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by Vault Consulting Editors | March 31, 2009


by Hannah Im

Sinking and Swimming
In consulting, everyone has a shot at partner, principal, director, or whatever your firm's jargon labels the zenith of success. But this also means it is an enormously competitive field in which to succeed. Whereas you view your performance as on par or even exceeding that of your peers, management might disagree. There are so many concurrent projects that you cannot keep track of everyone else's progress. This means doing "a good job" for the client or the firm is often not good enough. Not good enough translates to sinking. And even if you are swimming, you might be swimming behind the pack.

A Gap Analysis of a Different Kind
"Take initiative," "step up to the plate," and "take the ball and run with it" are familiar phrases to every consultant. As tired as we get of hearing these phrases in our daily meetings, we should also take heed. These cliches exist for a reason: their results prove powerful when activated effectively.

Taking initiative means identifying a void and deciding to fill that void. Stepping up to the plate means being the one to fill that void. And taking the ball and running with it means actually filling that void. I call the person who executes all three steps successfully the "Eye Opener." As an Eye Opener you are capable of:

  • showing awareness of a void
  • exposing a void where no one else noticed it
  • showing you are willing and capable of filling the void, though no one believed anyone would or could do it
  • bringing forth results others did not foresee or did not believe could or would be done

When to Take Action
The best consultants anticipate a need or recognize when a need exists. They also know how to answer these needs with ideas that improve a policy, process, concept, production, profits, etc. When you begin to generate ideas to meet these needs, you begin "taking initiative."

~The best Eye Openers recognize the most opportune times to take initiative:

  • when the target audience (client, management, peers, etc.) questions your abilities
  • when you question your abilities
  • when no one thinks you can perform better than your current performance level
  • when people do not expect results

By taking initiative at the right moment, you can surprise your target audience and substantially raise your value in their eyes. (This is assuming you do not drop the ball or run in the wrong direction.) So consider whose eyes you want to open as you start identifying needs and formulating solutions.

Another consideration is when to get your audience's support or involvement - at inception (as you step up to the plate) or at solution roll-out (as you take the ball and start to run). Your decision depends on how comfortable you are with your target audience at present. Also think about how comfortable you want to be with your target audience throughout the process and at the end.

Forms of Action
Only you know the exact details of what form your results will take. General results can include:

  • Building a program
  • Getting published
  • Getting invited to speaking engagements
  • Creating a knowledge base
  • setting up an event
  • Creating a system
  • Creating a methodology
  • Bringing in a new client or engagement
  • Building a new paradigm
  • Being interviewed for mass media

~Risks and Rewards
Also ponder what kind of impact you want to make. Start by projecting a best case scenario, a worst case scenario, and a status quo scenario. Contemplate which scenario you are most prepared to accept by weighing your risks against your potential rewards.

Generally, risks tend to be considerable. Some common risks include:

  • Target audience fails to appreciate the full value of your efforts.
  • Target audience recognizes your efforts, but no one cares.
  • You lose focus on current/other (billable) priorities, and overall performance suffers.
  • You take too long, and someone else beats you to it.
  • Someone else did it years ago, and management shelved it as a bad idea.
  • You forget to take all impacted factors into consideration, and create havoc in that area.
  • It might not be relevant anymore by the time it is implemented.
  • A change in audience midway through implementation negates your efforts.
  • You do not get necessary support from management (e.g., management insists on excessive traveling).
  • You share the idea with someone who takes credit for it.
  • Thinking up, organizing, presenting, and implementing your idea takes away time from your personal life.
  • Your value as an employee plummets because you fail in your endeavor.

Simultaneously, the rewards can be equally compelling. Common rewards include the opportunity to:

  • Showcase your leadership, innovation/creativity, time management skills, seriousness of ambition, and commitment to value-added quality.
  • Make new friends and allies.
  • Combat criticism or negative performance marks (assuming they exist).
  • Gain visibility.
  • Hand-mold your reputation.
  • Ask for or be given a promotion, raise, or other recognition (by your firm management, colleagues, client, consulting industry, client's industry, press, etc.).
  • Increase your marketability dramatically - as you dictate.

~Assess your risks against your rewards in terms of time and cost. But also include invaluable factors, like reputation, and their impact on your bottom line. For example, if you your reputation rises, you might earn a promotion, raise, and new office, on top of the increased responsibilities. If you your reputation suffers, you might lose out on choice assignments and will have to build from a lower starting point.

Either way, be certain you are prepared for both the risks and rewards. Otherwise, you will second-guess yourself, which will inevitably hinder your success one way or another. Above all, realize your success hinges on your ability to assess, act, and reap.

Hannah Im has been a consultant throughout her career. She specializes in businessoperations, specifically process improvement/reengineering and risk management. Herclients tend to be in the financial services or media and are entrepreneurial orundergoing major transitions. She graduated with a dual Bachelor of Arts from MountHolyoke College.


Filed Under: Consulting

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