how to become a successful consultant

I’ve preached the gospel of “going it alone” for years on this blog, and I stick by it. I’ve seen far too many of my colleagues hung out to dry by the corporations they work for to think that being an employee is a good career path.  But being a consultant has one ugly secret, deep down at its core:  in order to be a successful consultant (monetarily, not actually effective) requires that you first spend your time in the dirty, ugly trenches as an employee.

I’d like to say it isn’t true. I’d like to think a really gifted, talented person with an eye for change could leap out of college and start helping people as a consultant.  I’d like to think that the tools for communication would naturally be there for some of these people:  comfort speaking in front of large groups, the ability to write clearly and directly, the personal confidence to sell products and relate to decision makers without trepidation.

In my experience:  nope, doesn’t happen.

I’m a good public speaker. I can sell.  I can work a technical presentation and apply complex principles to difficult problems.  I couldn’t have done any of this, in my opinion, without the years in the trench:  the years I spent hammering away, unrewarded, at Big 4 firms and multinational corporations.  What they gave me was, at the same time, invaluable and a curse.  They let me work hard.  They put me in front of very senior management or executives at clients before I might have been ready to deal with them.  They asked me to navigate politics, presentations, negotiations and calculations without a net.  I sweated a lot of 11 pm nights at the office working on presentations so I’d be relaxed and able to throw them off without much trouble today.

If you’d like to be a consultant – a REAL consultant – with a grasp of your subject and the sort of calm, unhurried patience you see in the most polished advice-givers, let me give you a tip:  spend a decade getting your brains beaten in by a consulting firm or a corporation. There’s no better training for confidence than to have your confidence challenged, pushed and tortured for years.  It’s sad but true.  If you work out, the true muscle-building activity takes place on the rep where you “fail” – the rep where you can’t lift the weights one more time.  That’s the point at which new muscle mass – scars, really – build up your muscles and increase your strength.  Being pushed to prepare that presentation or asked to analyze that acquisition on short notice is what will make you a better consultant.

There is no shortcut. When I was hiring for a multinational corporation, I didn’t look to independent consultants two years out of MBA school.  I looked to the Big 4 and other consulting firms.  Why?  Not because I had any love lost for them (I didn’t, at all) and not because they had the best prices or even the best people.  I did it because I knew these were people who had been pushed since day 1 at their firms to fail.  The “upwards or out” mentality is useful even if you’re not in a corporate position.  You’re either increasing your skills and widening your contact pool or you’re heading out.  This is the philosophy of the Big 4.  Up or out.  It makes sense, even while it’s a sad way to live.

So if you think about becoming a consultant, think about putting in a long time in your chosen profession as an employee first. Get that job at an engineering firm, or hospital, or accounting firm, or whatever.  Make sure you can cut it.  Once you’ve stopped failing, or struggling, maybe you’re ready to sell yourself as a consultant.  Just don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that there is no job bigger than you or tougher than you; as a consultant, you have to be constantly aware that eventually “the one” project will arrive where you can’t quite keep up.  And that’s when those ugly skills and pathetic abilities – staying up late and working while everyone else is out at the local bar – will come in handy.