As in any other job, being good at the job is a process, not an outcome. Pursuit of the frontiers of the field, a focus on incorporating new ideas, relentless introspection and feedback, hard work, and constant improvement of technical skills will help you stay ahead.
Identifying and improving the necessary technical skills was the easy part. Merely recognizing what the other necessary skills were, like salesmanship, self-discipline, introspection, hard work, was harder, and it was hard to miss that I didn’t even have them.
Consulting is a lifestyle choice. This is not only when it comes to travel, although that is a significant portion of it. The consulting lifestyle revolves around the project lifecycle. It starts with the pitch and sale, moves onto research and analysis, and concludes with presentation and feedback and iteration — with different required skills in each portion of the cycle.
When extensive travel is required across multiple time zones, being good contains a physical, athletic aspect to it as well. Maintaining clarity of thought, focus, and polished communication skills when I am physically in a meeting with a client while my biological clock is deep in an REM cycle, is as physically demanding as being in minute 32 of an intensive Muay Thai workout.
There is another, longer cycle, which is the lifecycle of a consultant himself or herself. As an entry-level person, you are primarily engaged in research, analysis, report preparation. As you progress out of the back office (figuratively speaking) and into more of a client-facing role, you are called on to do more meetings, pitches, presentations, face-to-face communications with the client. Before you know it, your job is no longer research and analysis; it turns into that of a representative, salesman, and manager of the younger versions of you. As with the project-cycle, different skills are required at different points in the cycle.
There are several things about the nature of the job itself. First, a consultant is a paid outsider, so that no matter how convincing you are, nor how much you know, you have no inherent power to actually implement your ideas. Clients can and will ignore your advice. This can be demoralizing.
Another important thing about the nature of the job itself is that that you’re in the business of selling time — your time, which is finite. Consulting is the business of selling your capabilities to achieve a recommendation, insight, or strategy, which in itself is the product of human minds working in real-time. If that sounds vague, that’s because it is. And because what you’re selling is so undefined, there is naturally a huge variability to it, regarding both the actual product and your client’s expectations. Managing both of these things becomes a huge drain on resources and time. Clients will, almost as a rule, demand that you do anything and everything for them that they’ve seen you do, read about you doing, heard about you doing, and imagine that you can do.
Because of this variability (also known as customization), scaling a consulting practice is difficult. Consulting is the business of leasing a limited portion of human brainpower for a limited period of time to accomplish a task. Unless the human brains in your employ can be programmed to think faster and more effectively at the same time, increasing the productivity of the fundamental resource (brains) has natural limits.
But scaling can be done, and in order to do so, the metric that I find natural and easy to focus on is the implied professional fee that is being charged to the client. This can be done in almost any service industry: think about what you’re charging the client in terms of an implied per hour cost. Take your fee and divide it by the number of hours you or your people will work. Whether it is $100, $200, $500, $1000+, the principle is the same.
If you want to scale and grow, you need to ruthlessly outsource tasks that can be performed at an equivalent level to those with the lowest rate. If your rate is $500/hour, does it make sense for you to be doing document preparation or formatting that you can pay $15 to $20/hour for? Or even to be maintaining a model yourself? The argument to this is that by removing yourself from the work, the overall work will lose quality. As a thought experiment, does a film lose quality because a director is not doing the cinematography or acting himself? This is a big problem in small consulting companies where everyone is expected to do everything. My experience has suggested to me that this is immensely inefficient.
Merely going through this exercise will force you to develop systems, templates, methods, and training, which will increase the productivity of the entire team. Another issue at play here is the sheer economics of batch tasking and the costs of switching. Switching tasks incurs mental and thus temporal costs. Even if, theoretically, there were a ‘superstar’ consultant who could do each of 5 individual tasks at a superior rate than anyone else in the organization, this person may still be slower to complete the entire ‘set’ of tasks than 5 different people specializing in those tasks, because of the switching costs.
This is the kind of issue you deal with as you make the transition from entry-level positions to higher ones, and you’ll have to abandon old habits and gain new ones. This is the kind of struggle you experience at any professional services firm. Where you go from being a person who produces work, to the one who guides and oversees it, and then finally who ‘manages’ and sells it. You remove yourself from the work that you were originally hired to do, and you need to develop new skills to adapt.
It may very well be the case that you are content with the level of sales and work-to-reward ratio you are experiencing. Then none of this applies. But in a changing world, stagnation is by definition a regression. To even keep up, we must keep growing and optimizing.
More on people — who as brain-carriers, are a consulting firm’s primary asset, as the saying goes. Programmers talk about the 10x programmer, and to a certain extent I believe this is true of people in any service-oriented industry. Performance conforms to a distribution with fat tails on either end. 80% of the people are in the middle, which does not imply mediocre. It just means everyone is clustered there. Then there are the 1–5% who are outliers in either direction. Alternatively, if you think about the 80/20 rule, it is saying that a sufficing level of work, the 80%, is easy to achieve. This is the equivalent to getting a solid B in a bell-curve weighted class. I hated this system in college, by the way. But the 20% is the spread field, where you distinguish yourself from others. It’s a wide open field. 20% is the details, and this is where people differentiate themselves by adding more value than others.
Think of it this way. Say you hire a painter to paint your walls. Both cover the walls in paint, but one of them pays attention to the details. He covers your existing furniture, he pays attention to the finishes, making sure the edges and corners are perfect, nothing is smudged, no glue is on the ground, nothing has been broken, making sure there is absolutely no blemish anywhere, everywhere. Conscientiousness and care go a long way in differentiating yourself from the pack. To use a consulting example, at the analyst level, this would be someone who works faster and harder than others, builds new frameworks and approaches, even while paying attention to formatting and presentation, to typos, wording, someone who builds models that can be easily followed by others, someone who integrates frameworks located across different sources, someone who doesn’t hard-code inputs in Excel, etc.
All of the above is in the name of widening the gap between implied hours charged for, and hours actually worked. The other way to do this, obviously, is by increasing the number of implied hours charged for; i.e. charging more. The easiest thing to envision, in theory, is the hardest to pull off, and this is to develop a truly unique skill. A moat skill, a monopoly skill, one that no one else has. As in the story of the repairman and the hammer. When you develop a skill like this, you can charge whatever you want. But this is incredibly difficult to do.
The more realistic thing that can be done is develop a brand and a reputation for good work. A brand is something that does marketing for you even while you sleep. A brand helps you charge more for work of an equivalent quality, because in consulting, the hardest thing to realize is that people are not buying the service itself — they are buying the reassurance. This is why lawyers can get paid even when there is a risk of losing, and consultants can get paid when there is the clear possibility of finding nothing new. This relates back to the old saying that consultants are in the business of using the client’s watch and getting paid to tell them what time it is. But people hire them anyway.