With the unexpected and dramatic global changes of 2020 as a result of a pandemic and an oil price war, the chances are good that we all know someone suddenly experiencing a career change. What was initially intended as fairly light reading to serve as a reference point in the readers’ “someday” career change, could by now be urgent, and perhaps even personal. If you’d like to spend a minute catching up on the first part of this article, please find it here and then return to this page.
Part 1 of this article tackles questions 1–3 below. Here, we will tackle questions 4–6.
After three decades in the work force, and most of those years in consulting, I’ve observed my share of people trying their hand as a consultant, and I’ve noticed what personality traits and work preferences make a consulting career a more or less natural fit. If you are noodling on the possibility of becoming a consultant, you will want to answer the following questions for yourself. Think about your work and school experiences, get out a notebook, and write down your answers. Once you are finished, come back to this article. Keep in mind, there are no wrong answers here, simply answers that indicate whether a consulting career might be more or less of a natural fit for you.
- Do you build good relationships quickly or do you need time to feel comfortable connecting with others?
- Can you work productively in an ever-changing work environment or does it get in the way?
- Are you entrepreneurial or do you prefer structure from your boss(es)?
- Do you like team-based project work or to work solo?
- Are you motivated by learning new things, or does it overwhelm you?
- Are you comfortable speaking extemporaneously in a group, or do you need time to prepare for all possibilities?
Are your answers to questions four through six noted somewhere? Let’s unpack them now.
4. Do you like team-based project work or to work solo?
Like many corporate jobs, consulting requires both team collaboration and solo effort. In my experience the difference between these is two-fold:
- Team-based projects in consulting can involve people you’ve never met before, who are from far-flung places, working at a pace rivaled only by the largest corporations. For those jobs, it is imperative that you learn how to read people and communicate effectively, as an active listener and as a clear and patient sender. It is also imperative to quickly build a shared understanding of timing, anticipated work effort and outcomes, as well as accountabilities, responsibilities, and who to involve or inform for all work streams and tasks. The team development stages of Form/Storm/Norm/Perform—all of which are necessary to a healthy team dynamic—need to happen efficiently, without the impediments of fragile egos, competition, or poorly executed communication.
- The individual work a consultant performs for the team often has tight hourly budgets assigned to the work. It requires the utmost focus, accuracy, and efficiency. It often requires deep expertise. While some work is certainly iterative in nature, clients have high expectations for the quality and pace of each team member’s work. I find it helpful to serve as my own harshest critic and review my own work with the tenacity and standards of my most demanding teachers and bosses.
5. Are you motivated by learning new things, or does it overwhelm you?
You might have heard the expression, “Curiosity keeps you young.” Do you agree? Todd Brison wrote a brief post about the benefits of curiosity, and I think he gets it right. In my experience, the most successful consultants can stretch beyond their current areas of expertise to connect dots, find new ways of seeing a challenge, and ask for different perspectives. These consultants enjoy spending their free time reading, learning, and practicing new skills. As it turns out, the most successful people—whether consultants or not—do these things, too. I also know some extremely bright people who become overwhelmed when new things are asked of them. It could be a function of their personality, or perhaps the result of a bad previous experience when they couldn’t bounce back emotionally from a failure. We all fail, as it turns out, and we all have those passing moments of fear. That’s not what I’m discussing. However, those who have difficulty shaking that fear—who feel frozen for more than a passing moment when facing a challenge outside their intellectual or skill-based comfort-zones—might look for a career with more clearly defined boundaries and expectations than consulting.
6. Are you comfortable speaking extemporaneously* in a group, or do you need time to prepare for all possibilities?
As a consultant, you will be asked at the most convenient of times and the most inconvenient of times to do such things as provide a project update, weigh in on a client decision, explain technical details about something your team delivered two weeks before, or pitch an idea to a partner or prospective client. It might be for an audience of two people, 75 people, or a corporate board. Out of professional courtesy, most clients allow their consultants time to prepare for public speaking and formal meetings. But sometimes situations arise when your calm and expert voice is required in a situation when you’ve had little or no time to prepare. If you are someone who gets so involved in trying to sort out the perfect response that you miss the opportunity to deliver a reasonable and good response, then consider carefully whether you want to live with that kind of stress in your career. While it certainly happens in many types of jobs, the requirement for impromptu, extemporaneous speaking is certain to happen to consultants.
*Note: I’m using the word “extemporaneous” and variations of it as a close synonym of “impromptu”. I understand that in formal speech-giving circles there is a technical difference between the two. I mostly disregard such delineations in this discussion, and here’s why: I think an impromptu speech or presentation by someone whose job it is to be an expert on the topic is technically both impromptu and extemporaneous. If you are interested in some tips for such speaking, take a look at Peter Khoury’s article here.
By now I hope you have had a chance to contemplate what feels comfortable to you about consulting, and what may be a stretch too far for long-term career comfort. The good news is that if you
- work hard to hone your skills
- present, write, and speak in a professional manner
- take time to meet and help others in your desired field of work
- learn to graciously ask for what you want, and
- have a solid work ethic
then you have what it takes to find a fulfilling career path which suits you and has potential to provide for a life you enjoy.
Best of luck to you and yours as you pursue your career and life goals.