Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Everything I know I learned in Consulting

Consulting is not just a job, it is a lifestyle. Not everyone can handle the travel, the constant threat of a project change, the need to be a jack-of-all-trades or the world expert on one topic, the difficulty maintaining relationships with non-consultant friends and working to death for a company you hold no allegiances to. There is a bond of survival; a brother and sisterhood between consultants that few experience. Although no longer a part of the consulting inner circle, I will always carry with me the important lessons I learned in my 7 years as a Management and IT Consultant.
The top ten things I learned being a consultant:

Fake it ‘till you make it: On any given day, a consultant can be thrown into a new situation, asked to deliver something they have never done before, turn it around in record time and ensure it is worthy of awards and accolades; all while making the client think you are the resident expert. It is amazing how much you can learn when in a pressure cooker environment and how that ability translates into every aspect of life.

Solo adventure: There are times when you are surrounded by people, working late with a team, going out to dinner, enjoying a very social environment with work friends and acquaintances. More often than not, the life of a traveling consultant is very solitary. Many nights are spent at work late because there is no place else to go or ordering room service to avoid the stares a person sitting alone inevitably gets at restaurants. To truly survive the lonely nights, it becomes necessary to learn how to eat alone at a restaurant, belly up at a bar by yourself, or see a movie or ballgame without friends. Prior to consulting, I lived in a dorm and before that, I lived at home with my parents, two sisters, 3 dogs and revolving door of friends and family. Alone was a foreign concept. After years of solo dining, drinking and vacationing, I now crave alone time when unable to get it.

Nevereverlost… again: When it is possible to wake up in a new city each day, it is important to get your bearings fast. While the modern traveler relies on a GPS system, those of us “old-school” travelers had to prepare for new cities with pre-printed directions. Since those were often forgotten on the printer or misplaced, relying on the ability to read signs, maps, stars and traffic patters would inevitably get you to the right spot… eventually. Moments of personal misplacement led to incredible lessons in US geography… after a while, you can figure out a city in no time.

The Latest and Greatest: To use a buzzphrase, consultants are expected to be on the “bleeding edge” of technology. Whatever the next thing is in programming language, software, computer equipment and phones, consultants are expected to know it. Being ahead of the technology curve is much more lucrative than any other career choice I had with a political science degree.

One roller bag and a laptop: Checking luggage is more painful than a root canal, especially when repeated weekly. To avoid wearing the same outfit for 3 straight days or needing to replace a missing wardrobe, it is necessary to pack everything needed for a week in cabin approved luggage. True veterans of travel can employ the same light packing techniques in any travel situation. Non-trained eyes sneer at these roller bags in disgust wondering why they are not checked, travel professionals know one bag is all the person has in the world for a week of work.

Airport Aerobics: Moving the one roller bag and a laptop through the airport is a skill in and of itself. The workout is like aerobics, but the beauty is like rhythmic gymnastics with a bag rather than ribbons and balls. The way a business traveler dances through security, weaves in and out crowds of people and levitates luggage into the overhead compartment all while carrying a cup of starbucks and a newspaper is nothing short of artistic.

How to order wine (and scotch): I started consulting right out of college. The extent of my wine knowledge revolved around the fruity flavors of Boones and I related scotch to old curmudgeons at a country club. With entertaining clients and dining with partners on a regular basis, it became apparent that wine and scotch was another area where an expertise needed development. I started understanding vintages, grapes, regions and casks to ensure I never messed up an order. When a glass was presented, I knew how to swirl, sniff and taste; when a bottle stayed or got sent back. If a study were done on the concentration of wine snobs in their early to mid-twenties, the consulting industry would lead the pack.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: In work, as in life, there is always too much to do. The key to surviving a world where to-do lists only get longer and it is impossible to get everything done is triaging priorities. This lesson is one that continues to let me maintain a social life; understanding what has to get done and what tasks get killed because no one will remember they asked you to do it in a few days.

It’s who you know AND what you know: The old adage of “it’s not what you know, is who you know” is only half right. It is definitely who you know, and maintaining employment in an industry that focuses on billable hours as much as law requires a full address book of contacts ready to help you find your next project. However, all the business cards in the world mean nothing if you are totally incapable of getting the job done. Any good leader will tell you that the number one secret to their success is surrounding themselves by good people.

It’s a Small World After All: Whether in Shamburg, Illinois or Luxembourg City, the most important thing to learn working in different cities around the world, in varying industries and diverse departments is how alike we all are at the very core. Cultures are different, job responsibilities vary, but we are all inherently looking for the same things in life; a stable income, a strong family, love and friendship. Going into every situation understanding the similarities we all share is key to developing long lasting bonds with people in all walks of life.


Husband said...

Your "Don't sweat the small stuff" item is dead on. I see people at my current job working so much harder than I do, yet I get awards and appreciation, and I leave before 5 most days. My consulting background has given me the ability to focus on the pieces of work that matter most, matter a little, and what can totally fall off the table.

Drew said...

RE: Neverlost
Have you developed the skill of sniffing out an Irish bar in any random city you find yourself in like Toucan Sam can sniff out a bowl of Fruit Loops?