After three decades in the work force, and the majority of those years in consulting, I’ve observed my share of people trying their hand it and have noticed what personality traits and work preferences make such a career a more or less natural fit. If you are noodling on the possibility of becoming a consultant, you will want to answer these questions for yourself. Think about your work and school experiences, get out a notebook, and write down your answers to these questions. Once you are finished, return to this article. Keep in mind, there are no wrong answers here; simply answers that indicate whether a consulting career may 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 enterprising or do you prefer structure from your boss(es)?
- Do you like team-based project work or prefer working 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?
Alright, so your answers are written down? Let’s unpack them now:
1. Do you build good relationships quickly or do you need time to feel comfortable connecting with others?
Do you know those folks who sound like BFFs after only 10 minutes of meeting each other? The ones who earnestly seek to find immediate common ground with others they are meeting? They are energized by finding and building on connections with others and look forward to who they will meet next.
There are other people who also value such connections, but who need time and some repetition to get there. Finding out about or sharing too much with new people feels extra. And maybe a little fake. For those folks, it’s exhausting. They prefer for relationships to percolate and grow stronger over time.
Let me be clear: people with both of these styles for initiating and growing relationships are successful in consulting. But those energized by building new relationships will find these frequent situations more comfortable.
2. Can you work productively in an ever-changing work environment or does it get in the way?
Imagine this: Your Monday/Tuesday office is a folding table which you share with 4 clients and 3 consultants. Your team’s workspace is in the breakroom, located smack dab in the middle of a tool manufacturing facility, so at lunch time and plant breaks, the room fills up with hungry, chatty employees. Cell coverage is mostly blocked so there is a single land-line phone at the end of the table in case someone needs to be reached in an emergency. Your Wednesday/Thursday office is a few states away, and is a room with a door that shuts in a quiet, formal office. Your team and clients are spread across 2 different floors; meeting rooms are hard to come by, so your status meetings are often 30-minute stand-ups with 8 people crowded into an office for 1. And your Friday office alternates: if you have conference calls scheduled all day (which happens often on Fridays), you set yourself up on your couch at home, knowing that you’ll do well that day to grab a bio or snack break as you transition between calls. On less scheduled Fridays, you head to your (consulting company) office and by 6 p.m. find that at least 2 hours of work you had hoped to get done has to get tackled on Saturday, because several of your colleagues needed “just a few minutes” to get your thoughts on their client/ supervising/ supervisor/ promotion/ lack-of-promotion/ etc. situation. As your plant-located project is winding down, you are planning another project and have just learned that your team will need to rotate your work locations (in sync as a team) across five cities, working from a different city and client office each week.
I didn’t make any of that up. That’s real life in consulting. Three states a week isn’t completely normal, but it happens. Other times, people are assigned to the same client in the same city for 2 or more years. For those of you who broke out in hives as you read, you will want to come up with coping strategies or perhaps consider a job with a more stable routine.
3. Are you naturally enterprising, or do you prefer receiving structure from your boss(es)?
When I say enterprising in this context, I am talking about the creative work of analyzing a variety of situations and challenges, having a curated toolkit of methods on hand, knowing which to apply, and also knowing when methodologies aren’t going to produce the best answer for the client. Maybe that sounds like a lot of responsibility. In the real world, is a consultant at any level going to shoulder such decisions all on their own? Not likely. However, a consultant should constantly be prepared to. Simultaneously, they need to be prepared to encounter a client who has a plan of their own. Or, perhaps a senior consulting partner who has decided to get involved in the project and direct the work. As a consultant, one needs to be prepared to pivot at any time between driving the work, collaborating on the work, and taking direction on the work. That lack of structure can be thoroughly invigorating for some. For others, they are more comfortable working within the context of structure their boss provides them.
If you are comfortable with – even invigorated by – the possibility of constantly planning, shifting, delivering, and potentially re-planning, based on the collective experience of proven methods, then perhaps consulting is a comfortable field for you. If you prefer to receive your assignments consistently from your boss then consulting might still be a place for you! Just be prepared for that boss to change with each project and client organization to which you are assigned.
Hang on to your answers. We will tackle the next three questions in another article soon. As you might have guessed by now, consulting jobs are not the only ones with the kinds of demands described here. But one thing is certain: as a consultant, you are more likely to face these features in your career journey.