Beginning a Career as a Business and Technology Consultant [Big 4 Consultants and Others]

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Written By: Eric Kimberling
Date: September 8, 2023

Consulting can be a rewarding profession; however, breaking into the world of consulting presents its challenges. In this discussion, we will explore how to begin and offer tips for launching a successful career in consulting.

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When I began my career as a consultant 25 years ago, I encountered challenges in establishing myself in the field. Over time, I have come to view consulting as a profoundly rewarding career path. I am passionate about the consulting field and cannot envision myself in any other profession. Today, I aim to discuss how individuals, especially those with limited experience or those new to consulting, can transition and establish themselves in the world of consulting.

Find Your Niche

One of the initial steps in embarking on a career in consulting is to identify your niche. It is essential to focus on a specific area that will provide you with a foundation and a point of entry into the vast field of consulting. Consulting is distinct and expansive, covering a wide range of topics from business and technology to many other interdisciplinary fields. Given its broad scope, it can be challenging to determine where to commence. Over time, it is beneficial to acquire a comprehensive understanding of the various facets of consulting. However, initially, pinpointing a niche or an area of expertise can pave the way for entry into the field.

The essence of breaking into consulting lies in defining your initial specialization. As your career progresses, you may choose to delve deeper into your chosen specialization or opt to diversify your expertise. It's pivotal to commence with a clear area of focus. For clarity, ponder on questions like, "What kind of consulting do I aspire to do?" or "What kind of consultant do I envision myself becoming?"

For instance, if you are inclined towards a hands-on technical role, you might consider becoming a technical configurator engaged in implementation tasks. Then, you'd need to decide on the type of technology to concentrate on. Will it be ERP software, supply chain software, or custom development software? Alternatively, you might consider focusing on emerging fields like data science or artificial intelligence.

On the other hand, if you are more business-oriented, you might opt for a role as a business process analyst. If you are drawn to the human aspects of business transformation, you could delve into organizational change management. Starting roles could also include positions like project analyst or project management assistant, setting you on a program management trajectory.

These are merely examples of potential specializations in consulting. Selecting a niche not only offers an entry point but also equips you with the foundation to diversify and broaden your expertise throughout your consulting journey.

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Identify Your Target Consulting Firms

Once you've determined your focus and defined your niche within the consulting field, the next step is to decide the type of consulting firm you wish to join. For instance, do you aspire to work with one of the prominent "Big Four" system integrator consulting firms? Or are you leaning towards a smaller, niche consulting entity? Perhaps you're considering a medium-sized firm that offers a balance of both worlds. It's essential to have a clear vision of your starting point, even if it might evolve over time.

Upon deciding the specific category of firm you're interested in—whether it's a niche consulting firm, a "Big Four" entity, or a medium-sized establishment—you can then refine your search to identify which firms within that category align with your goals. Utilizing platforms like LinkedIn can assist in researching various options based on your chosen niche.

For example, if you've opted to specialize in SAP consulting—given SAP's reputation as a widely-used ERP system—you must then discern the kind of SAP consulting firm you want to affiliate with. Would you prefer a large-scale firm like Accenture or Deloitte? Alternatively, there are mid-sized SAP consulting firms and even smaller boutique options. Each choice comes with its unique set of advantages and challenges. Hence, it's pivotal to gauge what aligns with your personal and professional aspirations to ensure you embark on a path that augments your chances of success.

An emerging category in the consulting realm is the independent technology consulting firm. This category comprises companies like Third Stage Consulting, which aren't tied to a specific software vendor but instead offer expertise across diverse software solutions and categories. A company such as Third Stage Consulting might be an ideal fit for those keen on swift career growth and exposure to an array of technologies within the sector.

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Learn and Develop Hard Skills

Once you have determined your niche and identified the type of consulting firm you wish to join, it is crucial to cultivate and showcase your hard skills. By "hard skills," I refer to specialized, technical abilities. These aren't confined merely to technology, software, or hands-on technical components. They encompass specific disciplines or functions within consulting that you aim to concentrate on.

