So You're Considering a Career in Consulting...
You might only now be considering a career in consulting, but it's safe to say that at some point you've already acted like a consultant. Most likely you've advised your friends and made recommendations based on your experiences and knowledge. Hopefully your advice saved them some money or made their life easier or better.
On a very basic level that’s what management consulting is, although a professional consultant will, over a lifetime, use sophisticated methodologies, analytical frameworks, technology solutions and creativity to add value to client projects. Management consultants develop recommendations that help their clients make more money (or if necessary, spend less money), run a business more efficiently or plan for the future, among other things.
Generally a management consultant will engage in one or more of the following activities at some point in a project:
- Help his or her client brainstorm problems and work through alternatives to improving the client’s organization or business.
- Develop meaningful and deep relationships with the client and/or client team that go beyond the work at hand.
- Develop recommendations for action and, if asked, support the implementation of those recommendations.
- Train client teams to continue the consultant company’s good work even after the team has gone home.
This isn't for the faint hearted - consulting is a dynamic, fast-paced profession that needs you to be quick on your feet and innovative in your style of thinking. You'll be churning out ideas and looking for ways to improve what's already in place.
No Place for Wallflowers.... Or Lovers of Routine
If you haven't already guessed, consulting is ultimately all about the client, so you've got to have a knack for speaking to people and developing relationships. A successful consultant will feel totally comfortable talking to nearly anyone, because on any given day and to get through the more difficult situations you'll need to talk your way to the desired outcome.
A career in consulting will mean working with lots of different clients across a variety of sectors; advising them on a wide range of issues from strategy to operations to human resources – everything a company needs to address to be successful in the marketplace. And since you're rarely on a client project for very long you can expect a pretty dynamic ride as you work your way towards the top of the ladder. But that's all part of the fun of consulting - a new challenge at every turn, unique problems that require creative responses and the opportunity to do all of this in some of the most fascinating places in the world.
Match Made in Career Heaven?
Consulting is a fun, fast-paced, incredibly stimulating career but it's also exhausting. Expect to be on the road (or in the air) a fair amount and since its standard practice to be issued a laptop and smartphone, be prepared to be almost always 'on'. You will be challenged to think better and harder than you probably have ever been asked to do before.
For the most part, whatever company you decide to begin your career at will have roughly the same starting trajectory. For the first year or two you'll be expected to roll up your sleeves and help your team with whatever they're working on, whether it’s doing research, analysis, writing and preparing presentations, etc. It's in these first few years that you'll learn the ropes so make the most of it.
Pro-activity is key, as is a strong sense for teamwork and stellar communication skills. You want to be assigned to as many interesting engagements as possible. This will help you build your brand and expose you to a variety of situations that you can apply to new engagements in the future.
At some point you will have to decide if you are a generalist or a specialist. Some firms will have you working as a generalist for your first few years before being promoted and choosing an area of interest to specialize in. Others may have you specializing in an industry straightaway, but be prepared to switch specialization as needed. A good consultant will be at ease wearing multiple hats.
Start off on the right foot
Regardless of what you’ve done in your life before, now is the time to do your homework and think about whether consulting will satisfy your longer-term career goals. For example, be honest with yourself about how much travel you’re willing to commit to.
Assess your skills – both hard and soft – to see if there is a fit: You've got to be comfortable and confident to work with little to (sometimes) no oversight. Check out our list of character traits.
Engage in extra-curricular activities, work experience, internships and language skills: Consulting firms are looking for well-rounded, diverse individuals with lots of energy, good research and analytical skills, a decent breadth of knowledge and the ability to think on their feet.
Make Microsoft Office your best friend: Your early days will be spent reading and responding to many, many emails, researching and then gathering and managing that information in excel and then presenting your findings and recommendations using powerpoint presentations.
Talk to other consultants: If not in person read their blogs, connect using social media, follow them on twitter, anything that will allow you a peek into the world of a working consultant.