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How to Become a Consultant

Most of the classes I teach are in graduate management (e.g., MBA), master’s level Organizational Development/Organizational Behavior, or Industrial & Organizational (I/O) Psychology programs. Each of these kinds of programs has its own particular curriculum nuances and unique focuses. They also tend to have slightly different kinds of students. MBA programs tend to have people with more general management and finance backgrounds. OB/OD programs tend to be from human resources backgrounds and more concerned with issues such as employee empowerment and engagement. I/O Psychology learners are often more interested in the research and the theory behind it. One commonality across all these programs, however, is I usually have at least one learner in every class asking for the particular steps to becoming a consultant. For better or worse, the answer to that question is never as clear-cut as they were hoping for.

Before I provide perspective on becoming a consultant, let me first level set about what the process is not. Unlike say a legal career where one goes to law school, passes the bar, and then finds a job; the path to being a consultant has many more options. This is both a good and a bad thing. It is a good thing because the explicit barriers to a consulting career are not that many. Usually one must have at least master’s degree in a particular field (although I know some consultants who do well with a bachelors or less), some experience, and a particular offering or skill people are willing to pay you for. That is it at the most basic level. The hurdles beyond that are where things get a little more complicated.

One of the most common ways that people get into consulting is to get an entry-level job at one of the big consulting firms (e.g., Accenture, Booz & Company). These firms hire lots of people into new classes and make a significant investment into teaching you important basic consulting skills like presentation writing, project management, and of course business development (i.e., selling consulting work). They also give you the opportunity to develop a network of other consultants that will be invaluable to you throughout your career. Be aware, however, that these firms also expect you to make a huge investment of your time, be willing to travel a lot, and pretty much dedicate your life to moving forward in that firm. They usually pay above average, but you work very hard for every dollar.

Another common way people get into consulting is to obtain a senior level position in a particular industry (e.g., VP of Marketing for a pharmaceutical firm) and become a known subject matter expert in that arena. They then ‘retire’ out of that industry to begin offering their advice for pay to other companies in that industry, or others if they can convince clients their skills are transferable. This typically lines up to the romanticized view of what many people think of when they hear the term consultant. And as the saying goes, it is great work if you can get it. The problem, however, is that these roles are very hard to get.

The third most common way to get into consulting involves people who just decide they are sick of their job and/or boss, then quit and hang out their shingle. Many of those who try this route are IT types with a particularly unique skill-set that is in high demand (e.g., SAS Analytics); but I’ve also seen HR, public relations and finance types try this. The thing about this option is that it has a really high failure rate. Unless you can clearly define what you’re offering and work very hard to sell that offering, you’re not going to do well. I’m honestly not sure what the numbers are on this, but I’ve seen a lot of people try this round and the majority have failed. As such I don’t recommend the route unless you really have something unique to offer, and good backup plan if things don’t go well.

Now this does not mean that these are the only three paths to becoming a consultant. They are just the three most common paths. And if you can take one of these paths and make it work, you’ll have a very rewarding and meaningful career. Moreover, you will never ever get bored because consulting is something new every day. Of course that little bit of insight often leads to the follow up question of what is it really like to be a consultant? That is also a kind of complicated answer that we’ll have to get into that one next time.

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About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture, and Hewlett-Packard.

He can be reached at www.jimmybrownphd.com or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd