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Considering a career in consulting? Avoid these 5 stupid mistakes

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This is a guest post from Pamela Slim, who writes at Escape From Cubicle Nation.

A lot of young people are interested in pursuing a career path as a consultant for obvious reasons:

  • Good money
  • The opportunity to travel
  • Exposure to many different industries and business models
  • The chance to work with many different kinds of leaders
  • Smart coworkers
  • Flexibility and freedom

As someone who spent nearly a decade as a self-employed consultant, I can attest that these are all valid and good reasons to consider this career path. But before jumping in with both feet, it is important to understand what you are getting into, and how to avoid stupid mistakes.

For context, there are a number of different types of consulting businesses with some advantages and drawbacks in each:

  • Big 5 consulting firms like Bain & Company, Accenture and PriceWaterhouseCoopers which generally work for the largest Fortune 500 companies on complex, global projects
    Advantages: Very well-developed and defined consulting methodologies, ample work, clear training programs and career paths and bias towards young, smart workers
    Drawbacks: As huge companies, they can have lots of bureaucracy, politics and lame management policies. As a young trainee, you often have to slog through years of totally insane hours in sometimes less-than ideal conditions (I have seen many young consultants smashed together in a conference room like sardines pouring over reams of paper). (Unrelated trivia fact: John Legend worked for BCG before launching his music career).
  • “Boutique” consulting firms with a handful of specialized experts in particular industries or business problems.These firms are much smaller than the Big 5, but often have interesting work.
    Advantages:More direct access to the senior consultants, which provides great mentoring opportunities, more client contact, less bureaucracy.
    Drawbacks:Less infrastructure, fewer opportunities for broad exposure to many different businesses.This article, written by someone who works for a boutique firm, gives more specific examples.
  • Consulting divisions of product or service companiesIBM, or Oracle are examples of these.These tend to supplement and hawk the products of their parent company, but do involve some more broad-based consulting projects.
    Advantages:Similar to their Big 5 counterparts, they have well-developed methodologies, training programs and career paths.
    Drawbacks:Ditto on bureaucracy, politics and lame policies.You also may not feel comfortable force-fitting products in a consulting solution if they are not the right solution for the customer.
  • Self-employed “Lone Ranger” consulting firms. This option is where you hang out your own shingle and go after clients yourself.You can specialize in specific things like web strategy or marketing advice or human resources.
    Advantages: Total creative control, ground-up learning about all aspects of starting a business, direct work with clients, great learning opportunities, all the profits for yourself.
    Drawbacks: Having to create everything yourself can be overwhelming.If you don’t have much experience, even if you are really talented, you may have trouble convincing people to hire you.You have to constantly market and sell your services at the same time as delivering the work.

What are key skills required to be a good consultant?

Some people assume that you have to have many years of work experience to qualify as a consultant.Depending on your focus and industry, this can be true.But if you have either very strong natural consulting skills or very specialized expertise, you can still act in a consulting role even if you can count the number of years you have been in the workforce on one hand.With the different types of consulting roles I described above, you could start working for a Big 5 firm for example, learn as much as you can about their methodology, then in a couple of years venture out on your own.Regardless of which configuration you choose, you should have the following skills:

  • The ability to view the “big picture” of an organization and see how all the parts fit together.This is often described as “systems thinking” defined here with some resources.
  • Excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to relate to people from all levels of an organization.Your ability to do meaningful work in an organization is based on the level of trust and credibility you have internally.If you are working on a large project, you often have to interact with extremely technical and detailed people who have a high level of skepticism, as well as present your findings in a professional and compelling way to impatient and time-crunched executives.
  • Confidence to stand up for what you believe in and the grace to admit when you are wrong. If people are paying you hundreds of dollars an hour for your advice, you need to have confidence in your ideas.But you also have to be willing to make adjustments if you learn that you may be incorrect.A good attitude is summed up by my favorite “asshole busting” professor Bob Sutton from Stanford who promotes “strong opinions, weakly held.”
  • The ability to synthesize a great amount of data in an effective presentation in a short period of time. When you walk into a new organization, information comes at you like water out of a fire hose.You have to learn how to read quickly, ask great questions, review the right data and synthesize information.The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
  • Knowledge of change management. Even if you are working on very technical projects (perhaps especially in this case), you need to understand how human beings in organizations react to change.Here is a quick primer to get started:

