Crash Course – How to build a career at a consulting company


I left the world of system integrators and consultants a few years ago – but even today, the question I get asked the most is “how do I grow my career in consulting at my big name employer?”.  I thought I will post some of my thoughts – from my own experience in big consulting houses, as well as watching several others go through their careers from close quarters.

There are many ways to do this – so don’t think of it as “check these boxes and you are done” 🙂

1. Be the go-to guy in the company for something

This is the starting point – you need to be much better than everyone else, and willing to help everyone, for some unique topic that is in demand. This is how bosses know that you even exist in the company. The topic can be some technology, power point skills, knowing the best restaurants for boss to take customers – it just needs to be something that you are WAY better than anyone else. For me – that was Netweaver technologies and SAP CRM. I also know a guy who fast tracked because he was exceptional at making PPTs. You cannot stop learning – if you do, someone will over take you and it will be hard to win your turf back. Many a promising career has been lost this way.

Don’t get too narrow in what you are good at. Technology changes way too fast . You don’t want to be labelled as the expert on an obsolete technology or management technique. Move with the times and keep your eyes and ears open. Also – don’t be afraid to take a stance on topics where you have an expertise. Just be humble enough to concede a point when someone makes a logical argument.

2. Be known to the world

You might be awesome in your company and everyone adores you – but if google does not know you, it does not count anymore. Please don’t say “I don’t have time for it”. You always have time to do what you likeand prioritize. Lack of time is a poor excuse.

You need to express yourself in public – blogs, presentations etc outside your company firewalls. This is how customers and analysts and other employers know about you. And they will be willing to pay a premium for your services. Employers love employees that customers and analysts love. Simple as that. And if your career stagnates at one company, this gives you options to try your luck elsewhere.

3. Choose your career path consciously, and OWN it

Every consulting company promises at least three of four career paths – sales, management, delivery, technology. In theory, they are all equal. In practice they are not. Sales and Management typically will have more leadership openings compared to delivery and technology.

Technology is the most difficult one to go all the way up in a consulting company. You can be great at sales and management and make managing partner in IBM – but you have to be a real Einstein to be an IBM fellow. So choose wisely . The safe choice is always sales and management.

You own your career – not your boss, not HR, not any one else. If you wait for others to do right by you – you will wait for a very long time. Actively change courses till you get to cruising speed and altitude.

4. Start selling early in life

I hated sales as a young consultant and my mentor took me kicking and screaming into a quota carrying role. Turned out I was quite good at selling to customers. Even if you are not the actual seller, you can still learn a lot by being part of the proposal team . People who can convince customers typically fast track their consulting careers. And sales teaches you a hard lesson – even the coolest technology is not going to be bought unless you can explain it in simple language to customers.

When I was made an associate partner in IBM, the only thing my boss told me was “treat me as a customer and we will get along fine”. It was excellent advice. You need to sell your ideas effectively inside your company just as much as you need to do it outside.

5. Learn sales execution 

Being able to get a customer to understand your value proposition is not the same as making her buy on your terms and time line. That is a whole different ball game – and you need to learn how to do that and what levers you can and cannot/should not pull.

If you are not good at that – get someone on your side who can do it for you and learn. When your boss thinks of making you a leader – often sales execution is the deal breaker. This is also how you develop a thick skin which you need as your career progresses 🙂

6. Learn Operations

Consulting is about four things – bookings, revenue, gross profit and utilization. Every quarter, your boss will be held to a different pressure . Some times it is more bookings that you need, sometimes you need more utilization. Knowing what your boss is held accountable for is key to how you win approvals for deals internally. The larger your company – the more important this becomes. Without learning how to balance these four things, you cannot own a P&L and succeed. Become friends with your ops team and watch them work. You will learn a lot.

7. Verticals win more than horizontals

The power base in most consulting companies sit with their verticals, and not technology horizontals . Align yourself to a vertical as soon as you can . Learn everything you can about that vertical – read , attend seminars, do whatever it takes. Then try to relate your knowledge at customer projects and offer value addition. A couple of wins is all you need to be noticed at your employer. And then go do it for another customer in same vertical. Technology is great in itself – but it is outrageously good when put in context for very specific industries. As time progresses – expand your knowledge to micro verticals.

For example, I started with semiconductors – and eventually learned enough to have good conversations around consumer electronics, equipment manufacturers, etc and graduated to “electronics” expert as opposed to “semiconductors” expert.

8. Build relationships at all levels

Everyone likes to be friends with CIOs. That is a good idea in general – but you need to be friends with the DBAs, the IT directors, and so on too in IT. And then you need a few friends on business side. If you were to ever talk about transformation meaningfully at a client, you need to be able to convince IT and business. More over – the other people you make friends outside the C Suite – they will go into C suite later in your career, or might move to another company and give you new business .

