What Have I Learned As A Consultant?

“Being a consultant is like flying first-class. The food is terrific, the drinks are cold. But all you can do is walk up to the pilot and say, ‘bank left.’” — Greg Brenneman

Speaking to an engaged audience is always a treat. Mainly because I have been in their shoes before, but there is also excitement in those hungry for more. It’s the look in their eyes.

Had such an opportunity recently to meet a group of engaged learners at the University of Texas at Dallas. A friend set up a panel discussion on consulting for a cohort MBA program. The goal was to give students an idea of what the life of an IT consultant.

Half of you just rolled your eyes. Don’t lie.

Consultants are currently the lifeblood of much of the IT industry today. A search on GlassDoor shows there are currently 143,779 jobs available in the US for an IT consultant. With corporate strategies becoming more digital by the day, this number will only rise.

Why is this so?

External consultants are one of the most painless ways of staffing up when needed. Often companies who offer this service do all the vetting for you. They are also easy to cut loose should project funding change. It also takes away the internal politics when you can blame outsiders for failures.

When you add in the competition from thousands of vendors offering consulting services, there’s ample opportunity to find a solution that fits your organization. For the consultant themselves, there’s also benefit. Flexible hours, higher pay, travel, expenses, and challenging work make the role quite appealing.

It’s also really freaking hard to do well.

That’s what was asked of myself and the other panel participants. How have we found success as consultants? What tips would we give those just starting out in their career? And just how big are our expense budgets (kidding)?

Learn how you want to think before you can tell others.

The biggest surprise to me was that every single panel member writes about their work in their spare time. Some enjoy LinkedIn posts because of the ease of publishing and site traffic. Others have their own space to retain ownership. We’ve also all written books and white papers for financial benefit. All are ways to craft your thoughts.

Benefits to writing professionally give you the chance to process what’s happening on site with clients. You can research the topic fully and provide supporting references. It also allows others to see you demonstrating thought leadership that can open future doors.

In the end, however, you’re going to have to “consult” someone on this topic. Regardless of how much experience in a certain situation, there is still a need to practice how you want to provide guidance to clients.

Writing it down and getting feedback online can be the easiest way to craft how you consult in the future.

“Nobody is going to know you’re an expert until you tell them you are one.” — Seth Godin

Have a healthy sense of humor about yourself.

Many companies have probably dated around with other consultants before they found you. It doesn’t mean you aren’t special with something to offer, but you are for sure not the first that’s walked through their doors. This can unfortunately lead to cynicism to slick slides and silver tongues.

It’s not meant to discourage you from the work, but instead offer a word of caution about your approach early on.

Companies don’t start out broken. To gain market share and grow in size, they had to do something right in the beginning. A course was charted, and the ship kept moving as it got bigger.

But we all know what happens to the big ship that keeps turning one degree at a time. Eventually, it’s turned all the way around.

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” — Prime Directive

Rather than coming in with bravado and jazz hands (both of which I’ve done before), it’s really important to listen. Get curious about where they are currently. Also, give them the dignity of trusting they made the best decisions they could at the time they were made. Don’t beat them up for their past failures.

Focus on where they want to go next. Then actually help them get there.

My successes have been those scenarios. They weren’t solely because of me because I’m not an all-knowing deity. I played my part. That’s all I can do for clients.

You can’t do this alone.

The panel came together because the person who set it up asked a friend for who should attend. The other two of us came shortly after. We all knew of each other, even though we didn’t really. By the time we walked out two hours later, we were chatting like old friends ready to work together on something soon.

That’s how networks go.

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.” — Mark Twain

Ideas may not be new, but the way in which they are reused can be. By connecting to other like-minded (or even differently-minded) professionals, new ways of crafting techniques can be easily done. Maybe an additional statistic or metric that you’ve never researched.

All this comes from widening the circle and inviting others in to collaborate.

While it is possible to learn things on your own and craft your own techniques, they are almost assuredly going to be less refined in a vacuum. We can’t allow our mindsets to get too entrenched because this world changes faster than we can keep up with. By attending conferences, frequenting meetups, and collaborating over coffee, we become the most refined we can be as consultants.

Reach out to someone you respect. Ask for something specific. Maybe even offer to buy them a drink. Then introduce them to someone else you know and watch the creative sparks fly.

There are countless other ways to become a great consultant. I’m still working on it myself, and I’ll always be doing that. Just get started.

Shout out to Austin for inviting me to the event. To Ben for introducing me to Austin and helping me get started. Finally, to Charlie for the valuable insight.

Tagged: agile, consulting, lecture, mba, technology

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