Consulting Career Change

Dane County’s unemployment rate was a remarkable 5.5% in November — remarkable when compared to the nation’s 10% and Wisconsin’s 7.8%. But the county does not live in a vacuum. Many businesses are down in volume and some are struggling.

What if you are a business person (or for that matter, a technical or non-business person) looking for work and having a hard time? Maybe the answer is to consult, either as a short term solution or as a career change. It is not easy, but I would be happy to help anyone who is interested. Here’s a first look at what you’ll have to decide, do, and practice:

  1. Decide: You need to decide a practice area. This is the hardest part, because it is not a checklist of things that you have done before, but an appreciation of both what you do best and what you like to do — along with a view of what the market can bear. So, if you were an HR generalist in the past, you may have done recruiting, set up HR systems and done company-wide cost cutting measures. It really is not credible for a one- or two-person shop to do all of that. If you are going to consult, you’ll probably do best to be known for one area of expertise. Your task: decide on your specialization.
  2. Do: You need to set up your business. Not just the bureaucracy of it, like cards and legal organization. You need Deliverables. “Deliverables” is the consulting equivalent of your product. You have to have examples of your work product for others to see and appreciate. If you have been employed before, you will need to take your day-to-day work (perhaps with the employer’s permission) and turn it into a product that prospective customers can appreciate — and will buy.

    Along with this goes ensuring your consulting skill set is up to speed. Many times consultants come into organizations that need not only analysis and conclusions, but persuasion that the path you have suggested is the right one. You need to be fluent in not only the presentation techniques, but in some cases, the technology of the persuasion. An example of this is knowing PowerPoint or equivalent presentation software.
    And you will need to defend your conclusions. Invest in yourself by going to a Carnegie program or joining a Toastmasters group. This is one aspect of consulting that cannot be wished away.

  3. Practice: The best part of consulting is that it makes service to others a daily practice. There is a service component that some (I am among them) find appealing. There is also a certain unavoidable logic that ensures you are on the client’s side: consultants who have agendas that are different from the agenda of their clients don’t last in the business.

    The downside to this is that you need to constantly network to find new business. Consulting is by nature a short-term deal, and if you followed point one above, you will have become highly specialized. So a third of your time, say, is going to be dedicated to meeting new prospects. This doesn’t have to be a chore — volunteering with a service organization is a great way to both serve the community and meet likely clients — but it is the aspect most overlooked by those who are considering the field.

For more on the concepts of consulting as a form of community service, I recommend the work of Peter Block, who introduced the concepts of service and what he calls “stewardship” in pathbreaking books over the last thirty years. The best book to start with is called Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used.

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