These hard skills can span areas such as technological expertise, software configuration, customization, development, and even delve into subjects like change management, program management intricacies, and business processes. For instance, one could build proficiency in business process analysis. These are just a few examples of the vast array of hard skills that could be beneficial in the consulting realm.

While I will touch upon the significance of soft skills shortly, which are arguably even more crucial, it remains essential for aspirants to display a mastery of relevant hard skills. This expertise can enhance your appeal to prospective consulting employers.

Even if you lack experience in these specific hard skill areas, various avenues can assist you in acquiring or at least showcasing them. For instance, if you have a background in supply chain management and wish to transition to consulting, your comprehensive understanding of supply chain operations is a valuable hard skill. This deep comprehension of business processes within supply chain management can be leveraged in consulting roles.

For those without substantial experience, such as college students, obtaining internships or hands-on real-world experience is a recommended step. Your academic journey might also include courses that impart certain hard skills. Emphasizing these courses and related expertise when presenting yourself to potential employers can be beneficial. The primary objective is to accentuate and continue developing your hard skills, enhancing your attractiveness to recruiters within consulting firms.

Learn and Develop Soft Skills

The most crucial element for success as a consultant is the possession and demonstration of strong soft skills. Soft skills do not solely pertain to tangible, black and white knowledge. They encompass abilities such as communication, active listening, understanding, teamwork, empathy, and patience. These skills are vital for consultants, and showcasing them effectively can significantly enhance one's chances of entering the consulting domain.

I would contend that once inside the consulting industry, these soft skills will aid in rapid career progression, perhaps even more so than the technical or hard skills previously discussed. For those new to consulting, it's imperative to refine and strengthen these soft skills. Enhancing presentation abilities, improving communication techniques, cultivating the skill to ask insightful questions, and developing genuine empathy are vital steps. Demonstrating these qualities and characteristics will not only facilitate an entry into consulting but also foster swifter career advancement compared to peers in the industry.

Broaden Your Horizons

One of the intricate aspects of consulting is managing the balance between specialization and maintaining a comprehensive understanding of both business and technology. On one side, specialization is essential to offer in-depth expertise in a specific area. However, this cannot be pursued in isolation. A holistic understanding of various facets of business, technology, and organizational behavior is equally imperative.

As you commence your consulting career, it's beneficial to select an area of focus. This focus aids in establishing a solid foundation and propels your career forward. Simultaneously, you should aim to expand your knowledge base, understanding the broader context and how your specific domain interlinks with the larger picture. By demonstrating this dual capability, you increase your chances of career progression and diversify potential opportunities.

For instance, if your goal is to evolve into a program manager, an expansive skill set acquired early in your career can be advantageous. Likewise, if you aim to transition between large and smaller consulting firms or vice versa, a broad experiential background equips you with flexibility. Thus, initiating your consulting career with a clear focus, while simultaneously broadening your scope, ensures you're well-versed in your niche and its interrelation with other business and technology dimensions.

I would enjoy brainstorming ideas with you if you are looking to strategize an upcoming transformation or are looking at selecting an ERP system, so please feel free to contact me at eric.kimberling@thirdstage-consulting.com. I am happy to be a sounding board as you continue your digital transformation journey.

Be sure to download the newly released 2023 Digital Transformation Report to garner additional industry insight and project best practices.

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Eric Kimberling

Eric is known globally as a thought leader in the ERP consulting space. He has helped hundreds of high-profile enterprises worldwide with their technology initiatives, including Nucor Steel, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Kodak, Coors, Boeing, and Duke Energy. He has helped manage ERP implementations and reengineer global supply chains across the world.

Author:
Eric Kimberling
Eric is known globally as a thought leader in the ERP consulting space. He has helped hundreds of high-profile enterprises worldwide with their technology initiatives, including Nucor Steel, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Kodak, Coors, Boeing, and Duke Energy. He has helped manage ERP implementations and reengineer global supply chains across the world.
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