sites helping them solve problems and working on various projects. He looked at me sideways and asked “and you like that?”
Yes, as a matter of fact I did – and still do.
Been there, done that, bought that T-shirt: Some had spent some part of their careers in consulting, were glad they left, and had no interest in returning. Some liked having a more predictable schedule, little to no travel, and no longer having to deal with demanding clients.
For more information, check out Getting In to Consulting
I can understand the people who have tried it, but people often have an inaccurate impression of consulting, mainly because it means so many things. There are many ways to define consulting, but I’d divide it in two categories:
There are millions of independent consultants. Someone who develop a specialty in something like marketing, management or some computer programming skill and offer their services to businesses on an hourly basis. This can be very rewarding, but also very scary, since working depends on your ability to sell. You need to have contacts in the business world, or at least an ‘in’ at one company that can give you enough business to survive while you get your name out. You provide your own health insurance and there are no paid vacations. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid.
An independent can also be affiliated with a placement firm. This is a good option for independents just starting out. You get to work as an independent consultant, but the placement firm does the sales function for you, finding gigs for you – and taking a cut of your hourly rate. You still have to pay for your own health insurance and only get paid for the hours you work.
Consulting for a firm
There are large management consulting firms like PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) and Accenture that hire consultants at all levels, providing services for virtually any industry and line of business.
You can also consult for a boutique firm. Boutique firms are usually smaller, hiring anywhere from a handful of people to a couple hundred to perform specialty services. Information Technology (IT) firms perform package implementations, custom software development, etc. Others specialize in marketing, sales, search engine optimization, or anything else one can specialize in.
Firms usually pay above average salaries and offer a complete benefits package including paid vacation. The demands with a firm can vary, but many require more than the standard 40-hour workweek and wield pressure to sell projects and have billable hours.
While everyone is responsible for sales for a firm, there are sales staffs that sell projects and staff their consultants to them when the project sells. If you are unassigned, you are ‘on the bench’ waiting for a project to hit. Some firms maintain a bench of consultants, particularly if there are some projects in the sales pipeline that will require staffing.
Some of the people who expressed disdain for consulting, picture the pressures of the independent consultant, always trying to find clients and never taking a vacation. This requires a mix of sales savvy, industry and/or technical skill, and the ability not to constantly worry about your next job. While I’ve never tried this, I’ve known many who did. Some were successful and made a career out of it, while others couldn’t handle the sales aspect of it and returned to industry employment.
Still others fear consulting for a firm because of the demands for long hours, travel and project sales. These demands vary by firm. Some are intense, while others can be very relaxed. This is the type of consulting I did and am most comfortable doing. You can often feel like an outsider at a client site, but there is a sense of community with your fellow consultants on a project.
Why not consulting?
While consulting is not for everyone, it’s something everyone should consider to see if it’s a career path they may want to consider. It could be the fulfilling career move you’ve been looking for.
Have you ever considered a career in consulting? Why or why not?
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.