When people tell me they are “going into consulting” after they have left or lost their jobs, I often think they are not aware of what that possibly means.
Whenever I meet some of these people later on many of them tell me they had imagined it would be far easier. There is an image of consultancy out there that this is something everyone can just do, when there isn´t anything better to do.
Having been in this business for 25 years I feel entitled to share some of my experiences and personal facts on what it means to be a consultant, delivering results and value at a consistent high level. There are some questions you might want to ask yourself to see whether your are ready for that ride.
- Are you able to deal with stress and high pressures on delivery? Expect to be delivering value literally every minute. When your daily rate reaches several 1000 Euros per day there is absolutely no way your are not delivering added value to your client. You have to able to deliver to the point, not later, when it comes to your mind.
- You can absolutely never be late or fail to keep your deadlines. As a consultant you need to be immaculate in that way, keeping clients waiting is a no go.
- You really have to know what you are talking about and be an expert in your field. There is no “Blabla”, clients are not at all stupid and in the last 10 years their internal skills and qualifications have reached a different, much higher level than ever before. They have read all the books, done varieties of curricula and there needs to be a good reason why you are here.
- Don’t expect your contacts from your previous life which you made as – lets say – Head of HR to be of any worth to you, once you left corporate world and are a consultant now. This might sound rough, but your contacts are attached to your role, not to you as person, most of the time.
- You need to be very disciplined and well organized. Waking up 4 am, going to the airport. 2 Days in Bukarest, dress code: business and high heels. Then you move on to Germany to a workshop, Jeans and Sneakers. And then you might give a key note and need some cool stage clothes. Everything has to be there, spotless and without wrinkles. For me that means dark colors only, all is stretch material so I can move. But it still should look professional, high quality, cool. Then you need to make sure you have your business cards, print-outs, materials, medicine, whatever you will need ready. For me personally this was one of the biggest challenges, to have the right outfit at hand and in a proper way. I am not this person that puts on a white shirt and make up and looks the same 20 hours later in the evening.
- You need to have a lot of skills and capacities. As a consultant, you can’t just be an expert in a field. You have to be able to handle and process the content, the social and emotional state of a group, group-dynamics, politics and yourself at the same time, as a beginning. Emotional and cognitive intelligence help to get some work done and effect results. To speak several languages helps, a clear and loud voice, a little charisma, after a while, helps too. You have to know what is going on in the world and be entertaining as well, good manners are a must and even having travelled helps. You need to be able to move and navigate different cultures, corporate cultures as well as country cultures.
- Are you a hard worker? It is not always hard but most of the time it is. It depends in which consulting field you are in, what the culture of your company is like, but consulting can and will be very very intense. I remember times when I had to cut sleeping time to 5 hours in order to get the amount of work done. When I arrived at a client at 9 I often had 3-4 hours of work done and an early morning flight. Clients pay a lot of money for your services and they expect to get something for that. Something interesting, great, creative, qualitative, novel and of high qualitative, something they or their organization couldn’t come up with.
- You will be on the road a lot. Traveling, airports, lonely nights in hotels in the oddest places, not always 5 star hotels. Depressing hotel lobbies, noisy rooms, dinners with colleagues, time away from home. But sometimes it is also wonderful locations in Bangkok and the discovery of places you would probably never ever go to as a private person (e.g. Banja Luka, Mara Mures, Providence, Chiba, etc).
- You will be on the spot, on stages, having to speak in front of people a lot. Sometimes you feel very exposed. In the early beginning of my consulting path I was very shy and I had to force myself to speak up or get up in front of people and even writing on the flip chart, while everyone was watching, was a challenge.
- You have to be able to get along and speak with everyone: from the CEO to the blue-collar workers, from the IT-Nerd to the Marketing and Creative people. It helps to be able to connect with a whole variety of people.
