In business, any experience is good experience when you are starting out. There is so much for you to learn and do. You grow in many ways: work ethic, work style, relationships, etc. While I believe there is always something to learn no matter where you go or what you do, I believe that the earlier and longer you work in a consulting firm, the better. I gave you some insight into the overall culture of consulting firms in my last post. In this post, I talk specifically about the benefits of working in consulting. I recommend working in a consulting firm earlier in your career and for at least 2-4 years before moving on if possible.
Why You Should Work as a Consultant
Being successful in business is all about learning to produce quality deliverables, meeting deadlines, building relationships with your teammates, managers and subordinates, providing good customer service, understanding the needs of others, presenting your thoughts completely but succinctly, being addable to change, and walking in each day wanting to do things better than you did them before. Working in any career will teach you some level of each of these skills, but consulting will give you an entire degree on it.
1) When you work as a consultant, one of the main types of deliverables that you produce are “decks” or PowerPoint slides. These decks force you to learn to think about your project and your client’s business both holistically and in detail, while simultaneously training you to quickly highlight the key points. You are trained to see the entire picture, each detail while also holding the high level vision in your mind. You learn to structure your thoughts and think effectively.
In my book, 25 Things They Don’t Teach in Business School, I discuss in detail the different purposes of these decks. Most of consulting and business in general is about learning on the job and learning to create decks is the same way. However, in my book I give you a head start by walking you through the science of how to create an effective deck the “consultant way”. I also define common consulting jargon including the full meaning of “deliverable.”
2) Much of consulting is about presenting your thoughts, ideas, deliverables, updates and solutions to your client. Your managers pay close attention to how well you speak and present your views and your information. Remember when you used to dread giving a presentation in school? Well, that fear never completely goes away but because presenting becomes a weekly, or even daily, occurrence in consulting not only do you improve your ability to share thoughts and information, but you also gain confidence. You learn to be a voice at the table.
3) Consulting is all about customer service and like any customer service role, it is not always easy. As a consultant you are often mistrusted because employees at your client’s companies worry you will cut their jobs. Others see you as an outsider who only makes recommendations and does not take accountability and actually implement the suggestions. If something goes wrong, it is always easiest to blame the consultant which can be an added burden for you. However, most of the experience is positive and as a consultant you learn to listen closely to the needs of your clients. You learn to get a feel for needs your client has that they are not even aware of themselves (in my book, I teach you how to identify these needs as well as how to fill them). You also learn about sales and earning new business which I found very valuable.
4) Because you are always in this mindset of finding needs and solving problems, you are naturally trained to focus on continuous improvement in the workplace. Your work style naturally becomes one of being observant of your environment and finding ways to make things better today than they were yesterday. If you were not adaptable to change before, you will be after working in consulting.
5) Consultants are very concerned about doing things the “best” way, or what they often call “best practices.” Other areas of business have best practices as well, but I have not seen them well implemented. They usually are brought up and then they fall to the way-side. In consulting, best practices are always updated from whitepapers and from experience on projects, discussed and they are very often followed.
6) Below the manager level, everyone works in set teams. However, there are several aspects of the teamwork found in a consulting role that are different from those found in other roles. First, in consulting you are constantly switching projects, clients and teams. Some projects are 2 weeks, others as long as 3 years, but most fall in the 3-6 month range. This set up teaches you very quickly about working with different personality types and dealing with various teammate issues (my book covers common teammate issues you will find in any business role and how to deal with them).
Second, teamwork in consulting is what you would expect teamwork to be. In the industry, while people are placed into teams, each person has a very specific job role, has their own projects and spends much of their time working independently. There are attempts to collaborate, but from what I have seen it is chaotic and not very successful. In consulting, everyone works on the same project and everyone is focused on the same end goal. While there are certainly “roles” that each person can play, each person is expected to be a “utility” player and to step in to help the greater good. There really is not much individual work. If you think back to high school or even business school when you worked in teams that is exactly what it is like in the consulting world. The consulting team setup teaches you how to work towards a common goal which is essential to your growth as a person and in your career.
7) Because of the various clients that you work with and the numerous teammates, the size of your network grows much faster in a consulting role than in other business roles without any effort on your part.
8) Consulting firms invest heavily on networking and training. Every year you will likely go to at least one training camp that will be at least a week long. This training camp or “University” as companies like to call them, are HUGE. If a firm has many offices, all of the offices will meet in one area for that week to train (sometimes they may have 3 different areas and weeks). This gives you such a fantastic opportunity! Not only are you given top-notch training in presentation skills, critical thinking skills, project management skills, risk management skills, and even more technical skills, but you are training with employees from all across the nation! You are eating breakfast and lunch with them and going out to bars or for dinner with them. And, just as a side note about training, the best part is all the free gourmet food and sugar-packed snacks. Yum!
In the industry, most companies have just one main office and any training that is done is spread out across the year instead of having an entire week devoted to it and does not have much emphasis on networking with your peers.
9) As I mentioned in my previous post, it does not matter what level of consultant you are, especially at big firms, you will be doing some level of managing. Most of consulting is project management. You manage your clients, you manage projects, if you are in IT consulting you may manage teams of developers. In other business roles, you have to wait until the Senior Manager or Director level to get this type of experience. Consulting truly boosts your career development.
10) Speaking of boosting your career, if you work in consulting for a few years, especially at a big firm, and you choose to move to another company, you will get a promotion from your current level as well as a pay raise. I have known managers at the consulting firm where I worked go straight to Director level when they left to join another company. If you come from a different business role and move into consulting chances are you will be “demoted.” Consulting is a whole different ball game.
While my experience in consulting certainly had its negative sides, in terms of career development and personal growth it was definitely one of the best experiences of my career yet. If you have the opportunity to work in one and have the freedom to travel, I very highly recommend working for a firm. I learned so much more in 9 months of consulting than I did in over a year in the industry. It will do wonders for your career.