Great consultants rarely accept limitations. Great consultants are able to step into ambiguous, sometimes hostile situations and sense what changes need to be made. Great consultants are driven by ideas and a strong desire to have a positive impact on clients.

What makes a consultant unique is the ability to apply previously acquired knowledge to a new situation and to determine which of the many methods used beforehand is the best suited for the problem at hand. It is the difference between working by conditioned reflex and actually thinking about what you are doing and determining the most efficient means of achieving the objective.

Typically, you can't eat what a consultant sells. You can't drive it. You can't smell it. Although it usually ends up in the form of a report, the product usually delivered by a consultant is an idea, an insight, a suggestion, and a way of thinking. Ultimately, consulting firms are nothing more than repositories of pure intellectual capital. This means that their most important asset has to be the ability to use past intellectual capital and to generate new intellectual capital through rigorous thinking and careful research. This explains the frenzy to hire the best and the brightest of America's business schools. This intellectual focus of consulting is clearly important in deciding whether you would do well in the field. A great consultant has to be a great thinker with a passion for ideas. You need to be the type that does well in school and likes it. You need to enjoy problem-diagnosis, problem-framing and problem-solving.

If you find yourself struggling with the academic-side of business school, getting stuck on cases, disliking writing, but excelling along other dimensions (e.g. human interaction or entrepreneurialism) you probably should not be a consultant. You may very well get a job offer anyway. Firms may hire you opportunistically, knowing that they you can generate more value for them than you are being paid. But advancing and leading may be a different matter altogether.

Incidentally, some firms aren't nearly as pedigree-sensitive as people seem to think. Leaders of some of the most prominent firms in the consulting profession have made it with degrees from institutions far below the top-ranked schools. Pedigree can neither guarantee one success nor condemn one to failure. For that matter, the MBA degree itself need not be necessary. A number of firms are hiring persons with other degree backgrounds (e.g. law, engineering, public administration, medicine). McKinsey, in particular, has recently been aggressive in its pursuit of attorneys, PhD's and the like. Many undergraduate students enter consulting, often in two or three year programs that are expected to be followed by a stint at business school.

With all of the money being thrown around by the consulting firms these days, it can be easy to get into the profession for the wrong reasons. After all is said and done, consulting is a service profession and most firms screen carefully for commitment to others and ability to excel in meeting client needs. As a consultant you will always be working to help others. Your ability to serve clients will determine your success and the prospects of your employer.

While intangible, a personal commitment to excel in meeting the needs of your clients is vital to enjoying the profession. In a recent letter published by a seasoned consultant, they put it this way: "It is only through personal excellence that this profession becomes truly enjoyable. Those who demonstrate superior skills gain personal control early in their careers. These individuals are in such demand that, at any point in time, they have numerous options to choose from. They typically become engagement managers sooner, and tend to set the pace for their teams. Through their intellectual leadership they gain respect from the clients, the partners and their teammates.

In a business world where institutional loyalty is rare, the individual needs to excel and generate his or her own marketability. The result is that the institution needs the individual, not the reverse. Over the years, I have observed that unfriendly clients become attentive when listening to people of excellence because their contribution is unique. Those who achieve excellence feel great about themselves and are more likely to find the consulting experience a path to fulfillment. The financial rewards become window dressing and the high of the experience becomes the drug of first choice."

Consultants will often note that some of their most fulfilling relationships are with clients because he had built life-long, lasting partnerships with a number of clients through repeated contact and hard work. These relationships are what can make the long hours, stressful travel and corporate frustrations encountered by consultants worthwhile.

Consultants who enjoy talking to people do well. It's a field where the gregarious do well with their teammates and their clients. This isn't to say that you must be the ultimate extrovert, but you do have to connect. However you accomplish this, whether it is by charm, humor, listening or hard-work, it's vital that you enjoy, understand and communicate with clients. Consulting firm interviewers are looking for people that they'd like to work with themselves. It's only human.

So, it's an odd admixture in demand at the consulting firms. Smart, likable people who are good at helping others. Not necessarily a natural combination of abilities you might say. The screening process, of course, can vary widely and many firms are usually looking for unique traits.

Other characteristics in demand including understanding of specific business issues, a tolerance for ambiguity, tolerance for absolutely abusive hours, superb IT skills, personal appearance, the ability to work quickly in spreadsheets, logical thinking skills, writing skills, willingness to travel and ability with languages.

This is an excerpt from the book Consulting: A Job Or A Lifestyle – ISBN: 1598000640.


Dr. Uchil is an entrepreneur, business-owner and author embodying almost three decades of management and consulting experience. Prior to founding The Uchil Group and Uchil, LLC, Dr. Uchil spent over eighteen years in a variety of senior management roles at several large consulting organizations. In addition to his PhD in Business Administration Dr. Uchil also holds an MBA in Consulting Operations Management, a BSEE in Electrical Engineering and a Diploma in Electronics and Telecommunicati...

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