The Big 3 Lessons Learned from a Former Consultant

I often think fondly of my days as a consultant.  Yes, the schedule was tough, but it was great experience and a career path I always encourage recent grads to consider.  In a consulting role, you have the unique opportunity to face the most challenging problems.

You get to focus in (there are no personal distractions), help make a difference, resolve issues, and move on to the next challenge.  This can be taxing – but always rewarding.  You are constantly learning from both your project team and the client team alike.

I often see consulting experience listed on job descriptions and it is easy for me to understand why.  This type of role requires you to develop several major skills that are critical to success in business today:

  • Flexibility and change management – Not only do you need to be able to shift gears quickly on new projects, but you need to be able to adjust quickly to changes at your client organization.
  • Speed – You need to be able to learn things quickly – new people, new businesses, new industries – and balance multiple requests and demands at the same time.
  • Diplomacy –Diplomacy is critical – you’ll need to facilitate heated discussions and help people make decisions.  You’ll deal with stakeholders with conflicting viewpoints- you need to learn to be a problem solver, a negotiator, and a pleaser – everyone must walk away from the table feeling good.

Beyond these basic survival skills, there are 3 big things I learned as a consultant that are important to remember – regardless of your role or title:

  1. The customer is always right – We all say this but we don’t always live it.  As a consultant you are side by side with your customer daily.  You quickly learn their perspective and (hopefully) become a trusted advisor.  Sometimes the lines between customer and consultant can become blurry and consultants can forget who they work for.  And sometimes you are faced with the most difficult customers who – no matter what you say, do, or prove will never believe that you (an outsider) will have the answers.
  2. You realize how important non-consulting experience is – I wasn’t a “born and bred” consultant.  I wasn’t one of the chosen few recruited from my college to join the “Big 5” (ageing myself here).  This had major advantages. Before I was serving clients, I was the client.  I had a deeper understanding of life on the other side.   Some (not all) of those born and bred types had a certain arrogance about them that resulted in poor relationships at the customer- “you need me to tell you what to do.”
  3. Traveling is Not Glamorous – Frequent flier miles and hotel reward stays aside, hopping on a plane every Sunday night and Thursday evening is no fun.  When the hotel staff greet you by name, it is nice for about 3 seconds and then reality sets in – “Yup, I am spending WAY too much time here.”  Oh, and even if your project is in Malibu, chances are you’ll be looking at the inside of a hotel room and an office building for 4 days.

My consulting run ended after my 1st child.  I no longer wanted to travel so I switched to an operations role within my company.  It was a bittersweet time but I knew I couldn’t be on the road 4 nights a week with a new baby – I was already trying to deal with daycare guilt.

I was very fortunate to work with fantastic project teams and clients during my run.  A big thank you to Darlene Phillips and Ed Lennox were my first managers and led my first project.  They built a team that was like a family and I learned more from them than I did from anyone else throughout my career.

Were you a consultant?  What key things did you learn?

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/xlibber/3423766012/

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