Now that you have an understanding of the different kinds of consulting roles you can play and some key skills required to be effective, I wanted to share some of the worst mistakes I have witnessed by consulting compadres over the years:

5 stupid mistakes of new (or sometimes very experienced!) consultants

  1. Acting like an arrogant colonist. I have seen consultants swagger in to a new company with the sensitivity of slave traders.They view the existing employees as stupid and “backwards” and do little to hide their distain.This attitude will make you more hated than “The Bobs” from Office Space and will guarantee that employees will do whatever they can to sabotage your project.You may disagree with the way the organization is run and get frustrated by the attitudes of resentful and complacent employees.But do not forget they are human beings, many with children and families that depend on them.There is nothing inherently evil with cutting staff (a very frequent recommendation of consultants), but such a decision should never be taken lightly.Treat everyone you meet with dignity and respect and never, for a moment, think that you are superior by virtue of your role as an outside “expert.”You aren’t.

  2. Selling your words by the pound. There is an infectious plague propagated by large consulting firms that compels new consultants to create huge, incomprehensible presentations and reports.Your executive sponsors love them because they justify the huge rates they spend to bring in you and your colleagues.The problem is that these 400-slide PowerPoint presentations are decks of death for the poor souls who have to view them. Many consultants see the creation of these presentations as their core work output. This misses the point! The key responsibility of a consultant is to offer clear, timely advice and help an organization implement it as quickly and efficiently as possible for the best business results. Smart people like Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen, Guy Kawasaki, Dan and Chip Heath and Seth Godin all argue for the simplification of business communication.You should take this advice from me with a huge caveat however: following it will make you a better consultant but may get you fired. Much of the business world is not ready for this shift yet. So follow it at your own peril, knowing that a decade or so from now, it will be the “in” thing.

  3. Thinking you know everything. A good consultant exhibits two behaviors: a constant focus on learning and an open, receptive and questioning attitude.Instead of walking in the door and saying “Here is what you should do,” step back and ask a lot of questions.“What do you do?” “Why do you do it?” “How does it benefit you?” “What gets in your way?” “What are you trying to accomplish?”No matter how many different scenarios you are exposed to, none is exactly the same and you should always learn as much as you can about the company you are working with before jumping to recommendations.

  4. Acting like a clone. My best friend Desiree, who used to work at both IBM and Accenture, would laugh with me at the “uniforms” we saw on young consultants.I don’t know if there was anything explicitly written in corporate policy, but everyone at Accenture seemed to wear the same black pants (or skirt) and purple-blue button-down collared shirt.What the outfit screamed was “no personality” and “member of consultant flock of sheep.”It made it easy for employees to spot them coming down the hall. Dress appropriately, but exhibit some personality.And don’t always cluster with fellow consultants like a high school clique at the cafeteria.Aim to mix with as many people as you can in your client organization:employees, other consultants from different firms, executives and rank and file service workers.

  5. Tying yourself to the coattails of one client. Generally, consultants are brought into an organization and sponsored by a key manager or executive.But you have to be careful to not be seen as “Suzy or Bob’s consultant.” Organizational politics and swift and brutal.If your sponsor is laid off, reassigned or quits, your head will be chopped very quickly.A better strategy is to get to know as many people as you can (per the point above) and build multiple strong relationships with those that hold the purse strings.

I hope this primer has been useful to those of you considering consulting as a career path. I would love to hear your thoughts, challenges and questions here in the comments section!

Pamela Slim is a recovering management consultant who now helps corporate employees leave their jobs to start their own business.She writes at www.escapefromcubiclenation.com and has a book of the same name coming out in Spring 2009 by Penguin Portfolio/Berkely.

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41 Comments

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  1. I feel that the biggest mistake that aspiring consultants make (particularly those setting up as an independent consultant/speaker) is to OVER-ESTIMATE their earning potential.

    On my blog I recently posted about a friend of mine, having sold out of his own business recently, who decided to become a consultant to his particular industry … his earning expectation is $200k for his second year in the business. I told him “it won’t happen” …

    Why? You have to apply the ‘smell test’ to these sorts of expectations … wouldn’t EVERYBODY leave their $100k a year jobs if you could suddenly earn twice as much as a consultant?

    … and, what about ‘lost time’ for marketing yourself, vacations, illness, accounting and business admin.?

    Clearly, you have to build up to this (find a unique niche, build a reputation, etc. etc.).

  2. Great point 7mil … it definitely can take time to build up a biz. It does depend on the business you are in, their propensity for using consultants, average hourly rates, etc.

