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The Consulting Process & Career

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Most consulting engagements proceed through similar steps. It must be kept in mind, however, that although the process described herein is similar for all the consulting areas, the context of each study is determined by the area of the consultant's expertise. The major activities involved in a consulting project take place in five stages: problem identification, fact finding and data gathering, data analysis, proposals and recommendations, and implementation.

  1. Problem Identification: The first major activity in a consulting project is definition of the problem to be addressed. Often the client will have identified the problem before the consultant arrives, but sometimes consultants are expected to work with the client in problem definition.
  2. Data Collection: In the data gathering stage, information pertaining to various aspects of the problem is collected. This process can be similar to a scientific research process. As a consultant, you would collect information through various means, which can include any of the following: literature search, company document review, interviewing, administering questionnaires, direct observation, and research experiments. The methods used in data collection vary according to the type and amount of information needed. For example, a production study of a particular industry might include information on the nature and location of markets, types and sources of raw materials, production processes and equipment, business practices unique to that industry, history and growth of the industry, and information on how the present economic climate might affect the industry. Many consultants feel that data collection is the most important part of the engagement. Certainly the success of a project rests on the quality of data used to diagnose problems and propose changes. Thus, you must develop knowledge of the appropriate types and amount of data to be collected: too much or too little or the wrong type can have negative effects on the usefulness and profitability of a consulting project.
  3. Data Analysis and Synthesis: When you are confident that the necessary information is at hand, you then analyze and condense it and come to some conclusions. Methods of analysis used depend on the nature of the data and the techniques you favor. Typically, numerical data are subject to statistical analysis. More qualitative data can be content analyzed for instance, noting the kinds of issues that are repeated in employee interviews. Much of the analysis involves in depth discussion among consulting team members about the importance of information, conclusions drawn, and implications for the future. In the synthesis process massive amounts of data are combined into a meaningful whole, relationships among different aspects of the project are identified, and the results of the analysis are evaluated. The results of the analyses and synthesis provide the basis for recommendations to the client. Thus, they must be thorough and concise. Analytic skills and creativity play an important role in this stage of a consulting project.

  4. Proposals and Recommendations: Once the data have been synthesized, the consulting team must use the information to generate solutions. In some cases this takes place with client participation; in other situations the consultants work alone. Alternative solutions are then evaluated (again either with or without the client) and recommendations developed. When a proposal has been developed, the consulting team presents it to the client. This presentation may take place in a small meeting with a few managers, or, more commonly, in a formal presentation to the client's management team. In the presentation, sales skills are important in gaining client acceptance of the recommendations.
  5. Report and Implementation: The final step of the consulting engagement is delivering the final product. This may consist of a final report containing information and recommendations, or a program of sources designed to carry out recommendations. Traditionally, firms first deliver a report, and then offer a change program as an additional service. In preparing and presenting the final report, communication skills are paramount. It must be well written and complete, yet concise to be of use to the client. The presentation must be professional; hence public speaking skills are essential. If major changes are to be implemented, knowledge of organizational change and development techniques are also necessary.
In addition to these five stages, consultants spend time with prospective clients before the actual project is defined and contracted. Securing engagements entails marketing, sales, and public relations work. Except for the largest and most well known firms, consulting firms must market their services to survive.

Not all consulting firms perform these activities. While all firms must generate business and develop clients, a particular assignment may consist of any combination of the above steps.

The above activities suggest three major work roles: (1) data processor collecting and analyzing data and making recommendations, which involves substantial intellectual activity; (2) project manager running projects, planning and budgeting, controlling the process, supervising, and motivating the consulting staff; and (3) entrepreneur marketing the consulting firm's services and generating business. A successful consultant must be able to perform each role equally well.
Making a Business Consulting Career

Entry Level Positions

Your activities as an entry level consultant (often called staff consultant, assistant consultant, or junior consultant) are designed to build on the technical and interpersonal skills that you bring to the job while developing the specific consulting skills of data processor, project manager, and entrepreneur. In large firms, assignments may also be made to develop skills in data collection and analysis, communication, and technical knowledge. In firms with many specialty divisions or a generalist outlook, staff assistants are often given a broad range of assignments in their early years to expand their exposure to different areas before they choose a specialty. Staff consultants become involved in the data collection, analysis, and report writing stages of consulting engagements, while managers and partners usually solicit business and make presentations. An entry level consultant might also work on program implementation once a program has been approved.

