By: Winston Mattis
On October 08, 2014 the newspaper Metro published an article titled: When a workplace needs some work. Under this banner, the author of the article Justin Mathews offers up an opinion that “A career in consulting provides a plethora of opportunities”.
Before asking readers to take a second to consider a career in consulting, the article starts out by saying that [t]he picture in consulting is a promising one, for a variety of reasons.” Justin Mathews advances these three reasons to substantiate his stated opinion: 1. You are in the fast lane; 2. Your work is diverse; 3. You’re well rewarded. Nowhere in the article are the downsides to a career in consulting explored. It is fair to say that the article paints a one-sided view of consulting as a career choice. The article certainly leaves the impression that consulting is a bed of roses. The article is written from the vantage point of a large consulting firm. it makes no distinction between a consultants attached to a large consulting enterprise such as Boston Consulting, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, smaller boutique consulting enterprise, fledging consulting enterprises, and the plethora of self employed persons who call themselves “consultant”.
It is true that a consultant employed at one of the big consulting firms may experience some, if not all of the perks identified in Justin Mathew’s article. After reading the one-sided article though, the following question came to mind. Is it professional irresponsibility for a journalist to present a one-sided view of a career?
Journalists are supposed to present a balanced view of the topic that they write about. One would have expected that the author would have presented the two sides of the story and then come to a conclusion substantiated by the facts upon which the article sits. No such thing occurred in this article. The net result is that job/career seekers, after reading Mr. Mathew’s article, and without more, are ill-informed at best, and misinformed at worst.
So, this article attempts to set the record straight and provide a bit more information for professional seeking to enter in the field of consulting. WINN starts by categorizing consulting outfits, before looking at the down sides of each of the three facts/factors Justin Mathew considers, and then delves into some further downsides of a career in consulting.
- Consulting Firms Categories
There are at least four categories of consulting firms in the market place. In the top tier of consulting firms are enterprises such as KPMG, PW, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, Boston, and outfits of that nature. These are internationally syndicated firms with large scale systems, a complicated structure and an even more complicated compensation system at the partnership level. Top tier consulting firms typically have large corporations and governments as clients. Many of the top tier consulting firms are full-service enterprises that started out as accountants and or auditors (Chartered Accountants, or Public Accounts). Typically top tier consulting firms have Fortune 500 corporations and governments as clients around the world. This type of consulting firm has hundreds of thousands of employees stationed in virtually every country around the world. Top tier consulting firms operate along a “specialist-generalist” continuum; provide a range of service to meet clients’ needs in a holistic way.
Boutique consulting firms specialize in a particular discipline. Boutique firms ostensibly brand themselves as have expert acumen in the selected discipline. Communications and media consulting firm as well as IT firms, among others, tend to offer specialized services. Successful boutique firms tend to have a more regional presence and are not as internationalized as top tier firms.
Fledging consulting firms are firms that are on the brink of closure. These firms, for one reason or another, are at a crossroads at which finding and maintain business is difficult. These enterprises may or may not have had a hay day, the good old days when business may have been booming. In some cases the firm takes a nose dive when its founder of key intelligence dies or otherwise leaves the firm. A variety of other reasons may have either caused or contributed to a downward spiral. For instance, the firm may have become entangled with a scandal, or its processes and or products have fallen out of vogue with its clients.
Self-employed consultants are simply that. These are people who call themselves a consultant, but who are somewhat of a hybrid of contract employee, and a freelancer. Certain fields are ripe for this type of consultant. Many “diversity management”, communication, consultants, lobbyists, conflict resolution and mediation consultants fall into this category. There are many other types of expertise that may fall into this last category.
As is immediately obvious, the nature of a consultant’s work experience will be dependent not only on the industry in which she or he works, but also the nature of the firm. Virtually everything else flows from this fact.
Tier one consulting firms can offer their employees a salary, with fringe benefits. Tier one consulting firms have the luxury of getting a fair amount of repeat business. Having access to their clients’ financial affairs bodes well for driving business to the other practice areas. Tier one consulting firms work off established models, standardized processes, and tools that are replicated from one client to another.
- Downsides of the Upside
Justin Mathews offers up three reasons to substantiate the opinion that consulting has a promising picture as a career. Here is the downside to each of the three reasons offered to substantiate the initial opinion:
- Downside of “You are in the fast lane”: At one of the spectrum are tier one consultants who frequently work in the fast lane performing “consulting work for the client. The fast lane translates into little rest. Consultants in large consulting firms have very little control over their time. In fact, they may be working on multiple projects at the same time. Burn out and social isolation are factors to consider. Living out of a suitcase for lengthy period is not a quality existence. Being away from family and friends often put a strain on social and romantic relationship. The disparity in career and business understanding between the client representative and the entry level consultant can at times result in confidence issues. Often times the recommendations of entry level consultants in tier-one firms are ignored, or otherwise discounted. At the other end of the spectrum are consultants who spend a lot of time writing and responding to proposals/request for proposals, or hunting down work. Chasing work is no fun. Constantly check Biddingo, MERX, or other such sites. Small and self-employed consultants spend an inordinate amount of time getting RFP, analyzing them, attending bidders’ conference and drafting proposals that tight timelines to finish the projects that they have are often characteristic.
