Managing your consulting career

    Once you obtain employment with a consulting or professional services firm, there are some unique strategies for success.  Each industry has its own strategies for success and consulting is no different.  Today we discuss strategies you can employ to improve your chances for success. Managing your consulting career

    1 – What are some things to be aware of when starting one’s career in the professional services industry?

    1. Like any career, you want to determine what you will be evaluated on.  In consulting, it’s usually based on two numbers: utilization and sales.
    2. We’ve discussed this in previous podcasts, but I think it bears repeating.
    3. Utilization is the percentage of client-billable hours that you work, based on a 40-hour week.  For instance, in a given week, if you billed a client for 32 billable days, your utilization for that week would be 80%.  Over a year’s time, they will determine your utilization over that duration.
    4. Sales are based on the actual revenue dollar value that you are responsible for bringing into the firm.  This can be based on referring a project from a new or existing client or working on a successful proposal. Once a project is won, the lead partner or some executive will determine who was responsible for the win and carve up the credit to all of the individuals that helped with it.
    5. Early in your consulting career, you will most likely have a utilization target number that’s as high as 80 or 90%, but a sales target that’s very low.
    6. That’s based on a premise that early in your career, you need to learn the ropes of the business and begin developing a network before you start really selling services.

    2 – As you move up the ladder, what do you need to be cognizant of?

    1. Increased importance of sales.  Each year you’re in consulting and with each move up the ladder, your utilization number will inch down a little as your sales number increases.  The expectation is that you will spend a larger portion of your time focusing on selling your firm’s professional services and less of that time delivering those services.
    2. The expectation is that you will start establishing relationships with existing clients as well as meeting people out in your community that can be brought in as potential clients.
    3. Also, while you’re at a client site, you should keep your eyes and ears open for new project opportunities.
    4. If you refer a client or new project that results in a sale, you’ll get some portion of the sales credit.
    5. Additionally, if you simply provide excellent service to a client and they end up hiring your firm for another project, you can sometimes get sales credit for being instrumental in influencing a follow-on project.

    3 – What role does politics play?

    1. It certainly depends on the firm you work for, but there are many ways that politics can influence your success.
    2. For your utilization numbers, early in your career you have very little influence on getting assigned to a project.  You can keep your skills up to date and hope that a project comes along that has a need for your skill set.
    3. But developing good relationships with the people in charge of staffing projects, whether that’s the firm’s partners or other execs, and letting them know you’re available and what your skills are, will definitely help your chances of getting assigned to a new project.
    4. Some people may see this as ass-kissing, but it’s more a matter of branding and marketing yourself so that the decision makers know who you are.
    5. From a sales perspective, if you have a good relationship with a decision maker who distributes sales credit, you may get more of that credit than someone who isn’t as well known.
    6. Also, on the client side, if you can get politically connected to a client executive, they may be more apt to share information on new projects they are considering, which you can then refer to your firm’s management.

    4 – What do you think is the most important advice you would give to someone just starting out?

    1. Know where you want to go – it’s been said that if you don’t know where you’re going, any route will get you there.
    2. Consulting can be a long-term career or just a stepping stone.  Many people go into consulting to get some concentrated experience in a particular area over a certain period of time.
    3. Right out of college, you can go to work for an insurance company and learn their business.  Or you can sign on with a consulting firm specializing in insurance and get broader expertise across the insurance industry, working at many insurance firms and getting deep in the industry.
    4. Doing that, you position yourself to be much more knowledgeable in that industry in a much shorter time than someone who has been with the same firm for the same duration.
    5. Decide if you want to be a partner or executive with a firm or if you want to get a few years of consulting under your belt to obtain a position at a non-consulting company
    6. Alternatively, you could get experience at a firm in order to start your own consultancy.  You learn everything you can about the professional services industry regarding delivery, sales and recruiting, develop a network of potential business partners and potential clients and set out on your own after a few years.
    7. Or, you could just decide that you like working for a professional services firm and work for one or several different firms throughout your entire career.

    5 – Do you think most people getting into consulting have an idea of what they want to do with their career when they start?

    1. Most likely not. Especially if they’re right out of college.  But most people recognize that consulting will give them a lot of experience in a short amount of time.
    2. And that it will give them a lot of options for their career fairly early on.
    3. It’s a widely held notion that if you do 2 years of consulting, even if you don’t like it, you have a lot of options to move on with some excellent experience and better marketability than a lot of other people with two years of experience in some other industry.

    6 – What is it about consulting that makes it a better experience and makes a person more marketable?

    1. I think there are a lot of advantages, but I’ll discuss what I think are the 3 biggest ones:
    2. First of all, it’s a more varied experience.  When a consultant joins a firm, they may work on a half-dozen projects at different clients in the first year or two.  They learn the business processes and strategies of each of those companies they work at and are able to compare and contrast those approaches and leverage that knowledge at the next client.
    3. That just gives them a broader insight to business in general, learning best practices and what works in what situations.
    4. Secondly, while the consultant is going from client to client, he’s meeting lots of contacts and doing a lot of networking.  And it’s not just a numbers game.  The consultant is meeting with higher-level decision makers at the client.  That’s very valuable as one moves along in their career.  If the consultant is connecting with them on LinkedIn and keeping in touch with them, he’s more likely to do business with them again wherever he lands in the future.
    5. Finally, and I think the most important is if you hire on at a non-consulting company right out of college, you’re more likely to get pigeon-holed into maintaining an existing business unit.  There’s not much growth – for you or the business unit.
    6. A consultant on the other hand, is often assigned to client projects that are high-profile sexy projects.  You’re building a new system or developing a new product.
    7. You may be learning new technologies or business practices that provide a much richer experience than someone who is maintaining a business, maybe getting incremental advances in their learning.