The types of assignment you might have include gathering and analysis of data for a marketing study, developing computer systems and programs for inventory and production management, interviewing middle level managers about management practices and synthesizing the interview results, or drafting a preliminary report on a project.

At the entry level you rarely work alone, and are generally a member of a two to five person consulting team that includes colleagues from several levels of the firm. Consulting teams are often led by a manager or partner who plans, assigns, and evaluates the work. A number of senior and staff level consultants actually carry out most of the work. Consulting teams may be permanent or temporary. In most MAS divisions, new consulting teams are formed for each engagement, with a manager choosing senior and staff consultants based on qualifications and experience and experience needed. In some firms teams are permanent, based on specialization.

Depending upon the size and scope of the consulting engagements, you might work on just one large project or a number of smaller projects in the first few years. Since you are likely to be heavily involved in the data collection and implementation stages, much of your time will be spent interacting with employees at the client's place of business.

Career Advancement

In most consulting firms there are three or four levels: entry level consultants, operating or supervising consultants, managers, and principals or partners. The number of levels and amount of time spent at each level depend upon the size and type of firm. In fast growing smaller firms an MBA might reach partner status in as few as five years. However, the norm is closer to ten or twelve years.

At the second level operating consultants develop their technical skills and expand their knowledge in specific areas. Operating consultants are expected to be able to work independently, and may have an individual project or supervise a number of junior consultants. At this level, the consultant becomes involved in representing the firm to the client, attending meetings, and making presentations. Examples of the types of activity that an operating consultant might engage in are designing a management information system and determining requirements, then supervising staff consultants in implementation of the system; devising a long range strategic plan for a small business client; and preparing a preliminary report on companies that are potential takeover or merger candidates. The most important skills at this level are supervisory skills, communication skills (written and oral), and expertise in a technical area.

At the senior or management level a consultant's role focuses more on project management. The managing consultant is responsible for the administrative duties of planning, budgeting, and selecting staff for each engagement. He or she is also responsible for billing and fee collection as the engagement progresses. The managing consultant has a great deal of contact with the client's top management, and is primarily responsible for assessing client needs, preparing engagement proposals, and making formal presentations of results and recommendations. The managing consultant is also responsible for leading a number of consulting teams and assisting in the development of young professionals. At this level there is a shift away from technical skills and a focus on administration, personnel development, financial management, and organization development.

To reach the highest level in a large consulting firm (usually partner or principal), a consultant must show exemplary consulting skills and specialized knowledge. He or she must be a leader in an area of expertise. At the partner level, entrepreneurial skills become paramount. Partners are responsible for running the business of the firm, marketing its services, and generating consulting projects. As leaders in their fields, partners are also expected to be involved in professional associations and activities.

As in most organizations, the number of consultants at each level declines as one moves up the hierarchy. In a large firm there may be five to ten times as many junior consultants as partners. Some consultants spend their whole career at the operating level, but the majority either move up the hierarchy or out of the firm. The next section will discuss briefly those who leave.

Life After Consulting

Only a moderate proportion of those who start their career in professional consulting will make it their lifelong work. Many consultants leave before attaining the managerial or partner level to return to business or teaching, move into higher level line positions in their specialty industry, or start their own consulting practice. The relatively high salaries in consulting sometimes lead consultants to demand salaries that are higher than can be offered in line jobs. This, coupled with the level of skill and experience attained in relatively few years, makes the operating level a popular one at which to move out of consulting. The latter factor is also one of the reasons many people start their careers in consulting. The field offers diverse projects and a chance to develop technical and managerial skills in less time than it would take in most other industries or career areas. Management experts believe that the entrepreneurial world of consulting helps develop the psychological skills that senior line managers need, and the group project work teaches the selling of ideas and encourages risk taking. Consultants tend to take on the problems of huge corporations and test their ability to solve them under the supervision and coaching of senior professionals. Thus, consulting is considered a good entry level position for many industries.
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