The Consulting Journey – Some thoughts for people who are just starting their career

I enjoy spending time with my colleagues – talking shop , sharing experiences , breaking bread , learning from each other , mentoring and getting mentored – and find every opportunity to do that . I especially enjoy hanging out with my younger colleagues who are in the very early stages of their career – their hopes and dreams , their refreshing views on work and humanity , their ambitions – it’s a given that I walk away quite inspired every time.

Yesterday I spent a bit of time with some of our associates and seniors on an AMA session and walked away thinking I should jot down some thoughts in my blog . So here we go

1. What separates the great from the good ?

The fact that you got hired should already make you comfortable with the fact that the firm feels you are a good quality individual . The question now is – what will make you stand out , and what will make you successful in building a career .

From what I have seen over the years – curiosity is the biggest differentiator . Academia gives us a foundation – but when you step into the industry, you generally have a lot to learn . If you are not curious about how the world operates in the big picture – work will look like a chore , and you will be miserable.

In consulting – the part of work that youngsters often rebel against is working on “making a slide deck pretty”. What they don’t often realize is that it’s not the fonts, colors and icons that make a presentation work – it’s the story ! The pretty slides that don’t tell a story are useless . The curious ones often come and ask their seniors a lot of WHY questions . They are also resourceful – they do their research and come with suggestions . They learn from the feedback and get better every time . And slowly – they “shift left” and get more opportunities to contribute to the thought leadership that leads to a solution .

2. How do you add value to your client ?

There are two parts to this – the “arms and legs” part , and the “brains and foresight” part .

The first is about keeping your skills sharp – are you staying current on your skill set ? Do you know who to reach out for help when you are stuck ? Etc. Basically – you need to know enough to do the job well as it was explained to you . You need to be able to solve a problem the right way

The second is – are you able to look into the future and spot opportunities and mitigate risk ? The general idea is – are you just solving the problem the right way , or are you able to figure out if this is the right problem to solve ?

3. How do you become an expert ?

Whether it’s an industry or a technical domain – you have a lot to learn to be an expert , and you can never stop learning . That needs a certain mindset to chart your course .

Consulting has two general approaches to expertise – you can do a series of short projects jumping from one project to another at various clients , or you can stay at one client in a variety of roles over a longer period of time and become a master at everything they do . The end goal is that you have enough experience at some point to know where a certain approach will take you and that foresight is useful to your client . That’s how you get to determine if you are solving the right problem for your client .

I prefer the approach of staying at one client for a longer time and learning everything you can about them and make meaningful relationships . In the process you become a true expert in that industry – and get a better appreciation of how everything fits together . It’s also very important that you get to apply your knowledge elsewhere along the way – by contributing to thought leadership , pursuits etc .

I have heard young consultants often say after a short period of time at one client or one project “I am not learning anything new” . I have felt that way myself too when I was a young consultant – so I have some empathy . It just takes a few minutes to just ask yourself “Do I know how my client is measured and am I doing everything possible to help them attain and surpass that?”. We stop learning when we draw small boxes for ourselves as the scope of what we need to learn . To be successful in this field – you need to constantly expand that box .

4. Leading people

In theory, you can have a perfectly decent career by continuing to be an individual contributor – where your deep expertise is your differentiator . The part we need to understand is that it’s still a small part of the population . That’s a practical limitation . For most of the people – you need to become good at leading people to progress your career .

There are very few people in any company who are truly great leaders of people . But I can say with some conviction that the rest of us can all get into the “good” category with a little effort . The basic idea as you get to lead people is you cannot effectively manage people – you can only lead them . What you can manage is tasks . That’s a long winded way of saying – you don’t become a leader because of a title , you become a leader when people want to follow the direction you set , and they are inspired by both your words and action.

5. Growing your career

The corporate world is generally not very fair – in the sense that if you do good work , it usually doesn’t automatically take you places . The people who need to sponsor your career need to know that you are adding value and it’s on you to make sure they know . Similarly – you need to know that no organization can promote everyone at every level . So you do need to stand out – with high ethics , high skills , high integrity , high collaboration and all that . The sooner you realize it , the less grief you will have and the chance of success will get higher.

Success doesn’t teach us a lot – but we often realize it only later in life . And by then – the price to fail is too high. In other words – the time to take risks and fail a few times without having a big price to pay is early in your career. We all like to get promoted early and often – that’s a very natural feeling and it might never completely leave any of us . But also remember this – if you primarily focus on promotions and play that game successfully , eventually you will get to a place where you are not at all prepared for the role and you will fail . Essentially – pace yourself on how fast you want to grow .

Also remember that how you accomplish a career goal is as important (maybe even more important) as what you accomplish . A bad reputation is easy to take root and very hard to shake . Integrity is not just about career growth – every aspect of your personal and professional life needs you not compromise on that !

6. Mentors and Sponsors

You need both to have a great career and it’s important to build that network early in your career . It’s also important to remember that you need more than one of each . I had one mentor that I mirrored myself on – and one day to be sheer horror I realized that everything so do well is what I learned from him , but so is everything I am bad at 🙂

Getting mentored is easier than getting sponsored . You need to cast a wide net to make it work . Also remember – it’s easy to think that someone we know got promoted because they sucked up to their boss . That does happen – but not as often as you might think . No good leader will be your sponsor unless your work stands out already !

7. Sales vs delivery

No client likes a consultant because they are good sellers . But unfortunately a lot of consultants grow up thinking they need to get out of delivery and be more Sales focused to grow their careers . I can assure you that this is not the case ,

At the simplest level – the client is paying for your skills, experience and foresight . When we deliver that with high quality – they trust us more and that leads them to use our services even more . In other words – sales is more based on delivery , than delivery is based on sales .

Yes you do need to learn the sales process along the way . But never lose sight of the fundamental reason we are consultants – we are there to serve our clients . Sales just happens as a result of a client trusting us to deliver !

Also remember – people buy services from people they trust . Great client relationships happen because of great delivery offer a long period of time . Your success as a seller is much higher if your clients already trust you – which is another reason why staying longer on projects is more helpful than jumping around a lot of clients where you don’t get to create meaningful relationships !

8. Exits

This is a relatively new idea that young folks come into consulting with the primary idea that they want to exit to industry quickly . I actually like this idea a lot and wish I had considered that option early in my career . I switched to software industry for a few years as a young executive and loved it . That experience was very useful to me later when I came back to consulting .

If you want to experiment – my suggestion is to give it a shot early in your career when set backs are not costly . You can always come back to consulting if you want to . All I would say is that give each options bit of time before you make hard decisions .

The more common scenario is whether you want to jump across consulting companies . When I was a young consultant – it was looked down up on if you had a lot of companies on your resume . Today , there is no such stigma really . Also when you make lateral jumps – you get a little more money than via organic salary raises . At least for the short term – there are good reasons to make frequent lateral jumps .

The biggest difficulty for you individually when you switch employers is that you need to build your network from scratch every time . You will need new mentors and sponsors – which takes time to establish . You will possibly need to build new client relationships too – which also takes time . And last but not least – there will be already a line of candidates ahead of you to get promoted in the new place . So while in the short term the money might look good – it might not translate to great success even in the medium term , let alone the long term . So think very carefully before you make important decisions .

9. Goal setting and staying flexible

It’s important to have a North Star on where you are headed . But it’s even more important to be flexible on the short term goals that will get you to your destination .

Early in your career – your interest might be in full stack development and you might end up doing test automation instead . It’s easy to get disheartened and think your skills are being wasted . If you think of life as a linear path – you will be disappointed more times than not . In this scenario – think about the life cycle of the software being built from the perspective of your engineering manager . Would they build great software without a great way to test it ? And once you learn testing and go back to dev – think about how much your approach will change the next time you code . And soon you will realize that it’s not as bad as it seemed initially and maybe you can find a way to make it work and have some fun .

It is also important to work with your up line managers to explain your ambitions and chalk up a plan . They are much more likely to help you achieve your goals faster when they realize you are flexible about the path you take to the destination .

10. Have a great journey

When I look back at my own career – what comes to mind mostly is a rich set of experiences . Making new friends , traveling the world , trying all kinds of food , sleeping in conference rooms even when the hotel room was twenty minutes away , celebrating birthdays of clients and colleagues , the potlucks , sharing grief …all of that . The journey is way more fun and enriching than any particular milestone along the way


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

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