Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Curious Crew

The day I learned that management consultants are expected to be eccentric and perhaps even a bit disheveled, I thought, "That's the job for me!"

Consultants, especially if they are outside the lofty, pinstriped realms of the Mega-Firms, are a pretty odd lot. Loners for the most part, they have a passion for some particular discipline that would drive a normal person to tears. That capacity for the narrow is their bread and butter.

The really good ones, however, know how to connect various disciplines and read sign with the savvy of an old grizzly tracker who can look at a bent leaf and tell the size, sex, and weight of the bear. This ability comes with the sort of experience that is not handed out with MBAs. The best consultants have seen a few things. They may sport a few scars as a result.

This strange mixture of specialization and general knowledge requires no small amount of preparation time. If the consultant, as the old joke goes, knows the right place to hit in order to get the machine running, it also helps if he or she knows how to deal with the people who are normally in charge of the machine and why some of them may regard the device as a threat, a nuisance, or a complete waste of time. The best consultants are partly psychologist/lawyer/historian/political scientist/dramatist/professor/auditor/analyst/commander.

The usual monster stories about consultants involve ones who never leave and who always seem to have another project in store to make themselves indispensible to the client and run up the bill. I venture to say that in most cases, those consultants come from the more traditional firms. Their desire for continued contact does not fit the standard loner consultant personality, which is somewhere between Boo Radley and The Man in the Iron Mask.

The eccentric consultants love their work but they aren't gladhanders who want to milk the client. Their view is quite the opposite. They want to fix problems while making the client as independent as possible.

After all, independent clients permit them to escape and devote more time to thinking. And that, in the world of the eccentric consultants, is a happy balance indeed.


pawnking said...

So, how does one become a consultant? I asked my father this question (himself a consultant), and he answered that it helped if you were recognized as an expert in your field. Which is great if you happen to actually be a recognized expert, but not so great if you're just really, really good at solving problems.

I guess I am saying I envy you, and want to know how my life can be more like yours.

Michael Wade said...


The consulting field is one of the most open in the world. As a result, it is enormously competitive. Get a telephone and some business cards and some people to pay you for what you know or can do and you're a consultant.

It helps to have a specialty that reduces the number of competitors while providing some marketing focus. The appeal of consultants is they take problems off of the client's desk and return with solutions. They do the work that many people either can't do or do not want to do.

The downside - and this may reduce any envy - is it requires a great deal of work and self-discipline, especially if you are self-employed. (I found law school to be helpful if only because it taught how to complete huge amounts of work in short periods of time. Other fields can be as helpful and are even more common.) You might want to consider your areas of expertise and then contact local consulting firms to see if they would be interested in farming out various projects in your specialty. Your father should be able to provide a lot of insight in that or similar strategies. Good luck!