What to expect when you’re consulting

If you’re an experienced practitioner who’s thinking of taking the plunge, or a junior consultant just starting out; here’s some helpful advice on what I’ve learnt about the dark art of consulting.

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When I left the world of being a staffer and turned to the dark side of consulting, I had some idea of what to expect but a lot to learn. I’d seen the usual Big Four come in, do their thing and experienced the frustration (and jealousy) of knowing I could do things better. I was young, passionate and ambitious. I’d learnt my core trade skills but my company couldn’t offer me the opportunities and experiences I needed to grow my career at pace.

So I left, joined a SME consultancy, co-founded and grew a start-up from within (Methods Digital). After leaving in 2017, I co-founded another consultancy start-up (Notbinary) which we took public last year as part of The Panoply Group. It’s been a whirlwind adventure with lots of success, but some failure too. I’ve been fortunate to meet lots of amazing, inspiring people and gained invaluable experiences that probably would have taken me many more years to accumulate if I’d been moving between permanent staff roles.

All this got me thinking: if I could go back and offer my younger self some advice, what might I present as the Consulting Playbook? This is my take on what to expect and some tips on how to survive those first couple of intense years of becoming a consultant.

1. Be mindful

Now you’re on the other side of the table, remember what it felt like when you were in your client’s shoes. You’re going to quickly encounter stakeholders who are threatened by you (“You’re here to get rid of our jobs”), jealous of you (“You get paid more than me”) and frustrated with their organisation (“I’ve been saying we should do this for years”). There’s no easy fix to dealing with this; it’s part of the job. If you don’t have it already, you’re going to need to grow some thick skin and plenty of tact.

Just remember: Don’t take things personally; people have their own agendas. Hold your ground, listen and try to understand where people are coming from. Adapt your approach accordingly.

Tip: If you’re dealing with an agitated or aggressive stakeholder, one of the best ways to ‘disarm’ them is to grab a pen & paper (or take a section of the whiteboard space if you’re in a workshop) and write down their concerns. This allows them to see you’re listening to them and taking away their thoughts to deal with (even if you don’t or can’t). It sounds simple but this is so effective at diffusing tricky situations.
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2. Stay focussed

When you’re starting out, one of your greatest strengths — but also a weakness — is going to be your passion. It’s probably what drove you to become a consultant. It’s all too easy to let your passion take over and lose focus on the task at hand. Be clear on your scope or the outcomes you need to deliver for your client and put your passion into delivering them to the highest quality you can.

Don’t try to boil the ocean; especially if you’re not being paid for it. It’s tempting to try and solve all the things but this can be dangerous commercially. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of your budget, having been flat out but not actually delivered what the client asked for.

Just remember: Regularly remind yourself what you’re there to do (daily stand-ups with your team are key), have a clear list of tasks (Trello is great), speak-up if you’re blocked and lean on the support of your colleagues to ensure you’re on track.

3. Take on problems like your own

Whenever you’re parachuted into an organisation, you’ll be hit with a myriad of legacy issues, technical debt, egos and politics. The main reason you’re there is to take away someone’s problem. Your client (a real person, not ‘the business’) is paying for your time so they can have one less thing on their plate: replace an old risky system; change a broken process; build a new product etc.

One of the best things you can do is quickly understand the problem and take the reins. It’s surprising how flexible and understanding your client will be if they just have confidence that you (and your team) are helping them to sleep easy at night, get that promotion, manage that difficult relationship, help save their dwindling profits etc.

Just remember: Size-up the problem you’re there to fix, get your hands round it and own it through to completion. Go above and beyond to ensure the problem is solved for good.

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4. Manage your time carefully

In this business, time really is money. The scrutiny on your timesheet’s billable hours isn’t because your manager is trying to work you to the bone; it’s because it’s the lifeblood of the profession. When you’re first starting out, expect to bill most of your time (40 hours a week). Make sure you know what your expected utility (billable time) is. It’s likely to be 80–90% if you’re in a new full-time delivery role. This will vary with things like pre-sales activities if you’re targeted with sales, or training time if you’re in a more junior role. You may even have a decent bonus riding on the profitability and/or utility of yourself and your team.

Be punctual. It’s a cardinal sin to turn up to a client engagement late. It makes you and your company look unprofessional; a big no-no in the industry. Also, be aware of presenteeism. Some firms will encourage first in, last out type behaviours. The key here is to work smart. Your time is your most precious commodity; don’t waste it. Yes, the hours are going to be long; especially when you’re first starting out. You need to maximise your time by being a good task juggler: clearing your emails on the walk to work; writing up that workshop on the train; returning those phone calls whilst you do your expenses. If you want to maintain some resemblance of a work-life balance, you’ll need to figure out what works best for you.

If you’re on a fixed price gig, don’t be tempted to put your feet up and coast. You’ve been given a gift of more autonomy which means you can maximise your time more easily than being on time & materials. Jump on that online course you’ve been meaning to do or read up on that topic that’s so hot right now. This is how you’ll hone your craft, get more interesting projects and rise up the ranks.

Just remember: Always be on time, work smart, utilise lulls in the work to your advantage and stay hungry to learn as much as you can.

Tip: Make sure you always do your timesheet (accurately!) before you clock off for the weekend. Set a reminder for every Friday afternoon. This might seem trivial but not getting your timesheet in on time means delays to billing clients and poor cashflow for your company; especially if you’re in a start-up or SME.

5. Be respectful

Clients are going to be frustrating and do seemingly obtuse things. When you’re in the fray, you need to rise above it. You’ve got to maintain the utmost professionalism. Getting kicked off a gig for a careless misdemeanour is hard to come back from if you’re just starting out. Just keep in mind that they’re paying for your time and services; without them, you don’t have a job.

However, it is important to let off steam with your colleagues. It can be cathartic to vent about your client at the end of a tough day. You probably shouldn’t but it’s bound to happen with some of the stuff you’re going to see and have to put up with. Don’t bad-mouth your clients in public* and never do it in writing. It’s way too easy to be overheard through a thin-walled meeting room, forward the wrong email, leave something on your desk, get shoulder surfed in the coffee queue etc. You can seriously erode (or even destroy) the reputation of yourself and your company in a single strike.

*Obviously, this includes the client site but take care when travelling on public transport or the local pub or cafe round the corner from the client.

Just remember: You are a representative of your company before your own personal brand. Think about the values and behaviours your firm expects of you and act accordingly. If in doubt, follow the lead of your more experienced colleagues.

Tip: A good rule of thumb for your behaviour is: ‘Don’t do anything that will embarrass your manager’. We’re all human and you’ll need to be confident and bold in this job. If you sense you’re near the edge, just think to yourself: ‘Will my manager be embarrassed if they found out I’ve done this?’. If they would, perhaps don’t send that email or confront that stakeholder and go have a chat with your colleagues for some support.
(Kudos to David Akai for this one)
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6. Be a chameleon

A huge part of this job is being likeable. The ability to quickly establish a good rapport with your client is a core skill. You need to become a master at adapting to your environment. Quickly getting your head round the vibe and nuances of your client’s business and culture to fit in.

Attire can be key here. You don’t want to be the consultant who rocks up in a power suit to then stick out like a sore thumb in a building full of jeans and trainers. You might as well wear a billboard that says: ‘I’m here to disrupt everything and cut jobs’. This varies between sector. If in doubt, err on the side of more business smart. You can always dial it down if you get it wrong.

At some point you’re going to be put on a gig for a long stretch of time, potentially in a remote location, so you need to take care to not to go native. Blending in is key but don’t become part of the furniture. You’re not a body to keep a seat warm so if you feel like you’re losing your energy and overstaying your welcome, speak up and let your manager know. They might not be able to get you off straight away but it’s important to let them know if you’re struggling.

Just remember: Be like your client, not one of them. Look the part, but not out of place. Try and get comfortable in your surroundings and don’t be afraid to bring your natural flair to the table.

7. Stay one page ahead

There’s a world of difference between faking it till you make it and full-on blagging. The expectation put on you will often be that you’re the external expert who’s been brought in because you’ve solved your client’s problem many times before. This won’t always be the case; especially if you’re a junior consultant. If you’re not comfortable constantly being on uneven ground, then consulting probably isn’t for you.

You need to work hard to always know a bit more than the client — ‘one page ahead’. This is a classic consulting rule but a good one to follow. It boils down to being a voracious learner. If you hear a term or acronym you don’t know, look it up and get enough information so you can hold your own in front of clients. If you need to ask, best rely on your colleagues to maintain an air or confidence with your client. Nothing corrodes your client’s confidence in you than coming across as not knowing the basics.

Just remember: Stay on your toes. Blagging is necessary but don’t push it. If you come across something you don’t know, get Googling. Have confidence in your core skills and don’t be afraid to step-back and listen.

