In these challenging business times, many companies are considering how to access the expertise and specialist skills they need to grow, without taking on the long-term commitment of additional employees.
One cost-effective solution is to make use of the consulting skills of external contractors on a fixed-term or project basis.
In this guide, we’ll look in some detail at what it actually means to be a consultant, the different types of consulting, consider the pros and cons of different kinds of management consulting jobs.
We’ll also consider how to enter the consulting industry, and how you can successfully approach the best consulting firms to launch your consulting career.
What is a consultant?
According to the Oxford dictionary, a consultant is ‘a person who provides expert advice professionally’.
If you have specialist skills and a depth of expertise, a consulting career may be an extremely rewarding option, both professionally and financially.
Why do businesses employ consultants?
Businesses will employ a consultant for several different reasons and there are various types of consulting. For example, one organization considering a major transformation may bring in a top consultant company, to provide an outside perspective and propose objective solutions.
Another may hire consultants to evaluate current working practices and identify potential efficiencies. A third may source external consultants to provide innovative marketing strategies or to create tailored learning solutions. Or a fourth may require advice on IT advances so they can stay ahead of the market.
Pros and cons of being a self-employed consultant
With the huge shifts in the labor market, more and more experienced professionals find themselves at the risk of losing their jobs.
As organizations shed layers of management, the opportunities to find an equivalent position are few.
However, the need for the skills that these managers gained over years, hasn’t disappeared. Therefore, one possible avenue for an ‘off boarded’ manager or specialist to consider is that of launching a consulting career.
Choose your own work
If you have a wide network of professional contacts and are confident that you can package and sell your consulting skills, setting up your own consultancy may be a great option. Many of us dream of being our own boss.
You’ll be free to accept the consulting jobs you want, with clients you choose, and to set your own price. Your current employer may even be willing to hire you for projects on that basis – they already know you have the relevant personal experience!
On the other hand, independent consulting does have its downsides. The most obvious is that there won’t be a guaranteed monthly salary to rely on.
Even with good contacts, you’ll have to spend time and energy to market your consulting skills and find new clients. You’ll have to get used to creating proposals that may never materialize into paid business consulting jobs.
Creating positive working relationships and building your reputation will also take hard work and patience, but if you’re ready for the challenge – go for it!
Pros and cons of working for a niche agency
Some of the best management consultant jobs can be found within smaller niche agencies that have made their reputation in a specific area of expertise, for example, CAD design or customer service strategy. Their reputations rely on their depth of knowledge and ability to deliver best-in-class solutions.
If you have a specialist, rather than generalist, relevant experience in a specific area, joining a consultancy that targets your niche may be a great option. You’ll really get the opportunity to use your knowledge on projects that interest and stretch you, as well as being acknowledged for your expertise.
Don’t get stuck in a rut
The downside may be that you’ll be working in a narrow area, so if you’re at a stage in life where you are ready to branch out and broaden your skills, you may find yourself feeling a bit restricted.
Pros and cons of working for the best consulting firms
Many of those who want to launch their career in the consulting industry start by aiming for management consultant jobs with the best consulting firms which are known all over the globe.
There’s no doubt that they are a great launching pad for future success. You will be expected to stretch yourself beyond your limits to meet the challenges of major projects. You’ll be surrounded by other ambitious professionals who are seeking to climb the ladder into senior positions.
Your knowledge and skills will need to be cutting edge. It’s an exciting, high-pressured environment. A good stint for one of the majors will look impressive on your CV and open many doors.
Results, results, results
The cons of working for a top consultant company? It’s not really a con, but you’ll be expected to generate business for the firm as well as work directly on different projects. You’ll be judged strictly on your results – and there are no excuses.
So expect to work under constant pressure if you want to progress through the ranks. If that’s something you enjoy – perfect. However, if you’re at a stage in life where you want to work at your own pace, and work/life balance is your priority, pick the company with care and ensure you understand their expectations.
Analyze your skills
Before you take the plunge and decide to launch your consulting career, it’s important to take a systematic approach.
Consultants sell their expertise, so the first step in deciding whether consultancy is the right move for you is to really take a look at your career to date.
Track record of achievement
Analyze all your relevant experience – not in terms of job titles, but in terms of achievements, and challenges. Where have you shown outstanding ability or skills? What kind of projects have you delivered to your employers? What results have you achieved?
