By: Robin Walden
As a little girl, I never dreamed of becoming a consultant. A teacher, lawyer or doctor – yes. But a consultant was certainly not on the career list. And yet, 20 years later, I can’t imagine a more exciting career choice. What other career allows you to move between industries, interact with countless personalities, and help all types of organizations improve their effectiveness at communicating with internal and external audiences?
Consulting in the field of strategic communications is a rewarding career, but is not always easy. Here are a few best practices and challenges when considering whether consulting is the optimal career path for you.
Consulting comes in all shapes and sizes
Consulting can take many forms – working for the big consulting players, partnering with a boutique firm, or venturing out on your own. Having worked in different consulting environments, I have found that each option has advantages and disadvantages:
- Large consulting firms provide exceptional resources and training and can teach the fundamentals of consulting. But junior consultants often have less opportunity to interact with clients, and may get relegated to more tactical work. And as consultants gain seniority, there may be less focus on training and reduced commitment to personal development.
- Boutique firms provide more hands-on experience and client interaction. And you can find a firm that specializes in niche areas that excite you. Smaller firms often afford more hands-on experience and project accountability. But smaller firms may lack stability or a strong infrastructure to support consultants on a day-to-day basis and may lack a structured career path.
- Independent consulting provides the most freedom and allows you to pursue exciting business opportunities and set your own hours and travel. But it also is less stable, and projects may either be too plentiful at times or lacking. A key to independent consulting is to secure a strong and reliable network. Elance is a great tool to search for experienced resources to utilize when certain skillsets are needed for an engagement.
Consulting is a lifestyle, not a job
Consulting is not a 9-5 job and requires a person to be highly adaptable. Nights, weekends, and interrupted vacations are not unusual and a consultant is expected to always be available to meet client needs. A consultant needs to be flexible about skills, time, travel, and work style.
Speed is also of the essence and consultants are expected to quickly ramp up on projects and do whatever it takes to get work completed on time and on budget. Clients can often be demanding and are not always receptive to partnering with consultants. Therefore, a consultant must have exceptional people skills and be well versed at partnering with a broad range of personalities to achieve mutual success.
Detective work is a key to success
Consultants work across industries and must be well versed on the challenges and opportunities of their clients. Fortunately, with research and competitive information available online, this information is readily available. Consulting involves a lot of behind-the-scenes research to uncover the following:
- About the industry: What are challenges within the industry? Who are the key players? Where is this industry heading?
- About your client: What is their history? What is their vision? What are their core competencies? How do they differentiate themselves in the marketplace?
- About the situation: What are their most pressing business issues? How can communications support achievement of their business goals? How can they measure whether communications are achieving the desired result?
Mark Haas has published over 800 daily tips for consultants on an Institute for Management Consultant blog. Tip #703 says that consultants can take a few tips from Sherlock Holmes to do detective work to figure out the root of the problem, what caused the failure, and how to fix it. If you are the type of individual who likes problem solving, consulting can be an ideal career path.
There is no such thing as a small project, only a small result
Communication consulting is not always glamorous. Projects can range from creation of marketing collateral to crafting complex communication strategies. No matter how tactical the project, it is critical to add strategic value – whether refining the messaging, proposing alternative channels to better reach audiences, or crafting a measurement plan to monitor success. Clients may not initially understand the value that strategic communications can play in achieving business success.
In my experience, small projects have often led to multi-year engagements. It is critical to get your foot in the door, demonstrate your value, and invariably more projects will follow. A pro bono project or non-profit assistance can be a great way to showcase your expertise, network with potential clients, and generate new business opportunities.
Consulting is not for everyone. But, if you are ambitious, a self-starter, a people person, and adventurous – consulting can be a fantastic career.
Let’s hear from you. For those of you with consulting experience, what have you found to be the biggest challenges? For those of you considering this career path, what advice can help you get started in this exciting career?
Robin Walden has been a Management Consultant since 1993. She started her career at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), spent many years in a boutique consulting firm in NYC, and now enjoys the flexibility and challenges of independent consulting in the healthcare arena in Connecticut. She is happy to address questions about this field and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.