To the dark side: should you consider becoming a consultant?

It is the time of year when you are considering major changes in your life and career, and you may need advice. This is what you need to know before you make the switch.

Image: nd3000, Getty Images / iStockphoto

As the old saying suggests, most of us can’t help but occasionally wonder if the grass on the other hand is really greener. I have spoken with countless colleagues in the consulting world who have dreamed – and often have progressed – dreams of trying their hands in an industrial role; just as I have had similar chats with colleagues in the industry and customers who have considered switching to consulting. Both are noble pursuits, and both are not without their flaws and unique benefits. If you are a technology leader who is considering going to the “dark side” and trying to give advice, here are a few things to consider when considering these types of movements.

SEE: 24 tips for delivering bad news (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Get ready for routine uncertainty

If there is something that makes or breaks a successful consultant, it is an ability to thrive in an uncertain environment. Some people think I’m joking when I tell them that I have no idea where I will physically work, which company I will work with and what I will try to achieve in a few weeks, but it is absolutely true. For some people, that is an exciting proposition and very different from a predictable role in which they can map their future with relative certainty for months or even years. Consulting offers a unique opportunity to quickly gain a variety of experiences across different industries, regions and technologies, and also provides an opportunity to regularly reinvent your career as you gain new experiences and quickly develop new skills.

The disadvantage of this unpredictability is what drives many people to leave the profession. It is hard to plan everything from family events to routine doctor visits when you can be literally anywhere in the world, in some cases with a cancellation period of one day (or less). The excitement of the unknown can quickly become a frightening instability and the feeling that you have no control over your destination.

SEE: How to find a balance between work and private life as a consultant: 7 tips (TechRepublic)

Assess your ability to market yourself

Whether you are in a giant global consulting firm or a clapboard hanging around like a sole trader, one of the more challenging aspects of advice is that you now need to bring a clear product to the market – you. You must constantly update your colleagues and existing and new customers about your options, offers and how you can help them improve their agenda. Some people find these marketing activities unpleasant, but they are crucial for success in the field and almost without fail the consultant who puts himself on the market will call the customer versus the excellent implementer who doesn’t market at all.

Determine your willingness to take on various tasks

Another aspect of the consulting world that unexpectedly affects new players is the varied number of roles that one has to play. In a position in the industry you probably have to manage staff, execute a portfolio of projects and perhaps participate in a number of extracurricular functions, such as community work or partner relationship. In consulting you can add formal coaching and mentoring jobs, internal offerings, product development and leading internal initiatives to that timetable. At the more active consultancies there will be an unlimited buffet with options and roles available, to the point that it becomes a bit of an art to decide which to follow and which to leave. Even in a sole proprietorship you need to understand accounting and finance, marketing and sales and – as I used to joke with my wife – maybe even play the role of caretaker.

You also have a formal customer-oriented role in one or more projects and a formal role within your company. Just like the uncertainty of the company, this can be stimulating or enormously frustrating.

Prepare to become an ‘influencer’ instead of a ‘commander’

Each task requires a degree of influence alongside formal leadership structures, but this is even more acute in consulting, where you have no direct responsibility for your customers’ decision making. Although you can certainly influence the formal disciplinary process to dismiss someone from the staff of your own company, you don’t have that option for the customer team.

Occasionally you have clients who perform poorly or even colleagues and stakeholders that range from hardly competent to actively trying to sabotage your work. You lack the ability to take immediate action in most of these cases, and should rather achieve your goals through influence or agile organizational maneuvering. The silver edge of this is that you will probably leave that client at some point and no longer have to deal with the dysfunction.

If you can thrive in these types of environments, there are few careers that offer you many opportunities and excitement of advice. In many ways, it’s like you can change jobs every few months and experience a new set of people and challenges, all while maintaining the consistency of one employer. Just make sure you temper some bright visions on a consulting career with the reality that it is a unique uncertain field with its own challenges.

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