What are your formal qualifications?
Also, you’ll need to demonstrate the hard skills that you can bring to the table. You’ll be selling yourself as an expert, so there’s probably an expectation that you have some academic achievement under your belt.
If you achieved your most recent degree was some years ago, can you show what you have studied to keep your qualifications updated and relevant? If your early academic record wasn’t that impressive, how can you show that you have the intellectual ability to deal with complex professional issues?
What other training and certifications have you completed in your career, which demonstrate that you have continued to grow and develop your knowledge?
Again, you’ll be selling your expertise to other organizations, so it’s natural that they’ll expect you to be more highly qualified in a subject area than they are.
Memberships of professional bodies
In addition, do you hold memberships of professional bodies related to your industry, and if so, at what level? These are important to show that you have attained certain standards related to your profession and are committed to staying updated about developments.
Let’s say you’re an experienced petroleum engineer, looking for management consulting jobs in the energy sector. Active membership of a national Society of Petroleum Engineers, and giving presentations at meetings and conferences, will enhance your credibility.
If you’ve worked in HR for twenty years, you’ll certainly have plenty of knowledge, but a senior CIPD or SHRIM membership will confirm your commitment to the best and most current HR practices.
So while your experience and achievement are really what counts, don’t underestimate the need to demonstrate that you have the theoretical knowledge and industry background to back up your claims to be an expert.
Start your search
Once you’re clear that you have the relevant experience to transition into a consulting career, as well as the hard and soft skills that you’ll require, so you need to start your search for the perfect consulting opportunity.
The first step is to find out more about what consulting firms are really looking for in the people they employ. There are several ways you can approach your research, here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Go to the websites of what you believe are the best consulting firms for your particular niche. Are you looking for management consultant jobs, or are your skills more specialized? See if you can identify any of their clients who might require your services. Check out details of any past success stories, and consider how you might have been able to contribute.
- Look at industry bodies such as the Institute of Management Consultants in the USA, or your national association, which can be a rich source of useful links and advice.
- Check out LinkedIn profiles of consultants and the best consulting firms. There are many groups on LinkedIn which you can join and follow. They can be really useful in helping you to understand the direction being taken by thought leaders in the profession, and start to become familiar with the approaches being used (This will be especially valuable in interviews, or when pitching to clients as an independent).
As well as taking a big picture approach to the industry, you’ll want to narrow down your search so that it fits your needs and your lifestyle. For example, would you be willing to relocate for the perfect opportunity?
If that isn’t an option, you’ll want to limit the geographical range of your search. Are you willing to start at the bottom, in a junior consulting position, and work your way up the ladder? If you are in the latter stages of your career that may not be an attractive option.
Once you’ve identified your ‘must-haves’, it’s time to start searching in earnest for the right opportunity. Industry publications can be a source of employment opportunities, but these days candidates are more likely to head straight to the major job boards in search of vacancies.
On one level, this makes job-hunting far easier and less time-consuming, but the downside is that the applicant field is crowded.
Each position advertised can attract hundreds, if not thousands of applications, and in most cases, an automated filtering system is used to weed out any applications which don’t meet the requirements listed in the advert.
So, even when you find what you believe could be an ideal consulting job for you, it won’t be enough to tweak a bit your existing resume, add a few more lines, and send it off, hoping that someone will read between the lines.
Chances are no human being will ever set eyes on it, so, to increase your chances of success, this is the right time to get smart about the selection process.
Updating your CV
Any top consultant company will be looking for the best of the best, so your CV has to show clearly that you’re going to bring something special to their team.
- First impressions count. Make sure you use a professional and most updated template. There’re plenty of online resources that will help you design your CV with an attractive presentation.
- Work on your personal as well as professional statement and make it count. It’ll be the foremost thing a hiring manager scans, so it has to make an impact. In no more than 80 words (three to four sentences) outline who you’re, your most recent and relevant qualifications and academic degree as a consultant, track record of your professional experience and success. End by stating that you are finding a consultant job, and why.
- Consider it prohibited to cut and paste the job description to include in your CV. The recruiter wants to know what you’ve achieved, not what your employer hoped you’d do.
- Look at the keywords in the job posting. What does the employer say they’re looking for in their ideal candidate? Make sure you include the exact terms they use in your CV. This will increase your chances of passing through the filtering process and your CV being reviewed by a human being.
