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by Vault Consulting Editors | March 10, 2009


Consulting in all its forms - strategic, operational and information technology - is a booming career and one increasingly popular. But many go into the consulting field without a clear idea of what it entails. How do you determine whether you're cut out to join the consulting legions? According to insiders, a good consultant:

Loves data and figures

Particularly at the analyst and associate stage, a consultant needs to be in his element gathering, manipulating and interpreting numbers. Nine times out of ten, data won't be in the right format to test the ingoing hypothesis, so considerable ingenuity is required in combining data sources, backing out the original numbers, while continuously sense checking the results. While a good working knowledge of Excel and other spreadsheet programs is a must (and a degree of aptitude in pivot tables, Monte Carlo simulations and the like is the icing on the cake), the key skill is to be able to take the mass of data and draw conclusions. "What's the message?" is the common question a manager throws at associates.

Does the helicopter thing well
A good consultant is a master of detail and can tell you where each number and each assumption came from, but in the next breath can pull back up to the key messages and relate it back to the overall strategy of the client. (This is called helicoptering.) It is easy to get drawn into the piles of data that is accumulated at the start of the study and to head off down the wrong track of analysis. A helicopter approach of moving up and down between the top level hypotheses and the details is critical to ensure that the team remains focused on what needs to be done in the limited time available, rather than "boiling the ocean" of all possible analyses.

Related to this concept is the "elevator test." This is based on the notion that you get into the elevator at the client office and at the very next floor the CEO hops in. "So," he says, "what are your conclusions so far in the four weeks since you began the project, and what are you going to do next?" Thus, in the thirty seconds it takes you to reach the executive suite on the top floor, you need to apprise him in a concise and coherent fashion of the key messages emerging from the project. What this scenario is trying to test is the consultant's ability at all times to have a handle on the top line - in effect the executive summary.

Is client-friendly
"Would you put him in front of the client?" is a key question the recruiters will ask. Their answer will be influenced not only by a groomed appearance, but a combination of diplomacy and user-friendly character that means the partner won't be afraid to leave his associate in the aforementioned elevator with the client CEO. From the new recruit's point of view, this means that you should relish interacting with people, have the ability to think on your feet and have strong oral communication skills. Commonly, you will be interacting with clients who are older and more experienced than yourself, who may have biases against consultants, may feel threatened, and certainly will not take kindly to being told about their industry, company, and problems by a young, cocky consultant straight out of B-school. Handling this interpersonal challenge takes practice, but above all requires sensitivity to the client concerns.

Is a willing team player
Consultancy, more than most other jobs, is a team sport. Consultants brainstorm together, share offices or work in communal project rooms at the client, travel together, socialize together - they're just not solitary animals. Enjoying teamwork is a key prerequisite to enjoying the consulting life, and you don't need a detailed psychographic analysis to tell you if you're a team player. Do you like team sports or would you prefer go off jogging in solitude? Do you like group brainstorming exercises or do you prefer to come up with the answer on your own?


Filed Under: Consulting