A career in consulting is exceptional. If you want to get into consulting career, this primer is for you. Use this as your go-to-resource to understand:
- what consulting is all about
- different types of consulting businesses
- key consulting skills
- mistakes you shouldn’t make as a consultant
- how to launch yourself
Who Is a Consultant?
A consultant is a guide possessing vast knowledge within a particular industry and using that knowledge to help clients draw the best decisions. The purpose of a consultant is to analyse and advise.
For example, a client searching for business assessment will seek a strategic consultant or a client search for risk mitigation options will seek a regulatory compliance consultant. Consultants exist in every field such as financial, management and technical departments.
High earning potential, wide business exposure, opportunity of travel, leadership networking, freedom to make decisions, time flexibility and the chance to work with highly knowledgeable team members are some of the perks of a consulting career.
Different Types of Consulting Businesses
It’s important to categorize and understand different types of consulting businesses to put your career choice in perspective.
1) Self-Employed Consultants or Consulting Firms
These are lone rangers. Much like a freelancer, the job of the consultant is to seek clients and offer consulting specializations which could be about anything. From web marketing strategies to financial analysis, there are consultants for every aspect of a business.
The self-employed consultants maintain total creative and business control. Starting from scratch, the business is built from ground-up and as such, it’s a learning experience for the consultant. There is a direct working relationship with the client and all the profits are of the consultant business owner.
A major drawback is the problem with convincing clients to get hired. Sometimes experience and talent falls short. The consultant has to market and sell services simultaneously and sometimes, the whole process of managing a consulting business becomes overwhelming.
2) Consulting Divisions of Major Brands
Companies like Oracle and IBM maintain consulting divisions for their major and associated products and services. These consulting divisions follow well-defined training programs, offer good career paths and use well-developed and proven methodologies to prosper consultancy services.
A major drawback for the consultant is the lack of decision control. Keeping aside lame policies, political machinations and other bureaucratic workings, sometimes the consultant has to force fit products into a consulting solution which is ethically not the right solution for the customer.
3) “Boutique” Consultancy
The “boutique” consultancy firms are those working with a small number of expert consultants and servicing selected industries. Working with them gives new consultants direct access to senior consultants who act as mentors and share industry insights. There is less bureaucracy and more opportunities.
A major drawback could be the lack of broad industry exposure and less infrastructural facilities.
4) Big Consulting Firms
Firms like Accenture and Price Waterhouse Coopers come under “big” consulting firm bracket. They work with Fortune 500 companies on global projects. These firms have well established consulting methodologies, well-defined career paths, training programs and preference towards young workers.
Lot of bureaucracy and rampant company politics is a major disadvantage. New entrants are often made to work conditions that leave much to be desired.
4 Key Consulting Skills
No matter what which consultant field and business type you choose, you need to have the 4 key consulting skills.
1) Interpersonal Skills
A consultant needs to possess interpersonal skills in order to relate to people within and outside the organisation. Trust and credibility is an important asset in consulting business.
You need to build rapport with other members of the organisation in a compelling and professional manner.
2) Excellent Data Comprehension
Whether you’re the lone ranger or working somewhere as a consultant, you need to be excellent in comprehending and interpreting new data. Consultants come across new data regularly and they can’t afford to spend days on analyzing them.
You have to possess the art of synthesizing any amount of data into effective presentations, and that too in a short amount of time.
3) Taking Responsibility for Actions
A lot rides on the opinion and advice of the consultant. When a client acts on your advice and it doesn’t work out, you’re held responsible. At such times, you can’t shirk responsibility or play blame game.
Clients pay handsomely as consultancy fees and they want it to be worth the amount in value-based opinion. Therefore, keep two things in mind. First, have faith in your ideas and second, be willing to accept your role in case if something goes wrong.
4) Cultivate ‘Systems Thinking’
A large or medium business organisation has various layers of operation and it is important for the consultant to understand where each ‘piece’ fits and how it contributes towards the organisation as a whole. This is called systems thinking and you can learn more about it here.
Moreover, an organisation functions based on its manpower and as such, it is useful to understand how the manpower reacts to change, be it to management changes or internal company policies. Check out the guide on change management.
3 Mistakes to Avoid as a Consultant
Whether you’re employed or self-employed as a consultant, avoid these three mistakes at all cost.
1) Favoring a Client over Another
Consultants working within the purview of an organisation should be mindful never to attach themselves with a particular client that makes other colleagues doubt authenticity of the consultant’s advice. This distorts the consultant’s reputation within the organisation and shadows career growth.
Secondly, self-employed consultants should not depend on a single client ever. You never know when the client pulls purse-strings and leaves you high and dry!
2) The ‘I-Know-Everything’ Attitude
The ‘I-know-everything’ is the death knell to any consulting career. We see many consultants walking with the air of someone who is indispensable or rather a God walking among mere mortals! The attitude is totally at fault.
As a consultant, you should also exhibit the desire to learn new things, a questioning attitude and receptive to changes.
3) Heavy Duty Presentations
You will be surprised to know that most consultants think that the prime agenda of consultants is to create presentations! However, are the presentations actually useful to the clients they were intended for? Barely! The clients want actionable information, not long PowerPoint presentations.
People like Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki suggest that business communication should be simple. The purpose of consulting is to offer timely advice that helps an organisation. We recommend keeping presentations simple but the decision also depends on your consulting firm and their demands.
Launching Yourself as a Consultant
Launching yourself as a self-employed consultant requires only a single thing – good contacts.
All the education, skills and experience is nothing if you don’t have good contacts to get clients.
Depending on the chosen consulting field, find ways to connect and network.
If you’re finance consultant, having contacts with bank employees, investors, insurance agents, bank human resource personnel is good.
Launching yourself as an employed consultant calls for additional steps.
- Education: Most consulting field doesn’t require special education; a simple graduate degree works but in fields like ‘legal consultant’, you need a law degree.
- Certifications: Apart from college degree, augment chances of getting hired with additional certifications. For instance, the IMC USA Certified Management Consult® (CMC) is recommended for those interested to work as management consultants in USA.
- Salary Expectations: Salaries are competitive depending on education and experience (if any). For instance, if you’re in Canada, the following screenshot (updated for 2014) gives a clear idea of what consultants can expect. Credits: TalentEgg.ca
- Job Applications: Write a resume and head over to prominent job application sites like Career Builder to create a work profile. Mention every detail useful to get you a consultancy gig. Use professional networks like LinkedIn to contact recruiters.
- Internship: If you’re currently studying, we recommend an internship of few months as a consultant in any chosen organisation. This will help test the waters and show whether you’re really cut-out for a consulting job. Campus placements are a good way to land full-time consulting jobs.
- Clearing Interviews: An interesting but intimidating step, preparation is the only way to clear consultant interviews. Behavioral questions, personal brand value, knowledge-oriented questions, logic and reasoning questions, organisation and decision-oriented questions are common. You can check out this quick guide.
Be doubly sure before getting into consulting career. If you like advising, this can be the right option for you. Make sure you’ve the necessary skills and industry-related knowledge to become a consultant.