- You will miss out on many friends and family events. Private life is cancelled. During the week you are gone, on weekends you are dead tired or working. It is a miracle I still have friends, I even cancelled the bachelor weekend of my friend who’s maid of honor I was. I had organized the weekend and then didn’t go. I was working so much and was so extremely exhausted I couldn’t even think about flying to Rome, party with the girls and continue work on Monday. It was a terrible thing to do but I just couldn’t help it. I missed rare family gatherings and birthdays, I was never there.
- You basically cannot be sick or bad tempered. I have done workshops with diarrhea, heavy inflammations and the worst menstrual pains. Clients booked you and when you have a workshop with a leadership team flying in from all over the world or teach a 3 day consulting training programs you just have to show up, unless you are in hospital. If you have health issues, many allergies or if you are very sensitive to getting infections easily, this job could be a challenge for you, a robust health is very helpful. I have to say I had a prolapse after a couple of years, I hardly could move for weeks but somehow I managed to stay tuned with the job.
- You cannot be tired. I once had a terrible Jetlag during a clients workshop and as I was so afraid to fall asleep I spent most of the time standing, so I would stay awake. There is no excuse like in a normal office job where you can take it easy after a rough night or some drinks. Actually it is better not to drink at all when you work the next day, definitely makes a difference when it comes to quality of sleep and level of concentration.
- You absolutely need to put your personal stuff aside. You had a fight with your husband? A difficult situation with a friend? You are upset about anything? There is no way you can show it, consulting is not about you, it is about helping your client, who is already in a stressful situation. Last year when I was on the way to a pitch meeting the CEO, Head of HR and Corporate Development of a large prospective client and about 30 minutes before the meeting my step grandfather called me to tell me that my 92 year old beloved grandmother had passed away the night before. I had to move on, get through the meeting and start grieving afterwards.
- Expect to get tough feedback. Especially in my beginnings there was a lot of learning, a lot of feedback from clients and more so from my seniors and partners. They want you to learn and they will tell you what worked and what you need to work on, tough love. This can be tough and difficult, and it will be.
- You need to be a quick learner. Each project will challenge you in a different way and you need to be able to understand and feel into a clients reality, challenges and business. So you better catch up quickly.
- Expect to get a lot of “thank you for your effort, but we have decided to go another way … go with another provider”. Sometimes you don’t even get a feedback, after spending a lot of time and effort to meet the clients, go through their material in depth, websites, press and after investing many unpaid hours create an offer for them. A proposal in consulting doesn’t meant that you write a price and timeline, but you have to prepare a full concept, based on your analysis of the situation and challenges, what you would do, how, when, with whom, timelines, deliverables, interesting ideas, activities per target group or whatever business you are in. Of course your approach, theories, models you use, the whole IP, testimonials that match your clients situation.. it can take a week to work on it and then there is the selection. Sometimes you don’t know whether it is a fake pitch, but you still try your best, at least in order to be considered for another project. My drive is a cemetery of lost proposal decks.
- You have to be kind and patient. Always. Even if you want to cry and scream and tell people to just get going, for Gods sake. When you work with people and help them change and move on, you need to be super patient and understanding. It is sometimes really hard for them to take the most obvious and basic steps, from your perspective. In their perspective they need to take the responsibility and live with it. Corporations are fear-driven most of the time, changing small things, taking decisions can be a bigger risk than one thinks. Even hiring a consultant is a risk, you are a risk. They feel they are responsible for what you do. Being respectful and pacing people and helping them to move on in micro-baby steps and creating room and time and safe space for them is our job, not pushing them to the (our) extreme. I have done that several times, pushed clients forward, thinking I was doing the right thing of course, just to find out they were overstretching themselves. This is not sustainable and it will eventually fire back on you.
- You need to be able to focus and be mentally present for 10 hours the least. If you spend time with clients / at clients you need to listen to them, remember what they say, process it. If you cannot focus and stay concentrated for long hours, don’t consider being a consultant.
