15 reasons why you might want to be a consultant

Yesterday I talked about the downside to consulting. I presented the bad news first to make sure that it would be clear it’s not all roses. No job is, whether it’s an employee job or a self-employed job. But there are a number of advantages to being a consultant, and the advantages (in my opinion) far outweigh the drawbacks.

  1. Freedom from corporate politics. I mentioned yesterday that you’ll never really be an insider, or considered to be part of the “power tower” in a corporate environment. Whew. I can play office politics with the best of them, but about 5-6 years ago I got very tired of the game. Now, when people start wondering what significance it has that Jim Bob got the corner office instead of Sallie Bob, I tune out. That is a true pleasure to me.
  2. When you are off the clock, you are OFF. Different consultants may approach this differently, but when I leave the client I’m off the clock. I have no blackberry, I don’t check work email, I don’t take phone calls and I don’t even let work cross my mind. My clients know this going in – if they need to reach me, they have to wait until business hours the next day. I used to field phone calls and emails from my bosses at midnight, especially when I was working in Europe. I would scribble notes for myself over breakfast. Now, if I’m out of the office I am out – both physically AND mentally.
  3. You get to see far more of the corporate world than your average employee. I know people are job-jumping more frequently now than in the past, but a consultant still shifts much more frequently. I usually spend anywhere from 6 months to a year at a client, so on average I have a new “job” at least once per year. I don’t have to worry about a complete upheaval each time I change clients in terms of benefits, 401(k) rollovers and so on. As I switch from client to client the biggest thing to remember is not to get on the wrong subway line in the morning!
  4. You get amazing access to top levels of the company. I have found that once you are established in the company you have a lot of freedom to float up and down in levels. I can spend one day working with entry-level staff and the next meeting with corporate officers. Since you aren’t a part of a corporate hierarchy, you can skip the normal “going up through your boss” routine.
  5. Travel is more or less out of the question. This depends on the type of consulting you do and your tolerance for travel. I do know a lot of consultants who do nothing BUT travel. Since I spent so much time traveling, it’s easy for me to set the expectation up front that I simply don’t do business trips (and frankly with the wealth of web conferencing and video communications available I don’t see the point anyway).
  6. 6a. Overtime. 6b. Overtime. 6c. Did I mention overtime? Getting paid an extra day’s pay when you work late is priceless. I don’t work overtime often, but it completely changes your perception of working late. For me, working late just means a sizable bump up in my pay. For my salaried co-workers, it’s a decrease in their hourly rate and “free” work for their bosses.
  7. Job hunting on the job is acceptable. You can pitch your client on new projects or even find out from them of work that might be needed at their friends’ company and nobody minds. If Client A recommends you to Client B and you do a good job for Client B, Client A benefits too by providing value to Client B. And you benefit by having your clients do your marketing for you.
  8. Freedom to set your own schedule. If you are paid by the hour it’s a lot easier to take a day off when you want to, because it’s hard for a client to complain unless there is a deadline looming – and even then you have a different dynamic than an employee. If you don’t provide value, you aren’t being paid. If an employee doesn’t provide value, he is a drag on the department, getting paid while not showing up.
  9. Building yourself as a brand. Employees can definitely do this, too, but for a consultant the chance to establish yourself as a brand is a lot of fun. Employees are defined by their roles and their bosses and their Human Resources departments. A consultant can create his own branding – you can choose the roles and clients and skills you want to sell to the next client.
  10. Expanding skill sets at your clients’ expense. Most of my clients will engage me for one reason but inevitably need me to help out on a side project that requires the use of some skill I don’t already have (a particular kind of software, for example). The client seldom minds giving you the training to get those skills, so I get paid for learning new skills. That’s priceless, as Mastercard would say.
  11. Freedom from support and professional staff. I spoke yesterday about the benefits of working with staff, but it also means you have a lot of information to keep up with to manage so many people. Now, I have no support. If I need something done, I do it. Then again, I don’t have to deal with approving sick days, negotiating disagreements between subordinates and spending countless hours interviewing new staff applicants. I don’t miss that type of work at all.
  12. No reliance on bonuses. This might be an arguable point, but in the financial services industry that I work in most of the time (it is New York – not a lot of manufacturing plants in Manhattan) your compensation is often very heavily weighted in favor of a bonus. You might make $40,000 a year in salary and receive a bonus of $60,000 if the company has a good year. If you work for an investment bank or one of the big players, this gets more ridiculous the higher up you get. This may sound like a good deal, until you have a year like Citigroup or WaMu are having – then that bonus may be $15,000 (it’s seldom $0, unless you’re about to get canned). My salary is paid as I earn it – my bonus is ‘built in’ so to speak, and I don’t have to keep my fingers crossed that the formula is going to work out for me in August.
  13. Meeting new people. Again, for some people this would be awful. A lot of people prefer to maintain routine, or they are shy, or they simply don’t care about meeting new people. I have met and worked with so many great and interesting people at my clients that I never would if I worked in static, small department. The challenge of learning to meet new people and forge connections with them has served me well in many aspects of my life.
  14. Respect. I know I made it sound like a consultant is at the tail end of a lot of abuse and disrespect, but this usually goes away as you prove your value to the company. If you can come into SuperBank and say “hey, I have an idea to improve your process here that worked wonders when I was at MegaBank,” and it saves someone an hour out of their day, it won’t take long to gain respect. Someone else will claim credit for your work, maybe, but they will respect your abilities.
  15. Time off between jobs. Each time I switch clients I can take time off and not have to worry about explaining it to my next client. Most employees feel compelled to start in a hurry. I don’t.

