Some Thoughts on a Consulting Career-October 26, 2015

The author Dr. Richard A. Michelfelder is a Clinical Associate Professor of Finance. The article aims to bring to light a career as a consultant and to guide those interested towards a career in consulting.

I have been a consultant to governments, investor-owned, and non-profit organizations for over almost 32 years now, mainly to electric, gas, water /sewer and telecommunications public utilities worldwide, sometimes full-time, including being a CEO/Board Chair of a moderately large firm in Berkeley, California before coming to Rutgers, and sometimes (and now obviously) part-time. Consulting is extremely rewarding. First of all, it is usually fun. You obtain experience and networks from many companies in a short period of time and work with and are exposed to the top management at a firm. You are able to have substantial influence on the future of large organizations. It is also lucrative as firms are willing to pay a large premium for expertise that they do not have nor can easily hire full-time. Consulting is very fast paced, involves lots of travel, working late and weekends, being “fast on one’s feet”, multi-tasking, and being personally very efficient in time management. Although usually exhilarating, it can also be very stressful at times. You usually have little time to do very tedious, careful, and thorough analysis that always needs to be explained and sometimes defended, and may be contested in a highly litigated court setting when you function as an expert witness. This happens often in the public utility arena as these organizations are regulated as they are natural monopolies. Your work will have to stand the test and run the gauntlet of adversarial scrutiny. You have to be emotionally prepared for, and not take personal, criticisms of your work product as it will never be perfect, robust yes, but never perfect. If you follow in these footsteps, remember, when it feels personal, “it’s just business.” If you have “thin-skin” and can’t evolve to be thick-skinned,” this is not a career for you.  

I am frequently asked how someone becomes a consultant. A consultant can be a “hired hand” that has a skillset, although at the outset not necessarily very specialized, that the company does not want, need, or cannot hire full-time, such as human resources training or developing a revenue/sales forecasting model at a firm. Some that do this disparagingly call it “gig” employment, going from project-to-project because they cannot find a full-time job, where they believe that they can avoid business risk by letting someone else take the risk. If someone aspires to having a full-time employer, and can only find project work, you could look at it positively from an entrepreneurial perspective and develop a business plan to guide your business, as obviously there is a demand for your skills. As you evolve, you develop highly specialized skill sets, models, data and insights that become highly valued in the market. The most successful (most fun, least competition, highest fees, stability of work backlog) and lucrative consulting is when someone or a firm offers specialized knowledge, analysis, and information that is simply not available elsewhere. Remember, though, that you will always have a “boss.” A consultant has many bosses; they are your clients. That does not mean they are always right like some perceive is the approach to customers; in many cases they are wrong and don’t want to hear you, but you must deliver the message anyway.

You will start out offering more generic skills at the outset of your career and should evolve into developing the more valuable specific expertise(s). The fastest way into a consulting career is usually done by starting employment at a firm within an industry of interest or working from the start at a consulting firm that helps you to develop highly-valued specialized skill sets. I have done both, leading up to running my own firm that employed up to 100 people before coming to Rutgers and now I do occasional personal engagements (carefully chosen “gigs”) that are well-integrated with my research, teaching and service activities here at Rutgers School of Business – Camden. I also occasionally have a student perform academic research in these arenas and have placed students in the employ of my networks in consulting and related public utility industries. If you want an exciting, fast paced, dynamic and fun environment, then consulting may be for you. Just be careful of what you wish for. You just may get it!

Posted by Kadeem Williams on October 28, 2015