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by Vault Consulting Editors | March 10, 2009


Over the years, I have had many people approach me, either officially orunofficially, and tell me they want to "get into" consulting after havingbeen employed in another field. In my early days as a recruiter, I tookthis as my cue to launch into "sell mode" (all good recruiters are actuallysalespeople in disguise), extolling the virtues of the boundless careeropportunities in this amazing industry, and especially in my company. Butthe truth is, consulting MAY NOT BE for everyone, and it can be anespecially difficult fit for those who have started their career elsewhere.So I have a different approach these days. I prefer now to launch into"inquiry mode" with a short list of questions which help me understand mywould-be consultant's motives and fit.

Question #1: What's your background?

What I'm looking for: For starters, at least a bachelor's degree. It's the minimumrequirement for most of the large firms. There are some exceptions, butnot very many. An MBA is great, but not required, except in more strategicconsulting work. I also listen for a technical/analytical bent with abusiness focus. This does not apply to all consulting firms, but it doesto most of the large ones. The objective is to solve business problems.To do this, one must be a problem solver, with some methodology or rigorbehind it, and a passion to apply that to business. Too narrow(sub-specialty of a particular discipline) or too broad (general managementfor many years or several different disconnected career starts) will notwork because these backgrounds are hard to "staff" or sell to clientprojects.

For those with significant work experience, I look for rapid career progression through positions with increasing responsibility in awell regarded organization. The size of the organization is not asimportant as a reputation for innovation and ability to respond quickly tochange. If a candidate is quite senior, I also look for deep industryexpertise and the ability to sell (ideas, products, services) with ademonstrated track record of success. In my experience, the ideal profileof a career changer into consulting is someone who is not too far (3-5years) into their chosen field, and who realizes they made a mistake in not starting a consulting career right out of college. "Startingover" is not as difficult from this spot as it is later in one's career.

Question #2: What's your impression of what a consultant does?

What I'm looking for: Team player vs. independent content expert. There isalmost no role for a lone wolf on a large scale consulting project.Experience working on or managing a team of at least 10 people (preferablymuch larger) will tell me this person has some idea of what they shouldexpect. If a person tells me they have been a project manager, I ask themto describe the project(s) to me in terms of size, scope, people, budget,deliverables, deadlines, and tools (usually software) to manage it. Manypeople think of themselves as "project managers" but have not trulycoordinated all these essentials. On the softer side, one must have anability to see the bigger picture and "go with the flow" in this business.Equal parts of structure with flexibility is the best recipe for success.

Question #3: What do you hope to accomplish as a consultant?

What I'm looking for: A focus on deliverables. As a consultant in a large firm, productivity isvery important. One must expect to be kept busy at clients, adding valueby solving their business problems. I have interviewed consultants from allthe major firms and many of the smaller ones. Without exception, theemphasis at all firms is to stay busy and to produce tangible results. Ifmy candidate has interest in research or is more theoretical thanpractical, I advise him to check out a "think tank" organization where thattype of work is funded and encouraged.

Question #4: Were you on the receiving end of consulting services in yourformer company/role? What was your impression of how they spent theirtime?

What I'm looking for: Some consulting companies specialize in strategicadvice, and others offer it as a part of a suite of consulting services.Some are focused on a particular industry, others offer expertise in aparticular business process or technology. And the large ones usually haveall of the above. Depending on my interested party's exposure toconsultants, they may have a narrow or a very broad view of what isoffered in the market. I usually try to understand their interests and background before I advise them on which (if any) organization might beright for them.

I also look for their general knowledge of the consultingindustry and key players. Ideally, they will even know of some wellpublicized consulting deals in their industry of preference. If acandidate has done the homework, they are better able to "connect the dots"between their background with what a particular firm offers the market.And it follows that they will present a more compelling case inan interview.

Question #5: How does consulting fit into your long term objectives?

What I'm looking for:The big picture. Do they have an overall plan, vision, direction for theirlife? How does consulting fit into this vision? Some people areinterested in consulting purely because they heard somewhere thatconsultants make a lot of money. Depending on the company, this may or maynot be true. One must have motivation beyond compensation in this industry.Drive. Is this person proactive, persistent, and generally optimistic?These are essential character traits of a good consultant. Long-termfocus. Do they recognize this is not just a job change, but a careerchange? Depending on their level, effecting a career change sometimes means taking one stepback to take two steps forward.

Occasionally I talk with an independent consultant who is tired of thesell/do treadmill. When they are delivering, they neglect selling, and viceversa. This can be stressful and ultimately exhausting. Working for alarger consulting concern often looks appealing for the simple fact thatthey believe they will be freed up to focus on what they love to do -advise and help clients.

I usually counsel these individuals to take aserious look at their long-term objectives and make sure they are trulycommitted to working in a corporate environment. There are always tradeoffs in any line of work. Experience working independently may or may not berelevant in an environment with larger and more complexprojects.

Question #6: What kind of lifestyle do you ultimately want?

What I'm looking for: Willingness to make the time commitment withsomewhat delayed gratification for their work, and then still work veryhard as a Partner, Director, VP or whatever the most senior level is at agiven company. The truth is, most other organizations do not move as fastas consulting companies, and it can be a very difficult transition indeedfor someone coming from another industry.

It is worth mentioning that I am referring to a fairly traditional model of consulting. There arenow many niche firms and alternative paths within bigger companies that arebecoming available. However, most of the people I know in this industry,regardless of their company, career path or role, are very committed.Typically, work is a key component of a fast-paced lifestyle they choosevery consciously. This may work out for some and not for others.

In summary, a career in consulting is a great choice for those who enter it with eyes open. If a would-be consultant has the appropriate background,a pragmatic bent, a vision for their own future, and realistic lifestyleexpectations, I stop questioning and launch into "sell mode" on what Ibelieve to be the most interesting, rewarding career option in themarketplace.

Erin Peterson

Originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Erin Petersen majored in Psychology atConcordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Having been with Accenture for15 years, she has held Recruiting Leadership roles in Minneapolis, Chicago,and Frankfurt, Germany. She lives with her family outside of Chicago andenjoys travel, music and playing with her kids.

The views and practices explained in this article are personal and do not reflect the official views or practices of Accenture LLP or other Accenture companies. Nor do they necessarily reflect the views and practices of Accenture recruiting.


Filed Under: Consulting
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