Nothing is more important than building relationships in having a consulting career. You can even compensate for a lack of sales execution skills if you have exceptional relationships.

9. Make your boss and your team a hero

There are many times you can close a deal yourself. There are also many times when you need your boss to bail you out. Make your boss a hero whenever you can . This is not for sucking up as you might think. Your boss has goals which are an aggregation of goals that you and your peers have. So your boss has no reason to not help you. And by keeping her in the loop on good and bad things – you will gain her trust. You will also learn a lot watching her work. There is some nuance here – you will not do yourself any favors if you bring in your manager only for good deals and only for bad deals. If you can’t do both in moderation – don’t go down this path. Also – please don’t over do this. If they feel you need constant supervision, then you are not going up the chain any time soon.

Same goes for your team. Share credit abundantly and fairly. A key to getting ahead in your career is to find and groom someone to take your current job. And when you take bigger jobs, you need to build a layer under you that you can fully trust. You can’t do it overnight – so start early. Also – be mature enough to know that someone in your team might become your boss in future. Help her career along . If you feel terrible about it , it usually means you have some improvement to do on some dimension. The solution is to find ways to make yourself better and not to torpedo your junior’s career.

10. Make friends and mentors up and down the chain in your own company

Even if you make it to the top rungs of the ladder, to stay there is pretty difficult unless you have a support system. You will need friends above, below and on same level as you. And this means you typically have to pay it forward. Don’t help people with the idea of reciprocity. Those are transactional things that won’t take you far. Help as many people as you can – and encourage them to do the same with your example. It ALWAYS pays off.  And it is never too late to start.

Don’t just follow your boss or your mentors blindly. The thing you need the most to progress in your career is independent judgement. Learn to collect feedback from multiple sources, weigh the pros and cons but make and own your decision. I can’t emphasize it enough – It is your life and career .

11.  Stay humble

Please don’t get success get into your head too much. It is really hard to keep your mouth shut and stay humble when you are successful. But you have to learn to do it. I have seen way too many people gloat about success and then lose support inside the organization and with clients and fail. No one succeeds alone in this business. You need to thank the people who helped you succeed. And, send down the elevator if you went up first !

12. Develop a hobby and spend time with family

This is perhaps the most important part of being successful in consulting. This life needs a lot of travel and time away from families. You need to set boundaries or your work will set boundaries that you won’t like. You need to find time for family. It is all for nought if you make money and fame, but become a stranger to your family and friends. And I cannot tell you enough how much of a stress relief it is for me to play with my daughter and three dogs after a grueling week at work.

 

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26 thoughts on “Crash Course – How to build a career at a consulting company

  1. Absolutely inspiring write-up and a true crash course. Appreciate the clarity of your thought process. Thanks for this well written article.

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  2. I have read this article more than 10 times now and it still keeps inspiring me. Generally people are busy with their own stuff that, I have rarely come across such wonderful tips. Thank you Vijay.

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  3. Actually even as I posted a quick reply I was turning over some of what you said in my mind and another question comes to mind. You mentioned first establishing an area of expertise that you’re known for, which is advice that I love to hear as I want to be spending my time at work building things and being useful (or at least, building teams who do this – but I do try to keep my hands dirty!). However as I’ve progressed I’ve seen first hand exactly what you mean when you talk about sales & management routes being the “safe choice”.

    What if your area of expertise is technical/delivery however? How do you square these off against each other when it comes to work satisfaction? Do you find the work you’ve done later in your career in more sales and senior mgmt roles as satisfying as your earlier work building expertise in NetWeaver/CRM?

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    • satisfaction generally comes from solving things you had very little idea about in the beginning. At the start of our career, we know very little – so every thing that succeeds tastes sweet. As time progresses, this delta is not as much any more and the sense of elation typically is less. The way I compensated for it was by taking turns in different aspects of business – moving from programming to sales to channels to consulting etc, so that I feel the work I do is meaningful

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  4. Vijay, with respect to balance, a wise exec I met said that we all juggle lots of things all the time. Most of them, he said, were like tennis balls – drop it and it bounces back up to be caught and juggled some more. He thought that two were like glass, and didn’t bounce – health and family. I always found that metaphor to be very impactful.

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  5. Vijay !! Hats off again man .. You keep inspiring us again and again . Woah wat a facts and it all correlates within our professional ups n downs.its about creating oppurtunities for mutual benefits .Now tell me if there are any sponsors who gives opportunity for consultants like me.will you dare what you preach and help us grow further ?

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  6. Pingback: Crash Course – How to build a career at a consulting company | Vijay’s thoughts on all things big and small | Intrigo Systems

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