- Downside Work diversity:
Diversity in work assignments is not always a feature of consulting work. Consultants in the financial, IT, diversity, communications, human resources, training and development, often perform the same type of work regardless of the sector in which the work is performed. Often times entry level consultants in tier-one consulting firms are doing grunge work. While consultants in tier-one consulting firms may at times be interfacing senior executives who are not at the same level of career development, the consultants are using instruments and model that they often do not understand and in some cases are inappropriate for the specific assignment and or the industry. The opportunity for tier-one consultant to tinker or amend the assessment instrument is frequently curtailed. At the other end of the spectrum, the free-lance, self-employed consultant, at times, spend an inordinate amount of time preparing and drafting instruments. The self employed consultant, arguably, has more opportunity to choose project diversity because she or he chooses the projects on which to bid. However, the self-employed, free-lancer, must be careful to ensure that s/he is not working on too many projects at the same time. While work diversity can and does help develop a consultant’s knowledge base, it can also result in confusion and steep learning curves.
One other consideration needs mention. Freelance and self employed-consultants sometimes organize an inter-disciplinary consulting team to bid on a project. While this model can and often does promote work diversity, it is a model ripe for interpersonal conflict and project risks.
- Great compensation
Justin Mathews cites $50,000 as great compensation for entry level compensation for a consultant. In large cities such as Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, etc. compensation of $50, 000 per annum barely allows a person to live and pays bills after taxes. While it is true that tier-one consulting firms may offer their employees fringe benefits, the hard dollars paid at the entry level when compared to the number of hours worked often negates the hard dollars compensation. Moreover, tier-one consulting firms operate on the principle of leverage. A tier-one consulting bills out a consultant at $300 an hour or more. Yet, that consultant gets paid only $50, 000 per annum. Let’s do the math, an entry level consultant for whom the firm bills for 2400 hours at $300 per hour earns the firm $720, 000 per annum, but make $50, 000, or less than ten per cent earned. You get the point. At the other end of the spectrum are self-employed and freelance consultants. Here, there is no certainty of income. Income earning level is best described as “hit and miss”. Further, the value of the projects on which self-employed and free-lance consultant work is typically less than those on which a tier-one consulting firms work. It is not uncommon for the budget for a project designed for a free-lancer to be less than ten percent of that on which a tier-one consulting firm works.
- Things to Consider about a career in consulting
Consulting work can be rewarding, particularly when a client successful implements recommendations that change an organizational system in positive ways. Yet, consulting is fertile ground for job dissatisfaction. Consulting to public sector clients is a completely different beast than with the private sector. Politics matters in the public sector and there are often political dimensions underlying virtually every project. Before jumping in both feet first into a consulting career, here are a few things you should know:
- Consultants are frequently fired from the assignment for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, the termination of a consulting assignment has nothing to do with the consultant, or the effective performance of the work. It is often the termination of a consulting assignment has more to do with budget, change in corporate direction, organization politics, change in the external environment, and in the public sector a change in government, or bad press. Termination of a consulting assignment may have significant consequences in terms of collecting for work already completed.
- The motive for appointing consultants to complete a project may not be evident until the end of the assignment. Corporate motives are not always stellar, or pure. In the public sector a project may be instituted simply to equip an executive branch of government with ammunition to counter expected criticisms from the opposition. In the private sector, the results of a project may be used to justify bad conduct that was not explicitly stated at the project initiation stage. A project’s hidden agenda may not become evident until after its conclusion and the consultant has reported.
- It is often the case that the organization appointing a consulting organization is less than clear on the goals of the project. Your troubles as a consultant may begin at the time you get notice that your proposal is the winning bid. In a situation such as this, the project may twist and turn in multiple directions and involve work not contemplated either in your proposal or the contract. However, depending on the financial state of the consulting firm, there may be pressures to continue on, even though the project became one from “hell”.
- Justin Mathew’s article makes is plain that a consultant‘s client is organized and “together”. At times, so much of what a consultant does is “baby sitting” the client. Loads of examples of conflicts within and or confusion within the client team responsible for executing the project as to render the consultant ineffective. Multi-disciplinary consulting team sometimes experience value and or functional conflicts that result in unethical behavior within the consulting team itself.
- Consultants are sometimes hired to clean up the mess left hanging by another consulting outfit. The clean up consulting team sometimes gets paid much less than the one that caused the problem in the first instance. In a small group of cases the clean up team becomes subject to ambush. Lastly, tier-one consulting firms are often very good at the macro-level of a project. However, some of them fall flat on the “nitty gritty” of implementation. The bifurcation of the consulting team responsible for project concept/model and project implementation sometimes result in difficulties that are irreconcilable.
- Consultants whose role include interviewing corporate staff and presenting a report on a particular issue frequently become disillusioned when the client starts to question the integrity of the findings. Few clients are forthright enough to suggest that the consultant made up the issues and trends reported. Instead, a more diplomatic approach might be taken to deliver the message that the issues, comments and general trends are not believed. What typically follows is the client requesting that the final report be “sanitized”. A client’s request to present a sanitized report that minimizes, or in extreme case misrepresent the findings create interesting ethical and other issues for the consultant or the consulting team. In the public sector, the request to sanitize is driven most frequently by the department’s understanding of the political climate and the extent to which the issue, or report, if leaked could cause embarrassment to the government of the day.
- Large consulting firms sometimes face ethical dilemmas that in some cases cross over into criminal conduct. Anderson consulting folded because of this kind of problem.
Now back to the original question, is it professional responsibility for a journalist to present a one-sided view of a career? WINN leaves the answer to this question to you. We hope though that we have provided additional information to leave a balanced impression of what it may be like to work as a consultant.