How to be a Consultant

September 12, 2011 — 3 Comments

A lot of people have heard the job title “Consultant”, but not many know what it means or how to be a consultant!  I was a consultant for 7 years prior to my current job, and I learned we will all need to be consultants to succeed in the new world of work.

My grandfather worked nearly his entire life at the railroad.  He worked hard and knew how to succeed at work, and they took care of him when he retired.  It’s how life used to be.  His job didn’t change much and neither did the required skills.  It will never be that way again.

Jobs and careers have taken an obvious turn in the last 10-15 years.  Gone are the days of getting a good job and staying with the same company for 45 years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee born between 1957 and 1964 had 11 jobs between their ages of 18 and 44.  That means a new job every 2.3 years!

Things are moving even faster now and our generation will have even more than that.  It’s easy to see we must take a different mindset to our careers.  To succeed, you must build marketable skills that can be used across many companies and industries.  In essence, you must be a consultant.

Why the change?

Corporations don’t care about their employees nearly as much as they used to because the value of experience with a company has turned into a detriment in many cases.

I’m not bitter towards corporate America, as I believe this is the inevitable path of the capitalism that we love so much.  Things move a lot faster and if companies don’t keep up with the pace, they will die.  Another company that is smarter and faster will put them out of business.

Technology is changing faster and companies must keep up to stay competitive.  Projects cycle a lot faster, tools and systems change much faster, and if employees aren’t up with the new technology and management styles they’ll change out faster as well!

The ability to adapt allows companies to stay competitive.  To adapt they must be much more agile and have the ability to use people with the skills they need, only when they need them. 

This is how I lived my life at a major consulting firm for seven years.  Companies brought in consultants because they didn’t have the expertise in a certain area.

As consultants, we’d come in and deliver their new technology and leave when we were done.  They didn’t need to keep us full time.

The faster you can get in this new mindset and learn to be a consultant, the better off you will be in today’s world.  It’s a scary time, but you must also realize that companies will still be around and have even more money for the people who can fulfill their needs.

How can you keep up?

You have some options.  You can sit around and gripe about how companies have no loyalty anymore or you can learn to thrive in it.  These are some of the tips that have enabled me to succeed in this new age.


How to be a consultant:

1.  Become self-sufficient by building your network

2.  Every time you start a new project you must learn very fast about the client and the work

3.  You must keep up with the latest technologies and best practices

4.  Project lengths are short; typically 9-12 months

5.  Have a skill set that is in demand


1.  Become self-sufficient by building your network

The most important enabler to be a consultant is the network that you’ve built.  It doesn’t matter that you have top skills in a certain area if no one knows you.  You must become very focused on building and maintaining your network.

The best way to do this is to do great work for the people you’re currently working for.  This allowed me to navigate between projects and always have something lined up next that I wanted to do.

In the consulting world, if you don’t work your network to find a good project, you’ll end up on a project you didn’t like with someone that you don’t know.

Another way to build your network is to get involved in extra-curricular activities.  Join clubs or organizations focused around your expertise, join clubs outside of work (Toastmasters, philanthropic, etc), and reach out to people you’re interested in meeting.

Do the work now so you have something lined up when you need it.


2.  Every time you start a new project you must learn very fast about the client and the work

This can be an exhausting process but there is no better way to learn than to drink from the fire hose.

As a consultant, when you start a new project you’re expected to come up to speed very quickly and learn about the project and the client.  The same thing goes for the ‘expertise’ you were brought in for.  More than once, I’ve been coined an expert in something that I’ve never done before!  I had to learn very quickly.

The best part about this process you learn an incredible amount of information in a very short time.  The more you do it, the quicker you’ll learn to do it and the faster you’ll succeed.

If you switch jobs voluntarily or involuntarily, view it as an opportunity to learn a new skill in an expedited fashion.  You should avoid staying stagnate in the same job too long because you won’t be able to learn much if you’re not exposed to new things.  If someone asks you why you’ve had so many jobs, just tell them you’re a consultant!!


3.  You must keep up with the latest technologies and best practices

Why are you of value?   To start your new job or project, you must fit a need on the project or client.  The best way to do this is to have a skill set that is in demand.

Cloud computing?  Social networking?  Guerrilla marketing?  What skill will you bring?  An ability to work with and manage people will always be in demand.  So will providing excellent customer service.

It’s not enough to learn the skill and think you’ll be ok.  Things change so fast that you’ll quickly become irrelevant if you don’t keep up to speed on your skills.  If you want to be a consultant who’s an expert on a particular subject, it will require a lot of learning.

The best way to do this is to read as much as you can on your industry and skill set.  Find online blogs and forums, read magazines, and attend training.


4.  Project lengths are short; typically 9-12 months

Most consulting projects are short term.  You must realize this and be able to adapt to it in order to succeed.  The best way to do this is to follow the three steps I’ve already outlined above.

My former consulting firm lived by the mantra of ‘one foot in today and one foot in tomorrow.’  This applies very much in the consulting world because you must deliver great work at your current client and at the same time think about what the future will hold as far as new technology and new clients.

To become a consultant, understand that the length of your next job could be very short and you’ll need to find something else soon.


5.  Have a skill that is in demand

The people who succeed at consulting have one of two major skill sets.  Either they are a deep expert at a certain skill, or they are a ‘connector’ and who know the right people with the skills.

If you want to be the expert at a skill set, you must follow step 3 outlined above and stay relevant with your skills and knowledge.

If you want to be the connector, you’ll need to be the guy who sells the work at a client and then brings in the right people to get the jobs done.

Life as consultant isn’t easier than life on the railroad, but it’s the new reality.  As I mentioned in a  previous post, not even George Costanza’s method of ‘looking busy’ will work in this new environment.  When you learn how to be a consultant, you work within this reality, stay flexible, and find a way to succeed.

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3 responses to How to be a Consultant

  1. You are so right when it comes to today’s business climate. Many people seem to not pay enough attention to what is happening in their company and believe, falsely, that if they just work a little bit harder they will be appreciated for their efforts. Then they find themselves without a job and behind the game when it comes to their skill level along with an inadequate network. It is imperative that everyone stay ahead of the curve with their skill set in their industry or gravitate to a new industry that can accommodate their abilities.

    Generally the lifespan of an employee for any given company is around 3 years. That would portend that we need to always be learning and improving our knowledge base for the next opportunity, be it in a company or as a consultant.

    • Susan – great points, it’s scary to think the average lifespan is around three years! As you mentioned, people find themselves behind the game by not keeping their tools sharp. The tools include personal skills, industry knowledge, and your network! I think the most important one to keep up is building and maintaining a strong network.

  2. Wow, I love this outlook and advice!

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