- You have to stay open and curious for what the client holds and needs and not superimpose your opinion on them. The balance between listening, coaching and consulting is a very fine line, some sensitivity will help a lot.
- You will be confronted with prejudice. Many organizations have had difficult experiences with consultants and many times they are not thrilled having you here – and they will let you know. You have to earn their trust.
- Be ready to face your biggest fears. Everything will happen to you: You will fail, you will make mistakes, you will get withdrawn from a project, you will have to have your first 3-day training program with 20 people in the room and you are insecure to the bone, you will have to do things you don’t know how to do them and there is no-one to ask. You will be confronted with angry people leaving the room in the midst of the workshop and with group dynamics you rather not dream of. You will be exposed in front of people, accused and treated disrespectful. You will have to react calm, with dignity and respectful. Sometimes you will have to tell the clients to stop talking to you like this and you will always risk to loose the assignment. Many difficult expectations, often contradictory will be a kind of daily bread and you will have to come up with solutions within seconds and minutes. You might be so stressed that you cannot sleep for days and weeks.
- You have to prove your self again and again and again. It is not like in an actual job, where you start working and after some time – once you have proven yourself and you know how things are working – you can shift gears. In consulting your are starting again and again. Every new client doesn’t know you and you don’t know them. For me it is one of the most exciting parts, but it is exhausting to actually apply for a job and start a new job many times every year, often in parallel. Now after some years I have a stock of clients that I have worked with for many years, and I love that. But still, every new client is a challenge and also working with “old” clients stays that way, you still have to prove you are still bringing new things in and add value for them.
- Consulting is a relationship-based job. Without a good and trustful relationship established, nothing can get done. You have to love working with people and building genuine and trustful relationships over time and keep them going.
- Expect to spend a lot of time and money in your ongoing consulting training. You need to learn the basic skills like coaching, facilitation, agile, depending on where you are and then go to conferences, retreats, learning journeys.. you have to inspire and develop ideas, be inspirational. Just sitting at your clients and charge days won’t work for long.
- Have your shit together – this is really important. You better do therapy and self experiences and personal development in order to claim you can help others. You need to know what your strengths and weaknesses are, what triggers you and what is your clients shit and which one is your own. Otherwise you will get lost. And yes, self-confidence without blown ego definitely helps. “Cleaning the kitchen is cleaning the mind” as a Zen quote speaks – so you better get your homework done.
- If you are a women expect to be ignored, looked at or sexual harassed. This never ever happened to me, but asking a question and the client turns to your male colleague for the answer is pretty standard.
- Getting into the business and being successful – especially when you have your own company – asks more than a beautiful website and an interesting offer. You absolutely have to put yourself out there, being visible, present, writing, speaking, press, media, meeting people, doing consistently good and valuable work. It is not coming your way and you are not the only one out there. Competition is huge, prices are being dumped and to many consulting jobs there is absolutely no glamour attached.
Consulting as a life practice
To me consulting is more than a job or an occupation. It is a true practice of and for my life, as it challenges me to be the best I can be every single day.
This job can be very fulfilling and rewarding and being challenged, learning, changing all the time. Seeing the world from many different perspectives and making a real difference for people and organizations is the best I can imagine.
Many things I listed are now much lighter and easier for me than they beginning, of course, but no workshop, no project, no meeting is and will ever be routine. Over time my fears and anxieties of not being (good) enough transformed into a confidence in my experience, skills and capacities. It took me a long time and experience to be able to trust myself to handle whatever situation might come up. And yes, there were a lot of “situations” and I am really glad I have mastered them and they are now in the past 🙂
In the meantime I have also shifted gears, I run my own consulting firm and I work half (?) time with clients and the other time I write and do other stuff I like being in nature gardening (the best training course for consulting and leading), or traveling or spending time with friends. But honestly this is not where it starts.
If you are ready to pay the price and do your homework there will be a lot of great experiences, joy, fulfillment and abundance as a human being.