Is Working as a Consultant Right for You?
By Robert Half Management Resources
Gone are the days when interim staff were limited to lesser-skilled roles. Today, more and more businesses are engaging these individuals at professional levels. Consultants have become an integral part of the business world, providing valuable expertise and guiding complex projects.
Consulting is an attractive choice for senior financial executives because it provides the opportunity for them to apply their years of experience to a variety of dynamic work environments virtually on their own terms. Increasingly, companies seek project-focused financial consultants who can help them address an abundance of challenges, ranging from systems conversions and implementations, emerging government regulations and the need to cut costs.
In both good and bad economic times, companies turn to consultants to gain specialized expertise and greater flexibility as business priorities change. Whether you are looking for new challenges or you are nearing retirement and not ready to stop working entirely, becoming a consultant can be a very fulfilling professional path, but it is not for everyone. Following are some key factors to consider before making the leap:
Latitude. Greater flexibility in working hours is one of the main reasons professionals pursue project careers. Many recognize that they can enjoy more personal and professional satisfaction by controlling when and how much they work. Consultants are able to accept or decline assignments depending on their interests and current priorities.
For those nearing retirement age, project work allows the flexibility to pursue a more gradual transition. In another Robert Half survey, three-quarters of executives polled said they view consulting as an attractive segue into retirement. Consulting enables experienced professionals to maintain many of the benefits of work, including challenging assignments, competitive compensation and intellectual stimulation, while still allowing time to pursue personal interests.
Diversity of work. Successful people thrive on new challenges. Consulting exposes you to a variety of work environments, positions, and technologies. Working in an industry different from the one in which you spent most of your career can have a rejuvenating effect on your outlook and energy level.
Today’s project assignments give consultants the opportunity to be more solution-oriented than was possible in previous times. In the past, project professionals were engaged primarily to research, analyze and present their recommendations for internal staff to carry out. Consultants now manage major initiatives that were previously handled by a company’s senior executives and managers. They are more often seen spearheading entire projects from planning to completion.
Personal reward. The best project professionals are highly valued by client companies because, for many firms, the level of experience they possess is simply unavailable internally. Organizations appreciate the approaches to problem-solving interim professionals have acquired during their careers, which can give you a sense of satisfaction at being able to add value to a business. On sensitive projects such as restructuring and cost-cutting programs, employers also benefit from the objectivity consultants can bring. In addition, their knowledge can also be transferred through training and mentoring of less experienced internal staff. All of this makes for a rewarding experience for both parties and is one of the most satisfying facets of serving in a consulting role: Years of hard work pay off over and over again, as your skills and advice are held in high regard by new organizations in new situations. As idealistic as it may sound to some, you really can make a difference.
Although consulting has many benefits, there are a number of factors to consider before pursuing this career path. Here are key questions to ask yourself before deciding to go out on your own:
Can you easily readjust? To be a successful consultant, you should prefer change to consistency. Your values need to tend more toward challenge than comfort-zone, and you must be energized working with a diverse range of clients, products and personalities. Depending on your area of expertise, one month you may be helping a manufacturing company identify potential cost reductions or introduce a new product line, and in the next working with a totally different set of circumstances.
You’ll also have to be able to adapt well to a variety of corporate cultures, so you need to know how to navigate office politics adroitly. The best consultants are open-minded when beginning new engagements and welcome a frequent change of scenery.
Do you manage your time well? Not every situation is as clear-cut as it may seem at the outset of an engagement. You’ll need to be good at understanding at the beginning what you’ll be getting into and estimating the time it will take to complete projects. If you aren’t, you’ll frustrate – and maybe even lose – clients.
Do you want to manage a business? This is a key consideration. If you decide to start your own consulting business, recognize that you will be assuming full management responsibility. In addition to helping companies with their critical needs, you must also take care of administrative issues of your own as well as invest time in developing new business. Does this truly appeal to you? You may be an individual with a well-developed business sense who thrives on creating a company. On the other hand, if you dislike sales work or become so busy with consulting engagements that you lack the time required to address operational issues, managing a consulting business could be challenging.
If you are not inclined to be a business owner, one solution could be working through a staffing firm that will perform the administrative and marketing aspects for you. These firms manage these tasks while giving you the opportunity to select engagements you most prefer. A staffing firm can also help you better judge your time commitments since its staffing professionals will have already discussed the assignment with the client with which you’re placed. Overall, this approach can allow you to enjoy the flexibility associated with entrepreneurship without having to market yourself to potential clients.
Those who thrive on new experiences and are committed to ongoing learning tend to make excellent consultants. The role also requires careful planning, a commitment to meeting your clients’ needs and a flexible attitude. Honestly assessing your skill set, financial situation and preferences will help you ensure that consulting is the right move for you.