- When describing your employment history, don’t forget to mention your soft skills at every point. It takes great interpersonal skills to deal with clients and lead a project team to success.
- Include the details of the highest qualification, along with additional certifications that may support your application.
- Don’t neglect to write a strong cover letter, as, in a candidate field where applicants are more or less on the same level, it can make the difference. No more than one page, it should describe your strengths. Mention your most significant professional achievements, and state clearly how you’ll add value to the firm.
Attend to your image
When you decide to go for a consulting job, you should expect that a potential employer will do thorough background checks on you. As part of your preparation for going through the hiring process, attend to your social media.
Even if it’s something you don’t usually pay much attention to, have a look at your online profiles, and ask yourself how professional do you look? A company that’s going to hire you will be aware that, in turn, their clients may conduct a search on you.
Without a doubt the most important platform is LinkedIn. Does your CV on LinkedIn match the updated CV you’ve just prepared? Do you have plenty of recommendations from colleagues and clients describing their positive experiences of working with you?
Are you a member of any relevant groups to keep you updated? Who are you following? The answers to these and other questions all give clues about your professional standing and potential as a consultant.
Select your referees
As part of their due diligence during the hiring process, any potential employer will want to consult your referees. Most companies will issue a letter confirming employment, without any further details.
In many organizations, for legal reasons, managers are not permitted to provide detailed personal references, so first ascertain whether your chosen referee is actually in a position to provide one.
An alternative would be to select managers who have known you well in the past, but who have moved on from the organization where you worked together.
Never list your referees on your CV. If a hiring manager wants to contact them, you will provide relevant details. Before you offer any name or contact details of a referee, you should of course obtain their permission, and let them know in advance who might be approaching them. Don’t expect your referee to respond to multiple requests from random companies.
You should be informed when your referee has been contacted. Ensure you acknowledge and thank them for their support in developing your career.
Success! Your CV has opened the door and you’ve been invited to an interview with a consulting firm that you’ve dreamed of working for.
Now, the positive impression you make will decide whether your application process is successful.
Keep in mind that there will probably be other applicants under consideration, so every aspect of how you present yourself can give you the edge.
Dress for success. This almost goes without saying. Of course, you will look professional and immaculately groomed. However, also take into account the culture of the firm you’re hoping to join.
Are they young, dynamic, cutting edge? Are they mature, serious experts who aim to exude gravitas? These kinds of details can help you select the right heels or tie color for the interview.
Know your facts. You’ll no doubt be talking through the achievements listed on your CV. If you have a portfolio of (non-confidential) documents that can further illustrate the nature of your work, this will add strength to the discussion.
Don’t be tempted though, to share sensitive information from your current or previous employers no matter how relevant you think it may be. A hiring manager may well show interest but will likely conclude that you cannot be trusted to keep company or client information confidential. And that’s not a good look for a consultant.
Ensure that you have the names of all your interviewers and after the interview, contact them to thank them for their time.
The selection process takes time so avoid repeated calls and emails to find out what’s happening. You won’t speed up the hiring process, and you may come across as desperate. Wait patiently. No news is good news, because candidates who are rejected are often informed first.
Working as an independent consultant
In this guide, we’ve mainly focused on how to get management consultant jobs or business consultant jobs, within an established consulting firm.
But as we mentioned earlier, working independently is a viable option for many professionals. It can also be attractive for companies who need to hire experts as the cost of an independent contractor is likely to be lower than that of a consulting firm with high overheads to cover.
Much of the process we described above will be relevant if you decide to branch out on your own as a consultant.
You’ll still need to search for clients and apply for particular projects. You’ll still need to demonstrate your hard and soft skills. With each potential client, you’ll go through a selection process, vying with other consultants to win the project.
Your clients will most likely do their due diligence with a background search, so again you’ll need to focus on every aspect of the professional image you project.
In addition, you’ll need a fair proportion of your time on sales and marketing. Even if you get off to a great start with a fantastic project, things can change in the business environment. It will be a mistake to depend too much on one client to sustain you in the future.
However, developing your reputation as an outstanding independent expert can pay off in the long run. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit and the resources to support you as you grow your consulting business, you’ll have the freedom you need to build a great consulting career.
We hope this guide has given you an overview of what you should consider if you want to embark on a consulting career, and how you can approach your search for consulting jobs.
Trust your skills and abilities and you’re going to be amazing!