Management Consultant Mike Eldon

The exciting but uncertain life of a consultant

In my last column I reflected on how I go about producing my regular articles for this paper, and while the thought of writing that piece was still only in my mind I found myself in conversation with a senior HR manager who envied me my life as a management consultant. She wanted to make a bigger and more varied contribution to organisational development than she thought was possible within the confines of a single institution, and so she was curious to know more about the world of consulting, where you are exposed to multiple environments and, she reckoned, you are taken more seriously.

As I listened to my instant analysis of the joys and frustrations of my profession, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to share my thoughts more broadly with Business Daily readers. So here goes.

First, let me readily admit that I love what I do, working with a wonderful variety of clients, from large corporates to family firms, from ministries and parastatals to NGOs and donors. I learn so much from each assignment, and the people with whom I interact are almost without exception as bright as they are friendly and respectful. (Perhaps because I find it’s typically those who are already strong and doing well who reach out for ways of becoming yet more successful.)

But as this comfortably salaried lady heard me talk, she realised that a consultant’s life is far from an unadulterated bed of roses. “How do I get into that world?” she started by asking, knowing it is not a straightforward question to answer. I remember that when I decided to reinvent myself as a consultant after decades of being – and being known as – a full-time IT executive, it took easily a year and a half before the market came to appreciate the reality of the new me.

Sure I had accumulated lots of experience and an interesting network of contacts, senior people who were aware of “Brand Eldon”. But in a very different context. So the challenge was to land the first assignments, the ones that would show I could perform in my transformed role. As I look back on those early days now I realise that my career in the tough IT vendoring environment actually prepared me extremely well for my third-age reincarnation. For trying to get organisations to apply the disciplined approach needed for effective automation, with its attendant inconvenient consequences of transparency and accountability, is essentially all about change management. It took some time before the penny dropped, but when it did it allowed me to feel comfortable labeling myself as the change management expert I appreciated I actually was.

As our conversation continued I turned to the perpetual uncertainty in which we consultants exist, seldom knowing which potential assignments will materialise and when. A sure bet will disappear; another will be postponed – or occasionally brought forward; and a good number will threaten to clash with an existing commitment, or at least a likely one. Of course I go on the basis of first-come first-served, but this principled approach is really painful when a more tantalising offer comes up later. Happily, it is also not uncommon for the earlier less exciting assignment to be moved or to disappear, allowing my preferred choice to be indulged.

Sometimes a month that looks to be highly booked appears increasingly barren… only later to benefit from fortuitous last-minute calls for my time. At other times I’m scrambling from one intensive assignment to the next with barely a moment to breathe, never mind to prepare adequately or write the reports I am typically required to do following an engagement. So early mornings, late nights and messed up weekends at the laptop are more normal than unusual.

We consultants only get paid for the days we work on an assignment, and for salaried folk this is an alien concept. It’s why when we quote our daily rate clients often express shock (maybe genuine, maybe feigned) at how high the figure is.

And here’s another aspect I have to come to terms with. Much of my life is spent facilitating strategic planning retreats for senior management and board teams, hosted at the nicest hotels and lodges in the country. Often, participants will have come from far away to attend, maybe by plane and probably at great cost. So it never ceases to amaze me that having spent so much money on transport, per diems and the venue, when it comes to consultant remuneration clients can inform us with a straight face that only a “limited budget” is available for our fees. How odd, when it is largely how we perform that determines the success or otherwise of the event.

A further point: with rare exceptions, consultants must do their own marketing and selling, their own proposal writing, and their own billing and debt collecting. None of this time is payable, and most of us act as our own PAs. (No bodyguards or drivers either!)

Then, when we try to interest a client in more of our services, some accuse us of only doing so in order to generate more fees. It’s as though we should feel guilty about suggesting further ways of adding value, building on what we have learned about the client and on what we have previously contributed to them.

Having said all this, I return to where I started: I thoroughly enjoy the work I do. All of it – often leading me to regret not having reinvented myself sooner. But then I tell myself that I needed to experience every moment of my earlier turbulent existence, to have acquired all those scars of battle, in the absence of which I couldn’t begin to do what I do now.

Where did these reflections leave my friend the HR manager? Deep in thought, having gained a fuller appreciation of the exciting yet volatile environment in which we consultants operate.

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