Define Your Path

What Is It Really Like to Be A Consultant?

In addition to how does one become a consultant, I often get asked what it is really like to be a consultant? That is an even harder question to answer because there are many different kinds of consultants. There is everything from independent consultants with some particular expertise, to employees of large consulting houses. The experiences for each of those kinds of consultants can vary based on what the focus on, how much they travel, and the kinds of clients they have. A little prodding often reveals that the inquirer is thinking about taking a job at one of the big firms and wants to know what they are really signing up for. While I always caveat, my reply that I can only speak on what I know personally, my response usually goes something like this.

  • Monday: Wake up about 4:00 AM to go to the airport. Hopefully you get there and through security in time to grab a quick breakfast before boarding your plane. Try to sleep on the plane. Get to the client site before noon to check in with colleagues and clients, set up your laptop, and check messages. Monday’s usually end about 7:00 – 8:00 pm before everyone races to the hotel hoping that all the good rooms haven’t been taken. After dinner you usually have an hour or so of work to do before watching a little TV and going to bed.
  • Tuesday: Wake up around 6:00 AM if you want to do a quick workout (later if you skip working out) because you want to be at the client site before 8:30 AM. It is a long hard work day with lots of meetings, lots of deliverable production, and barely enough time to do much else. The clients are paying a lot for you to be there so they want to get their money’s worth. Tuesdays usually end about 6:00 -7:00 PM followed by a mellow dinner and a few hours of work in your hotel room before going to bed.
  • Wednesday: Pretty much the same thing as Tuesday except there is usually a team dinner to end the week. Why end of the week dinner on Wednesday? Because you are hopefully flying back home the next day. You may find yourself wanting to skip these dinners because you’ve got tons to do and they tend to drag out, but make sure you go. It is a good chance to network. Some people like to drink at these events but I highly recommend against it. Not properly managing your alcohol consumption on the road is a very quick way to get counseled out (consultant speak for fired).
  • Thursday: Get into the office early because your flight probably departs between 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm, which means you have to leave the office between 3:00 and 5:00 pm. About half the time something will happen that puts you at risk of missing you flight home, but after the first couple of times you have to spend the night in an airport it won't even phase you anymore. If all goes as planned (which it sometimes doesn’t) you’re getting home sometime after 8:00 pm. You're dog tired from too much work and too little sleep during the week, but you stay up a couple more hours to get your laundry done and work through all the emails that came between the time you left the office and got to your front door. Then you go to bed.
  • Friday: A normal person would try to sleep in after a week like that. For a consultant it is just part of the job so you get up early to do a status call before dropping your dry cleaning off in time for same day service. Then you head into the office. Hopefully the 60+ hours you’ve put in between travel and billable activity is enough that you don’t have to work over the weekend because you have to get a decent night’s sleep on Sunday since the whole thing starts again on Monday morning.

At this point the person I am talking to usually has a look on their face of fear, disgust, or intrigue. For those who look fearful or disgusted, I just kind of let it go. If that description causes consternation, they probably ought to consider another line of work. For those who look intrigued, I provide some additional insight as to why someone would willingly sign up for a job like that.    

During those 60+ hours you're usually getting to work with super smart people, cutting edge technology, and given the opportunity to solve problems that scare other people off. You get to create new solutions, stay abreast of the latest business trends, and learn something new every single day. If your current project if awful, you just keep plugging because in a few months you can roll onto a new one that will be awesome. You will never ever get bored, and your opportunity for growth will only be limited by how hard you want to work. If you can put up with the schedule and the lifestyle it is a great way to make a living. If not, no worries. There are lots of people competing for those opportunities.

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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. or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd