Life as a consultant: the 10 best pieces of advice I ever received

One of the many things you learn in the management consulting business is there is no one path to success, so it’s interesting to hear what people remember as the most useful information or advice they’ve picked up so far. What better way to highlight this than to ask consultants from different firms what’s the best advice they’ve gotten.

I’ve highlighted some of their responses in bold and added some additional color below each one.

Do and ask for forgiveness

You want to give your best odds of doing the right thing. Imagine facing a situation where you have a pretty good idea that something needs to be done but you’re not sure what.

Option 1: Do nothing and you will have done the wrong thing by default 100% of the time.

Option 2: Make a call that you can reasonably explain to your manager or client. Let’s assume you’re right 50% of the time.

I’d argue your results following option 2 are 50% better than you conservatively trying to avoid doing the wrong thing all the time.

Fate favors the action takers of the world.

Don’t forget that you’re expensive temp labor.

When you think about management consulting as temp labor, it keeps you honest about the quality of the work you produce. There are lots of other low cost firms out there and even more people trying to make it as individual contractors. A little bit of professional paranoia will serve you well.

Think twice before you put it in writing, unless it’s a promise from the client then immediately get it in writing.

Speaking of paranoia, you cannot forget that clients aren’t your friends. Even if they were, I’d be willing to bet you know at least one friendship that’s taken a hit because of money. This goes back to the idea of under-promising and over-delivering.

CYA. Always.

Cover your ass(ets). I’m starting to sense a theme here…The reality is that a lot of consulting projects are high visibility and people’s jobs may be significantly impacted by the results of your work. That pressure can make people do some unexpected things.

Don’t stress too much. Nobody is going to die.

I always struggle this one because it seems “nobody is going to die” is more subjective than one might think. The disconnect usually manifests itself in discrepancies in what people consider an appropriate display of a sense of urgency. What I will say is this – it comes down to sacrificing your personal life or health for your job, choose yourself.

Don’t make your boss look bad.

You want to know one of the best things you can do when trying to get promoted? Make your boss look good in front of the client. Conversely, embarrassing your boss is a career limiting move. That means even if your boss says something not quite right in a meeting, you have to know how to tactfully correct if that will change the outcome of the meeting, catch up later if there is some potential future impact, or just let it go. Nothing good comes from showing up the boss just for the sake of being right.

Your paycheck. Brought to you by our clients.

Sometimes you have to deal with some people who may not want you around, and sometimes you have to be the taskmaster when dealing with those people. Of course, you want to be a decent human being, this job sometimes directly opposes the interest of some of the people you have to interact with.

Doing the right thing isn’t always the answer when dealing with consulting clients. Some clients may want to hear the advice but don’t necessarily want to take it. So long as you’ve made your recommendation clear, you can sleep easy at night continuing to collect fees, even if the result isn’t exactly how you would draw it up if given free reign.

Keep a low profile and stay out of trouble.

This point is particularly relevant for those who never worked in client service. I kind of think of it like camping. You want your client visits to be as low impact as possible. A few things to consider: no fish in the microwave, clean up after yourself in conference rooms, and don’t create a disturbance in the force by going to lunch 20 deep. There are more but taking care of those should get you in decent shape.

It takes two years to feel like you really fit. Stick with it.

Management consulting is a strange beast. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming right out of school or taking the plunge after spending 5 years working in industry. Here’s a little secret, though. It takes time in any job to figure out if the fit makes sense.

Learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Yes. So much ambiguity comes along with trying to deliver on projects you estimated before seeing how big of a mess you were actually getting into. Add in the fact that client priorities can and sometimes do change literally every day and you have a situation that doesn’t work for a lot of people. And I can’t blame them. It takes a certain kind of person (one might argue that type of person is a masochist) to keep coming back every day. I do it though and having been in industry, it’s hard to see myself doing anything else.