    It also depends on your mix of services. If you ONLY have hourly consulting in you biz model, you may run yourself ragged. That is why it is a good idea to also mix in some information products, or group seminars or teleclasses, etc.

    Realism is so important in the planning process! Thanks for the good reminder.

  3. Consulting is a great way to begin any career. Interesting article. Being in the IT consulting field I would like to point out a few important ‘advantages’ to consulting – the scale of learning be it skill wise or bureaucracy is steep, skills have to be kept current and wide and learn to network. Network maketh the consultant!

  4. Thanks for posting about this! I’ve been very interested to hear IWTYTBR’s take on consulting for a while – you hear so much bad stuff about it that you wonder if there is any good – and it looks like there is.

  5. Hey Ramit – great article. One quick technical point – there’s a big difference between the Big 4 accounting firms (e.g., PWC, Ernst & Young, etc) and the generally considered 3 big management consulting firms (e.g, McKinsey, Bain, BCG). Both groups work with Fortune 500s on large, complex, generally more long-term internationally oriented projects, but the type of work can be very different, with the accounting firms focusing more closely on operations and finance, and the management consulting firms focusing on strategy, marketing, etc.

  6. Working for a big 5 firm does have other advantages. You can get matched 401K, employee share purchase plans, great health benefits, perks (frequent flyer miles, hotel points, free car rentals, per diem, gas reimbursements, flex trips, etc.), all sorts of free stuff. Basically, you can always make a good living. It’s a great way to save money and avoid other typical costs. I haven’t had to work any ungodly hours, yet, but that’s because I’m very careful about what I choose to do. They are trying more and more to cater to the out of college folks with the whole “work life” balance issues. There are also lots of networking and volunteer activities they hold. There are also support groups, and they provide a lot of flexibility in terms of parenthood, life changing events, taking a leave for a few months just due to burn-out, or anything like that. The trick is you just have to communicate and be cordial.

    Another bad part of consulting, though, is when you are ready to start a family or want a girl/boyfriend. It’s much harder if you have to travel. The other thing I’ve noticed is people lose control of their diets and exercise, so they get out of shape. Gotta stay disciplined.

    In a big firm, don’t expect to go in and completely revamp a client. If you are out of college, you’ll do some basic bitch work (documentation, testing, PMO), but you’ll learn along the way and you’re responsibilities will grow as you become more knowledgeable. Eventually you’ll become more knowledgeable than others in a specific area and begin leading teams with those initiatives, etc. It’s all what you make of it, though, like every job.

  7. Thanks for the great comments — good clarifications.

    And since Ramit didn’t put a “guest post” intro on this one like he did others (probably was in the throes of packing for his trip!), I just want to make sure you know that I have the blame for authoring this article, not Ramit! Ten years ago, he would have been a lad of 16. :)

    -Pam
    Escape from Cubicle Nation

  8. I’m sorry Pam, that was my mistake – I’ve added the introduction. Actually I wouldn’t be too surprised if Ramit’s been consulting since 16!

  9. Thanks Jeff!

    So true on Ramit consulting since 16.. the little punk makes old ladies like me look like total slackers. :)

  10. I’d say this post is pretty much spot-on. I recently left a small consulting firm (first job out of college) to join one of the Goliath’s mentioned above and find almost every point to be valid.

    One point you don’t want to minimize, and which pertains to the larger firms at least is the (lack of) work/life balance. As David said above, recruiters and HR people are trying to emphasize it, but I don’t necessarily see a whole lot of balance where the rubber meets the road.

    David already noted the travel, but I think it’s worth repeating; at an Accenture, Deloitte or Bain, the consulting workforce is expected to be on the road 4-5 days a week, heading to the same spot for several weeks/months at a time. You build up your miles & points quickly and have lots of (unhealthy) food & drinks paid for, but the Marriott Courtyard in suburban Texas three nights a week isn’t exactly the globetrotting lifestyle some might be expecting :) And I’ll second the point that it takes a tremendous amount of discipline to stay fit when you live this way.

    The hours can be long, though I think there’s an element of grandstanding when you’re still in the office at 9:00pm just because someone senior to you is too. In my experience, if you’re willing to stand up for yourself and demand some consideration of your time while still getting your work done, the schedule can be kept comfortable.

    All in all, I’m pleased with the move I made and like any true consultant I’m looking forward to “leveraging” this experience into something I like even better a few years down the road.

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