    7 – You said earlier that to manage one’s career, a consultant needs to know where they want to go with it.  When should they make that decision?

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    1. That varies by individual.  Some people decide early on that consulting is not for them, but they want to have two or three years of it on their resume and build up their experience.
    2. During that time, they might decide that they’ll be happier owning their own firm, or they may see a client that they’d rather work for.
    3. But if they decide that they like consulting and want to aspire to be a partner or high level decision maker, they should begin learning the ropes early and determining what they need to do to get, not only to the next level, but what’s required to get to the top.

    8 – What examples can you give of people who didn’t manage their consulting careers effectively?

    1. I would say that Poor communication is one of the biggest factors.  If you’re poor at communicating your status to your manager or not telling your team mates the things they need to know when they depend on your work deliverables, your advancement prospects will be limited.
    2. People will begin to avoid working with you and you’ll develop a reputation.
    3. Also on the lines of communication, I’ve seen people who send bad emails – poor subject lines, fragmented sentences, long rambling emails.  Whether you send that kind of stuff to a client or someone within the firm, it reflects badly on you.
    4. I’ve also seen people who didn’t take the job seriously – I once knew a new consultant who evidently didn’t realize he was no longer in college.  He showed up late and sometimes even hung-over.  A consultant needs to be engaged and avoid being passive.  It’s not an occupation where you just slide by and get promoted.
    5. Another way that I’ve seen people negatively affect their careers is by being Inflexible – a consultant needs to be able to roll with the changes.  Life as a Consultant is very unpredictable.  You can get moved from project to project and work in different cities.  If you’re not willing to do that – and you don’t find that exciting – it’s hard to move up the ranks quickly.
    6. Finally, I think the most important thing for managing one’s consulting career is to be a team player.
    7. We talked a little earlier about politics.  There are good politics and bad.  If you’re getting to know executives and letting them get to know you, that’s good, honest, self-promotional politics.  And I don’t see anything wrong with that.
    8. Then there are negative politics.  If you engage in tactics where you start bringing your peers down in order for you to look good, you may get away with that in the short-term, but it won’t work over the long haul.
    9. Not only are you going to piss off your peers, but the higher-level people that you’re trying to impress will begin to see through it.
    10. It’s just not going to get you very far.  They don’t want to assign people like that to billable projects and they will be less likely to give people like that sales credit, even when it’s legitimately due.

    9 – Any examples of successful strategies you’ve seen people use to advance their careers?

    1. I would say don’t be afraid to make mistakes – learn from them.  If you’re too conservative and don’t take any risks, you’re not going to learn and grow.  Certainly you don’t want to be screwing up all the time, but taking calculated risks with the intent to learn and grow will not only be a great learning experience, but it will show you in a good light with your management.
    2. They’ll see you as one who’s not afraid to try new things and not just coasting through their career.
    3. Another thing I would suggest is to become comfortable with public speaking.  Take every chance you can get to speak in front of a group for the experience.
    4. Successful consultants facilitate meetings, give presentations and sometimes get called upon to speak in public on short notice.  If you’re a skilled public speaker, you’ll impress both your clients and executives at your firm as management material.
    5. I would also suggest joining a group like Toastmasters International.  That’s an organization that allows you to speak in front of others in a risk free environment and get a lot of training and experience in public speaking so that it becomes almost second nature.

    10 – How is career management different in professional services as opposed to typical business careers?

    1. In many careers, it’s a matter of doing your time to move up.  Somebody has been with the firm enough years and outlasted a number of other people, and they move up.  Not always, but something I’ve seen with amazing consistency at client firms.
    2. In consulting, it’s a lot more competitive and merit based.  It’s also based very much on the ability to sell.  We discussed how, as you move up the ranks, the importance on utilization gives way to selling.  In the upper echelon of consulting, you need to be able to sell.
    3. Also in consulting, I think the politics are different.  In some industries, I’ve seen a lot of negative political maneuvering where people bring others down to make themselves look good.
    4. There are definitely politics that take place in consulting, but it’s more in the nature of self-promotion.  You can call it ass-kissing, but you need to let the executives know about you in order to get on assigned to the high-profile projects.  You need to introduce yourself to the partners, let them know about your skills and show them that you’re ambitious and hungry.
    5. Another difference is professionalism – In consulting, you’re serving external customers and you have to be able to deal with them in a professional manner.  That includes professional communication skills – written, verbal and public speaking, but also knowing how to work with executives at a client, respecting their time, being knowledgeable of their business and industry.  Consulting executives are going to be very reluctant to put you on a project with an important if you don’t handle yourself in a professional manner.

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    Music: Kevin MacLeod – Incompetech.com

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101 provides you with 101 useful tips to optimize your professional performance and jump-start your consulting career with success.


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