Tip: It’s great to be a jack of all trades but as you gain more experience, you should have a think about your personal brand. You want both your clients and colleagues to ask for you to be on their team. This usually comes because you’re excellent at ‘a thing’. Keep an eye out for where your experience and opportunities take you and look to gain a specialism that keeps your phone ringing when people have the problem they know you’re great at solving.
(Kudos to James Herbert for this one)
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8. Be a team player

Out on the road, away from loved ones and thrown into difficult environments; this job can be very isolating. The camaraderie of being in it together is key to surviving as a consultant. Don’t be a nomad, rely on the support of your colleagues to get the job done and unwind at the end of the day.

Teams are often thrown together having not worked together before. The job is intense enough without having to worry about your colleague sitting next to you on day 1. You need to quickly suss out each other’s strengths and weaknesses so you can support each other to deliver and hopefully have a bit of fun too.

You can learn so much from your colleagues. Chances are you’ll be surrounded by some amazing, talented people. Make sure you get the most out of their experiences and perspectives to improve your own skills and approaches.

Just remember: Invest in getting to know and learn from your team. Make the effort to organise some social activities. Consulting is tough but if you build a good team around you, it’ll make a massive difference.

9. Become a travel guru

Unless you’re one of the fortunate few, you’re probably going to be travelling quite a bit when you start out. If you’re used to a permanent job based at the same office, a nice easy commute away from your home, then this can be quite a shock. Make sure you have an upfront conversation with your prospective employer about travel expectations. Be wary, they often mask the truth saying things like ‘We try to place people near their base’.

At first, travelling can be really fun but it can easily wear you out week after week. There’s no easy fix to this; especially if you have loved ones back at home. The best advice is to try and make the most out of your travel and maintain some semblance of a routine. Use the travel and hotel time as opportunities to catch-up on work or do extra learning so you can have maximum down-time when you make it home. It can be a good idea to set a regular time to jump on a FaceTime (or equivalent) with your loved ones back home to keep in touch.

If you can, avoid travelling on a Sunday evening and coming back late Friday. It’s a quick way to burn out. Once you’ve built the trust and rapport with your client, they’re usually understanding about excessive travel and allow remote working. Utilise as many collaboration tools as you can get your hands-on to minimise your travel and maximise your remote productivity.

Just remember: Expect to travel. Get the most out of the places you’re visiting. Work hard when you’re away so you can unwind when you’re back home. Use collaborative tools so you can stay productive whilst on the move.

Tip: Invest in a good quality travel bag (wheelie, backpack, or whatever floats your boat). Make sure it’s comfortable. You and your bag are going to be spending a lot of time together. It’s basically your mobile home and is going to need to put up with plenty of punishment between the trains, taxis, planes etc.
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10. Manage your stress

All jobs are stressful at times. This one can be a pretty brutal if you let it mount up. You’re going to experience a level of daily scrutiny you probably won’t have experienced before. Your client is paying top dollar for your services and they’ll want it done yesterday, so stress is bound to be a by-product.

Find a way of de-stressing that works for you. If you let it build up, you’ll most certainly not survive the first year of consulting. Try and find a healthy way to unwind. Probably best to avoid relying on alcohol (or harder drugs) to get through the working weeks.

Regular exercise is a solid choice. It’s easy to chuck a pair of running shoes in your bag for when you’re out on the road, or there are plenty of pay-per-month gyms you can join if you’re away from home.

The idea of work hard, play hard has never been more true than in the consulting game. It’s important to take time to switch off and recharge your batteries. When you’re on holiday — be on holiday. You’ve worked hard and deserve the break. You’ll probably be expected to be contactable for anything urgent. Just try and set some boundaries so you get the headspace to decompress.

Just remember: Rise above the scrutiny and be confident in the quality of your work. Keep an eye out for signs of stress building up, and look after your colleagues too. Take the time you need to keep your stress in check and don’t be afraid to talk to your colleagues about it; we all need some help sometimes.

Tip: Try and avoid falling in the trap of drinking in the hotel bar every night. It’s an easy habit to fall into; especially when it’s new and you’re living away on expenses. It’ll take its toll on your health after a while. Try setting yourself a limit of one (or two) nights you’re going to drink mid-week.

I hope this helps anyone who’s just started or is thinking of starting a career in consulting. Obviously, it’s hard work with long hours but I’ve generally found the positives have outweighed the negatives. It’s lovely to read stories of my colleagues (@jukesie: Here) who’ve taken the leap more recently and have come out swinging.

… and of course (like everyone else), we’re hiring so please feel free to get in touch if you’re thinking about taking the leap and want to hear more about how we do things at Notbinary.