How to Tell if You’re Cut Out to be a Consultant

I’m trying to add more industry-specific thoughts.  Since I know consulting more than any other, I’ll start there.

Not everyone succeeds as a consultant.  I’ve known a few people who were great at what they do (project managers, technical analysts, architects), but failed miserably when they tried to provide their services as a consultant.  They’re much happier (and more successful) as employees.  A few key similarities existed in each situation.

  1. They’re not “people” people.  With some exceptions, consulting is a social profession.  You absolutely must be able to work in teams that combine clients, consultants, auditors, and personality profiles of all types.  Client service is a key component to any consulting company’s success, and any weakness in that area will not be tolerated long.  You may be inordinately successful as a project manager employee, and your work is largely with the same people year after year.  As a consulting PM, your team will change every day, and you won’t have much control.  Dealing with a merry-go-round of coworkers is a specialized skill required to be a consultant.
  2. They forgot to keep their eyes on the prize.  Consultants are hired to deliver results, period.  They’re not hired as a developmental opportunity, or for team morale, or as a lateral move because they have tenure.  Consultants don’t get free passes because they just started and they’re still learning.  Everything you do as a consultant has to bring you closer to the end goal.  You can’t go to a three day seminar on social media just because it’s in your development plan–you have to be working toward the end of your project.  I’ve heard it said that the best consultants work themselves out of a job as quickly as they can, and I agree wholeheartedly.
  3. They needed constant feedback.  Consultants rarely get performance reviews, and they’re not the center of attention.  That’s the idea.  They’re there to help the client succeed.  If you need people to review your work, or to endorse your ideas, consulting might not be a good fit.  If you’re gunning for the Business Analyst of the Year award, you should be an employee.
  4. They couldn’t handle working with executives.  Some people are uncomfortable dealing with high-level executives, while others see executives as people just like you and me.  If you’re uncomfortable giving presentations to senior VPs, or gaining buy-in from Directors in other departments, consulting might not work out.  Consultants spend an inordinate amount of time reporting up the ladder–so much so that “executive presence” is something my firm recruits for.
  5. They needed ownership.  It can be tough moving from project to project without any long-term ownership over the business process or technology system you help build.  As consultants, you’re always creating things and giving them to the client.  Some people tire of this and want a more stable position where they can build a team, a process, or a system and see it in action for a few years.

Of course, the converse to each of these points is true for people who succeed as consultants.

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