Consulting is a rewarding and challenging career that can work well for many people but how exactly do you become a consultant? That's what I want to talk about here today.
I've been a consultant my entire career, I started 25 years ago, coming out of graduate school and it's a career that I didn't really plan on entering but I'm really glad I did. Consulting is a rewarding career, it's challenging, you learn a lot, it can be high profile at times and it's just a lot of fun. If you're interested in consulting, you may be wondering “how do I get into consulting?” Perhaps you're a college graduate or a recent graduate and you're trying to figure out how to break into consulting, perhaps you're mid-career, you've been doing something other than consulting and now you want to leverage those skills and experiences to become a consultant. Regardless of where you are in your career, I want to talk about some of the things that you can do to become a successful consultant.
The first step in your journey toward becoming a consultant is to determine what kind of consultant you want to be. Consulting is very broad, it's a very broad category that includes a lot of different things. It could be technical consulting, functional, operational or organizational, there's a lot of different pieces or different directions you could go and that's part of what makes consulting so fun, because if you choose one and you decide to switch, it's easy enough to pull off.
Big transformations and big changes that organizations typically hire consultants for, require a pretty broad skill set, however, it helps to first carve out your area of focus and the area that you want to dig into in your first steps into consulting.
Once you've done that and you've identified your niche, you can then start to broaden your horizons and maybe even move outside of that niche but to really get your foot in the door, it helps to have a very clear vision of where you want to be in consulting. For example, a lot of consultants want to be technical consultants, they want to do hands-on coding or hands-on configuration of software. Other people want to be operational consultants, they want to focus on process improvement, that sort of thing.
If you're an operational consultant, you need to focus on the type of function you want to focus on. If you have a finance background for example, maybe you focus on financial operations as your area of focus, if you're a supply chain practitioner, perhaps you focus on Supply Chain Management and same with technology. As I mentioned technology before, you may not only focus on technology but within technology, you need to focus on what type of technology do I focus on. Do I focus on, for example, ERP systems? If I focus on ERP systems, is there a certain type of system, a certain vendor system that I focus on? This is where depth and focus becomes really important because it's impossible to know from a hands-on perspective how to configure and develop across multiple platforms.
Another type of consultant that's very common is organizational change consultants. These are people that maybe have a little bit of operational background, a little bit of technical background but they're really focused on helping organizations through the change. They're helping identify what the change impacts are going to be, what the organizational design is going to be, they're helping with training communications and other things of that nature. Thus Far, I've given you a few examples or a few things to think about but the first step in becoming a successful consultant is have a clear vision of what kind of consultant you want to be.
The next step is to identify what relevant skills you have now that will help you break into consulting. Don't worry if there's skills that you don't have, I'm going to talk about that later, how you can develop and further your skills but for now you need to define what is it you do well, what are your strengths?
For example, if you're a college student and you don't have any real world experience, you might look at what sorts of lessons you learned from certain courses or if you had extracurricular activities you were involved with, how can you relate that to consulting? If you are an athlete for example, is there teamwork and communication types of skills that you have gathered during that process and how can you position yourself as someone that has strong teamwork and communication skills? If you're fortunate enough to have an internship, what kind of experience did you get in that real world environment and if you don't have an internship by the way, I highly encourage you to do so and I'll talk about that again later in this article.
If you're a seasoned professional or you're mid-career, it might be a little bit easier for you to transition into consulting. The reason being is A. you have real world experience but B. you also have transferable skills that you can probably connect the dots with easier. For example, if you were a supply chain manager at a manufacturing organization, it would make a lot of sense that you would leverage that Supply Chain Management background to potentially become a Supply Chain Management consultant or maybe a supply chain technologist.
If you have that real world experience, you just want to make sure you connect the dots between what you did functionally as well as what some of the intangible skills were that you learned during that experience.
I've talked about the skills that you might leverage that you already have but what do you do to get the experience you don't have? That's a really important question. One of the reasons why I was able to break into consulting was because I got an internship the second year of my master's program that was in consulting and that really opened up the doors for me to go work at a big consulting firm, which led me to another big consulting firm, which then led me to start my own consulting firm.
It's important to really get that early experience however you can and one of the best ways to do that is to find an internship. If you can find someone that will take a chance on you, that'll give you a chance to start off, even on a limited basis or a low pay sort of basis, then I would take it because that's worth its weight in gold in terms of giving you the relevant experience and really connecting the dots between what your strengths and skill sets are today versus what they need to be in the future to be a successful consultant. Remember, at this point you're not trying to become an expert consultant, you're just trying to become good enough to get your foot in the door at a consulting firm, so any sort of experience you can get is going to go a long way towards doing that.
One of the most important things you can do to position yourself as an effective consultant is to develop your soft skills because, I would argue, it's the soft skills that make for a good consultant, much more so than the tangible hard skills. In other words, you can know all there is to know about technology but if you can't communicate well with people, if you don't listen, if you don't collaborate well, then you're not going to be a good consultant, no matter how smart you are.
Consulting is less about book smart and more about emotional EQ and emotional intelligence. This is where we need to work on our listening skills and that's in my opinion the most important thing to be a good consultant, you have to know how to listen and maybe a secondary one is to ask good questions. The beauty of listening is it takes the pressure off you to have all the answers, as a new consultant, if you can ask good questions, listen and absorb what you learn in your listening skills, that's going to go a long way. Oftentimes, that'll go a lot further than the information that you know, the more tangible stuff that you know.
Some additional skills that are really important from an intangible perspective would be communication skills, collaboration skills, presentation skills, your general confidence and demeanor, those are all really important aspects of becoming a good consultant and if you don't have those skills, if you're not experienced or well versed in some of these intangible areas, there's things you can do to train yourself.
For example, you can join Toastmasters, it's an organization that helps people with public speaking and additionally, you could take a communication course, there's a lot of different things you could do to gain these experiences but you really want to focus on those intangibles as well as the hard skills that you need to develop to further your career and not to be totally dismissive of the tangible skills. If you can get certifications in program management or certain technical certifications those are all going to go a long way as well.
Another step to becoming a consultant is to market yourself to potential employers. Is there a way for you to get the attention of someone that's making a hiring decision? One of the most effective ways to do this is via LinkedIn.com, if you can connect with decision makers that might be hiring on LinkedIn, that's a great way to maybe circumvent the more formal recruiting process and build a personal connection with someone that might take a chance on you and or at the very least might give you a chance to talk to them about potential career opportunities.
One word of advice here is, I would not start messaging people simple messages like, for example, hello Eric I'm interested in working for your company, please see my resume. That's a highly ineffective way to market yourself, I get literally dozens of messages like that every day on LinkedIn and unfortunately I just don't have time to read them but if I do get a message that's very personalized, it's directed to me, it pushes a button of something I said in a video or something they know about my company, I'm going to listen to them, I'm going to read that email, I'm going to open the attachment and see what their background's all about and see if it's someone that's worth talking to.
So it's really important to not send a generic, boilerplate sort of message but really think about how can I differentiate myself and get this person's attention in a way that might add value. Another thing that I've seen work extremely well is to create a video. If you create some sort of 30 or 60 second introductory video, not only is that highly personalized but it gives the person a chance to see your demeanor, your confidence, your overall presentation skills, that sort of thing.
In fact, when I see videos of people, that helps me ascertain pretty quickly to get a sort of a knee-jerk reaction or gut check of whether or not I think this person could be a good consultant. So think about creative ways that you can market yourself, you can certainly use job postings and job boards and look for job postings, those are highly competitive situations though, maybe it works for you, maybe it doesn't but there's also more creative ways you can use to really differentiate yourself in the market to get your foot in the door.
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