Being a consultant is not for everyone. You need a lot of experience and you have to be fast on your feet. You have to be able to endure meetings and constantly moving from client to client. You need to be able to complete projects and absorb huge amounts of new information. What you get in return, in a word, is freedom. It’s not the freedom of someone who has achieved financial freedom, but it is a lot better than what employees experience. I can’t imagine going back to being an employee anymore, and I would advise anyone who is nervous about acquiring the label of “the consultant” to relax and take the plunge!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Pear Biter

10 Replies to “15 reasons why you might want to be a consultant”

  1. I have to add something to point 14, from my personal experience:
    I was hired into a new department and looked at their processes (I was an employee, not consultant). Some of the processes proved to be ancient and the first thing I did was to get rid of paper reports and automate the reporting via queries and online software. I saved my department about $20,000 on printing costs, my job was easier and my bosses were ecstatic. BUT! My co-workers were so unhappy with me because now they couldn’t claim the 2 hours they were spending shuffling the paper reports. I disturbed their sense of routine and “balance”. They could no longer scream that they are SO BUSY, SO BUSY when managers tried to give them more responsibilities. So, I did gain the respect of the management, but not my fellow co-workers. Maybe they were just plain jealous!

  2. Having worked in a big consulting firm (and having some long-term independent consulting ambitions of my own) I really like your pro and con points lists!! I already know (and agree with!) some of them, but there’s a lot of new stuff here for me as well.
    BTW — love the photo of Memorial Drive!

  3. You have given a good balanced view.

    I liked your closing para, a summary of the consultant’s job.

    Helps a lot to clarify the thoughts of those of us who think a consultant’s job is the ultimate.

  4. Whether this is a why or why not depends on your disposition, and you allude to in several of your reasons, but every moment you are working and interacting with your client, you are selling yourself. Doing the job you were contracted to do quietly is not enough. You have to walk a fine line between getting the follow-on contract, and meeting the right people to move on to another contract, yet not coming off sounding like an obnoxious braggart. Being at best a reluctant sales person, that is one of the toughest things I find about being a consultant, and one that keeps me doing it primarily in a moonlighting role.

    Steve, I’ve assumed that you work for a company that finds consulting roles for you, and places you into those roles (correct me if I’m wrong). That makes it a bit easier (my skills are too eclectic for someone like that to take me on, so I have to find my own clients). However, you do yourself and your employer a great favor if you are on the lookout for opportunities.

  5. @DGI, Bsen, fathersez: Thanks!
    @Bubelah: I do think that’s the source of a lot of anti-consultant bias. They don’t really have a “stake” in keeping things quiet, so regular employees get irritated with them.
    @Ken: You’re right. I have more trouble with it in terms of the blog (although it’s less time-intensive, I do feel I need to work on it sometimes instead of spending time with my family).
    @Curmudgeon: True, simply by performing a task you are in effect selling your client on the ability to do the NEXT task. I find that it’s fairly easy to sell, but I do such long-term consulting contracts (2 out of the last 4 have been for more than a year) that it’s a different type of selling than other types of consultants have to do.

    And you’re right, I work for a company that doesn’t provide support of any sort (they don’t give me supplies or computers or a boss or admin assistants, etc.) but they do provide two critical functions: they do “lead searches” and find potential clients for me (I have to close the deal myself) and they do bill collection (and THAT is something I would hate to do). So you are correct, I don’t have to generate leads for business from nothing as a truly independent contractor would. At the same time, I am free to do identify clients on my own and I do, on occasion. It is not entirely without incentive, either – if I identify my own clients I get a kickback on the “finder’s fee” normally paid to our lead generators.

  6. Ah, yes, I hate bill collection too. I recently had a client e-mail me to ask if I had billed for a particular project. Alas, it had slipped my mind, and I appreciated the reminder. Not everyone will be that nice.

  7. Great article and some really good points. I am sure I have missed it but have you talked about where to start when trying to be a consultant? I assume you would need a very extensive network to start but am curious about it.

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