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Should You Try To Be A Consultant?

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Let's be very clear on what we're talking about. We're not discussing the common resume cover-up of a gap between jobs with an entry that says "Self- employed Consultant," even though the writer didn't aggressively seek assignments, and didn't handle any worth mentioning. We're talking about actually trying to sell consulting engagements, with the intention of doing a fine job and, hopefully, building a lucrative practice.

Only if you really want to become a consultant, will your solicitations have any credibility. If you ask for an appointment to discuss consulting and then come in and try to wheedle your way onto the payroll, you'll have zero credibility - both as a consultant and as a potential employee.

So don't even consider the consulting option unless you:

  1. have expertise that would benefit clients;

  2. have the skills and personal characteristics to be a consultant; and

  3. are willing to accept the advantages and disadvantages of a consulting career.
We'll consider these three issues separately. Then if "all systems are go," we'll take a look at how trying to become a consultant not only won't encumber your search for a salaried position, but may in the end lead to the happy dilemma of self-employment and tempting on-payroll offers.

What expertise do you have that can lead to successful consulting engagements?

Almost every $100,000+...or $400,000+...executive has knowledge that could be valuable to clients. Analyzing problems and opportunities, and figuring out what actions to take, are what every executive does. Consulting merely applies those processes to someone else's problems.

However, the most successful consultants...especially individuals, in contrast to the huge generalist outfits like McKinsey, A. T. Kearney, Cresap McCormick & Paget, and Booz Allen & Hamilton...generally have a personal specialty, which they obviously know more about than a crew of MBAs from one of the giants.

To illustrate, here are four enormously successful individuals who now consult for a living, after leaving the payrolls of large corporations:
  1. Mr. W headed Marketing for one of America's leading magazine-publishing and direct-marketing companies. Deposed along with his boss, the Chief Operating Officer, in a political upheaval more than 25 years ago, Mr. W immediately offered himself as a consultant to all the other major print media and direct marketing companies. Then only in his 30s and already making an impressive mid-six-figure salary, he immediately earned more money consulting than he ever made on payroll... and his earnings have more than kept up with inflation Today he still works out of his home with no secretary and only voice mail to take his calls. Over all the years-and still today-many of his former competitors have been the consulting clients who support his handsome lifestyle.

  2. Mr. X was Chief Executive of a medium-sized public company (10-figure sales), which he led through a very successful decade of growth, both by internally generated new products and through acquisitions. Deposed by his Board, not for poor performance but allegedly for a drinking problem, Mr. X became a consultant to a competitive corporation with the sole mission of scouting small companies for acquisition. Operating on an annual retainer discountable against brokerage fees on the deals he arranged, for several later years he earned "double what I did as CEO."

  3. Ms. Y, a brilliant and widely traveled international marketing executive with one of America's largest corporations lost her job when the unit she worked for was divested and the acquirer already had someone in her role. Her global networking to find employment uncovered an opportunity to barter huge quantities of two basic commodities. "I knew lots of people all over the world," she says, "but nothing about bartering or about those products." She put her first deal together, "with wall-to-wall help from my friends." Now she makes her living (and what a living!) as "an international finder and trader."

  4. Mr. Z retired as a senior scientist with a major chemical company while still too youthful to become inactive. Today he helps foreign chemical companies avoid transgressing U.S. patents, and advises them on whether technology they have developed may be patentable in the U.S. He does no work that requires an expensive laboratory or a research staff. He merely draws on his personal expertise and the resources of a public patent library.
Notice that each of these successful consultants offers a personalized specialty. None is a jack-of-all-trades in competition with the large national consulting firms. What comparably special contribution could you make...and to whom? Only you can say. But here are some possibilities:

  1. CEOs and Division heads of companies in your field might value a "second opinion" on basic issues. Or they might welcome "take charge" handling of special projects.

  2. Perhaps there are companies in fields related to yours that should consider diversification into categories you know more about than they do.

  3. If you're from a large company, you may have sophistication that smaller firms can't afford to keep on payroll. Offer project assistance. Or perhaps several days per month on a continuing retainer.

  4. Foreign companies wanting to penetrate the U.S. market might need your help.

  5. Conversely, domestic companies might benefit from your international experience.

  6. If you're on the leading edge of any specialty, there are always "trailing" edge companies, who are potential clients.

  7. And all around us are Internet-related startups of all sorts that need experienced counsel and do not yet have enough capitalization to fill every key slot on the organization chart.

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Thomas B - ,
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