So, we are out to sell our knowledge in the development marketplace. Pause. Let us contemplate. As an aspiring consultant, we can be among the brightest and best consulting professionals in the world but without a strategic career plan, we still be deemed as captivating as the mediocre consultant with a strategic career plan.

A ‘Four Point Program’ is all that we need to succeed and enhance our consulting career.

Jack of all trades, Master of one

Let us start from the basic. Ask few questions to ourselves. What we are out to sell? What is our core competency? Answer to this question will lead us to take the stock of our existing knowledge base. Let us define the broad area of our core competency and identify the domains that form our existing knowledge base. For instance, when I started my career as consulting economist, I identified the broad area of my specialization as developmental consulting and domain specialization in sectors like Roads & Highways, Traffic & Transportation, Airports, Energy, Tourism and Socio-Economic Planning. Few other domain specializations like planning for Special Economic Zones came to me as a corollary to other domains of my expertise in the process of my career. Third step is to identify the functional classification of our domain expertise. Citing the same example as above, I got functional expertise in techno-economic & financial viability studies, market analyses & strategy formulation, project finance, risk analyses, privatization studies, socio-economic studies including poverty impact assessment, environment economics and sustainable development.

As a consulting professional in development sector, we will be required to work with multidisciplinary teams of professionals. In order to groom within ourselves a true team spirit, we need to know the basics of the other team members’ core specialization.

Self updating – A Mantra to remain Competitive

Our existing knowledge base can be classified in two categories – one, in which we are competent enough and; two, we need extra effort to be competent.

In both the cases, we need to be regular in updating our knowledge base by identifying relevant, time saving and cost effective sources of information and digesting the knowledge. My experience is that a continuous effort in this direction pays big dividends in terms of strengthened conceptualization and problem solving capabilities.

Selecting right organization to work with

David H. Maister in his book ‘Managing the Professional Services Firm’ defines three types of organizations corresponding to three kinds of client work. These are : Brains, Grey Hair, and Procedure specialized.

In the first type (Brains), client’s problem is at the forefront of professional or technical knowledge, or at least is of extreme complexity. The key elements of this type of professional service are creativity, innovation, and the pioneering of new approaches, concepts or techniques : in effect, new solutions to new problems. Brain projects usually involve highly skilled and highly paid professionals because few procedures are routinizable and each project is ‘one-off’. In essence, the selling mantra of organizations dealing in such assignments is ,”Hire us because we’re smart”.

Grey Hair projects, while they may require a highly customized output in meeting clients’ needs, involve a lesser degree of innovation and creativity in the actual performance of the work than would a Brain project. Selling mantra of organization for such projects is, “Hire us because we have been through this before; we have practice at solving this type of problems”.

The third type of projects, the procedure projects, usually involves a well-recognized and familiar type of problem. The client may have the ability and resources to perform the work itself, but turns to the professional firm because the firm can perform the services more efficiently with lesser cost. In essence, the professional firm is selling its procedures, its efficiency, its availability: “Hire us because we know how to do this and can deliver it effectively”.

As a professional, we can chose out of these three types of organizations to work with. Their organizational chart and career progression will follow the nature of projects they are in. For Brain based projects, ratio of junior staff to middle level and senior staff tends to be low. On the other hand, this ratio tends to be higher for Grey Hair and Procedure based projects. As per Maister, these are the only basic hierarchies in consulting organizations.

Seniors use to be responsible for marketing and client relations, middle level staff for day-to day supervision and coordination of projects and juniors for many technical tasks like data analysis to complete the study.

The above discussion also indicates towards the connection between a firm’s leverage (its ratio of junior to senior professional staff) and its man power planning and promotion policies etc. Naturally, in the organizations where ratio of junior to senior staff is high like Grey Haired and Procedure based businesses, chances for junior staff to get promoted to middle and senior level are lesser because of large number of juniors competing for a few higher level slots.

The guiding principle for a professionally run firm in the people market place is the proposition that ‘People do not join professional services firms for jobs, but for careers’. The ratio of junior to senior staff is primarily determined by the mix of client work, and crucially determines the career paths that the firm can offer. While the pace of career progression may not be rigid one, but promotion from junior to middle level is must after 4-5 years of a junior professional’s beginning with the firm. Individuals who are not promoted within the period will seek greener pastures elsewhere. In fact, such promotional system serves an essential screening function for the firm. Professionally run firms should help there staff, whom it can not promote, to find better jobs in the market instead of killing their careers by forcing them to stick to it. Such a professionally ethical and proactive approach keeps the manpower motivated and professionals leaving the organization will help in enhancing the reputation of the firm by positive words of mouth.

The worst scenario happens when a firm has no well structured performance based promotion policy but a tradition of lateral entries and imbalanced manpower planning. In such cases junior staff that performs the basic technical tasks looses moral and motivation to work resulting in poor quality output and thus detrimental to the firm’s business interests in the long run.

As an aspiring consultant, before joining an organization we need to analyze the nature of projects this organization is doing, its organizational structure and promotion policies.

Generating self brand equity

Last but not the least, creation of self brand equity in the market is must. It builds by managing the clients professionally to their full satisfaction, networking with fellow professionals, writing and publishing articles/papers, attending and giving seminars, taking membership of professional bodies etc. etc.

In this context, writing and publishing in our area of specialization makes people automatically perceive us as an even greater specialized. We may think that how time consuming is to write and get published but the rewards are more than proportional.

The choice to a swift and yielding career is ours!