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March 31, 2009

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The Hole
Most consultants learn a broad spectrum of areas in their first few years of consulting through hands-on experience or formal training. After a few years, management expects you to begin focusing on an industry, technology, or function. There are few exceptions: 1) you offer industry, technology, or functional experience from previous employment, 2) your major area of study involved a specific industry, technology, or function 3) you agree from the start to specialize in an area, or 4) your consulting firm only specializes in one area.

To most people starting out in consulting, learning about a wide range of areas sounds appealing. However, control over which engagements you participate in often lies in the hands of management. While they generally try to cater assignments to your preferences, engagement placements depend largely on project type and staff availability. As a result, you might find yourself in a "pigeon hole." Being pigeon holed means you get the same type of assignment over and over again, regardless of whether or not you want them.

Getting out of my Hole
Considering I began my job search very late in my senior year of college, I had few options - the on-campus recruiting schedule closed months before I decided against graduate school. So I sent out over 200 resumes and started calling on alumnae. I got lucky. Someone I had known for no more than 10 minutes during her senior year remembered me. She presented my resume to the hiring partner at her firm. Since she held a solid reputation there, the partner gladly arranged for me to interview with her firm. It was my first job offer and the best one I managed to get.

I started my career as an associate consultant for one of the Big Five (Big Six at the time) in their risk management practice. I knew nothing about risk management or about consulting, but it sounded interesting enough and would allow me to pay the rent. Within a year, I hated my job. True, I learned a lot about many different industries and about running companies of all sizes. Yet, I found myself dreading waking up each morning to go to work.

~ I decided I needed a change. I began to get involved with the firm in other ways than just business. I set up industry training programs for the entire office. I helped plan company outings. I helped develop discussion groups on international business. Basically, I created a wide area network for myself of people throughout the firm. I found new mentors and new connections that helped me broaden my knowledge. My new network allowed me to connect even further with other consulting managers outside of my firm.

The networking opened up new options for me. I spoke at length with many managers from other areas of consulting and learned what their areas involved. I even spoke with some of them about possible transfers out of risk management. Ultimately, I networked my way to a hiring partner at another of the then Big Six. I convinced him my background in risk management was essential to his operations consulting practice, and he hired me.

At this second Big Six firm, I learned not just operations consulting, but I also learned IT consulting. I knew it was important to understand how a business' success depends on management's ability to manipulate technology to their advantage. I took every opportunity I could find to get on my choice assignments and learned to be an effective project manager. Again, I networked with key managers and persuaded them of their need for my background in risk management and my new project management skills.

Sometimes I had no choice but to participate in assignments I would not have chosen for myself. But my networking assured that I would be frequently requested by those other managers whenever my schedule became free. Unfortunately, my extensive network also became the point of my misfortune. People trusted me. They trusted me to be a team player at all costs. One day, I faced a difficult decision over an ethical dilemma. I chose to exit the team and move to New York City.

Once I arrived in New York, I started a new job search. This time, I used the Internet. I posed my resume on every job site I found and applied for jobs directly on those sites. After a few months, I found the job of my choice at an Internet consulting startup firm. I convinced them of their need for my project management skills and became their nineteenth employee.

With this new firm, I took advantage of their generous training program. The firm, being an IBM business partner, offered certification training in IBM's methodology and technology. As quickly as possible, I passed my test for Net.Commerce certification and placed it on my resume. Although this skill was useful as an e-business project manager, my firm's stature was still too small in the consulting world. I needed more experience than my firm could offer.

My network in New York paled in comparison to that of mine in Boston. So I started attending industry associations and volunteering in order to build a bigger one. The networking again paid off, and a number of these not-profits gladly accepted my offer to project manage their e-business pro bono. Thus, I built my e-business portfolio.

Four Basic Steps
In my experience, transitioning between industries, technologies, and functional expertise can feel like a monumental task. However, I learned to gain what I want from each transition by four basic steps:

1.     NETWORK - I cannot emphasize enough the importance of networking. Most of my major transitions resulted from networking.

2.     Connect the dots - Take your existing knowledge and find ways to leverage and connect it to the knowledge you want.

3.     Learn - Take every experience as a learning opportunity. Invest your time and money in learning about the knowledge you want on your own.

4.     Be proactive - Seek out opportunities at your current offices and in your community to apply your new learning.

No one says you have to be stuck in a position you dislike. The only assured way to get out of your present state is to move yourself, because you cannot count on serendipity. Take advantage of your environment effectively, and I guarantee you will find success.

Good luck!

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Filed Under: Networking
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