Consulting: Jumping in the Deep End With Your Career
By Alicia W. Roberts
If you’re leaning toward a career in consulting, get ready for change – and lots of it.
And if change isn’t your thing, consulting might not be, either.
Bob Gallagher, co-founder of noted consulting firm Carlisle & Gallagher, offered a behind-the-scenes look at the consulting industry for School of Business students, alumni, faculty, staff and the business community at the WFU Charlotte Center during a September Lunch & Learn session.
Gallagher’s company has hired more than 40 graduates from the School in the past few years.
“If you’re interested in consulting or how to navigate your career in consulting, Bob’s the guy to talk to,” Charlotte Center Executive Director Todd Johnson said while introducing Gallagher.
But it’s not a career for everyone, Gallagher stressed.
“There are higher expectations on performance. You’ve got to go in and hustle every day,” he said. “When you’re working on projects, long hours are sometimes required, and travel is sometimes required.
“If change makes you nervous, consulting’s not your business.”
That’s exactly what first-year Charlotte Evening MBA student Andy Kerrigan wanted to hear. Working for Reynolds Consumer Products, which manufactures and markets the Reynolds Wrap and Hefty brands, Kerrigan said he has followed a consulting-like track in his career – from analyst to category management to sales.
“I’m interested in consulting, and this talk filled in some blanks,” he said. “His (Gallagher’s) notes on who would be suited to be a consultant … those were very interesting.”
Gallagher said there’s a lot to gain from going into consulting. Compensation is at or above market value. You get the chance to build a reputation and relationships across industries.
And it’s exciting.
“Because your customers are paying for the project, the work rarely is boring … because you have to get it done,” Gallagher said. “It’s collaborative. You collaborate with the customers, and you might even collaborate with a competing firm sometimes.”
So what does it take to succeed in consulting? Gallagher talked to what he considers the best consultants in Charlotte, and offered this list:
- Rapid skills development. “When you jump into the consulting business, you jump in the deep end,” he said.
- The ability to be humble but appropriately aggressive. “You’re paid to give an opinion” – so you better give one.
- A work hard/play hard personality. You’ll always be on a deadline, but you’ll never be without a drinking buddy.
- Specialization. It increases your market value. But Gallagher cautions you to “be awesome, and then be specialized.”
- Project and end-date driven. Be organized. Be driven to succeed.
- Motivated. “Be able to do the boring, hard, unglamorous stuff as a consultant. You got to get out there and get in done. As a leader, you got to do it without whining.”
He said he always looks for the possibilities for work, no matter where he is. When someone in a social setting starts unloading about how a project is “super screwed up,” he jumps on it.
“My next question is, do they have budget to fix it?” and they often say yes, he said. “Perfect, that’s what we want.”
Gallagher noted that consulting is a growth industry. Recent research shows that consulting represents upwards of $240 billion globally, and about half of that is in the United States. The industry charts about 5 percent annual growth.
From a personal perspective, Gallagher has worked as a consultant since 1988 – and said he can remember only two or three years when the company didn’t grow at all.
His advice for a recent graduate who has a little bit of experience and wants to get a foot in the door: “Use your network. Set out goals and start meeting a lot of people. … Set goals for both ‘meets’ and interviews. People want to help people.”
Gallagher also offered career management advice that applies to both consultants and those on the corporate track:
- Follow your strengths, because the market will recognize it. Your employers will recognize it. “If you work at your strength with passion, good things will happen.”
- Recognize your self-imposed roadblocks and manage them. If you want to have your career in a 50-mile radius, then that’s a limitation in a global economy, and in a national economy. “Being risk averse is highly risky behavior.”
- Accept praise, and don’t focus on what you can’t do.
- Think long-term and act long-term. Help other people. Professional networking – “it’s all meaningless unless you’re helping people.” (He notes that the reason he could start a consulting company after the dotcom bust was because he had a network.)
- Correlate your work to compensation. “Be. Do. Have. You never have to ask for a raise or promotion if you are correlating your work to compensation.”
What builds a career over time, he said, is expertise, a portfolio of work, relationships and a reputation for doing good work. Focus on those, and you’ll succeed.
Alicia W. Roberts is a freelance writer, editor and communicator, based in Charlotte, N.C.