The Successful Consulting Series is a set of articles that are being written to both, help decisions on joining the consulting field and also, help existing consultants in their professional development initiatives. Please visit, “Successful Consulting Series” for a full listing of each part in this series.

Something that has stuck with me after talking to Matt Kestian, General Manager of BlueMetal in Chicago, is the concept of hiring and the important factors that lead to not only a successful team member, but a successful team.  Matt explained the concept of hiring into a level that is needed to be successful in the form that skills can be added, gained, and earned with hard work by working with any consultant or employee.  What cannot be taught are the will, ambition and putting energy that are needed into your position to be successful, competitive, and embedded deeply into a highly performing team.  That advice and explanation will stay with me for years to come when both training and discussing success in consulting.

Building a Path

Being a successful consultant lends itself to much more than success in a singular format.  Being successful means to fully grasp your career in consulting in terms of how you can make each stage of growth successful.  In this part of the successful consulting series, we’re going to touch on the broader scope of success and how it relates to your overall career in consulting.

As with all the successful consulting articles, each can be applied easily to other areas of employment or career paths.  You can fully utilize any actions or levels that can help you gauge and plan your own career path from this article as much for say, fulltime employment or even management roles.

In consulting in particular, there are three major milestones we can achieve in a career path.  The titles are not truly the goals to be met as titles change from consulting practices to other practices.  What we can do is utilize them in a staged approach and relate them directly to the level your goals should be set on.  For this, we’ll look at one typical structure: Consultant, Architect and Principal Architect.  We will touch on what makes each stage unique, plan for what we need in terms of experience and skills, as well as discuss how we can better form goals to follow and self-appraisals to ensure we meet what we, consultants, think we should do to move to the next stage.

Three Stages of Consultants

Consultant

A consultant is both a highly skilled position in some form of technical aptitude and an entry level position into consulting.  Consulting has many aspects: how we need to tune our skills and the manner in which we handle projects, clients and sales.  In the consultant level, these areas are skills that are gained and finely tuned over a period of time.  It is important to note that, a consultant title does not mean they are of lesser skills than other consulting titles or levels.  Consultants may be coming from fulltime employment or require exposure to the consulting field and more situations and environments in order to gain the knowledge to fully prepare for other clients and opportunities.  This is also an extremely critical team building stage.  Teams in normal fulltime employment structures act in a few different dynamics than consulting teams.  Consulting team dynamics involve a complete reliance on the team from experience to skills.  Time is based in hours and money.  Given this major factor in consulting, team dynamics are finely tuned to meet these aspects.  Consultants are provided the opportunity to build these major skills at this point.

While some skills may be highly tuned already, other skills may require building.  The nature of working in a non-consulting environment is limited exposure to technology differences or architectures.  We can only learn so much from building blocks we do on personal labs or training sessions.  True exposure to production level architectural differences in many companies provides a dynamic skill that is not only hard to obtain, but critical to building future successful architectural designs and infrastructures.

As a consultant, effectively presenting yourself as a consultant is also learned.  The ability to estimate work, design and understand areas that are of great concern as a consultant are built.  For example, as a fulltime employee in the role of a data architect working on a new application design, the actual coding aspects of the application may be sent to another area of the IT group.  While you are only required to project a loosely gauged timeframe for designing and building hardware, database engine requirements and possibly a database design, the other aspects of the overall project become of little concern.  In consulting, you would start to pull in the needs of each part of the overall project.  This would include coding practices, technologies on each layer of the architecture of the project and how they all affect the process, from start to end.

Architect

In the role of an architect in consulting, an individual has fully grasped the concepts of consulting.  This includes a vision of overall system needs and knowledge of each layer and how it affects or requires alterations to each aspect of an architectural design.  For example, take the following statement, “We need a human resources application that our employees can utilize freely and securely from any type of device in order to input insurance and other change forms, surveys and requests.”

An architect in consulting would look at the statement above and would start envisioning a process internally in his mind.  This includes all the architectural fields in consulting.  This is not restrictive to data architecture.  Reading the statement, building blocks start to form.  Objects and areas of manipulation and surface configurations come to mind.  What makes the source, the destination, the path from point A to point B?  How does communication form and retain stability? Will this be stored internally or will securing a cloud source be functionally and architecturally sound?  Estimation starts to build while focus begins to draw to the area that the architect is being set in charge of.  That estimation takes each stage and each architectural aspect of the overall system into consideration.  At this point, an architect envisions a system.  That system is probably fictitious, but a well-formed process and structure that allows for a plan, design and envisioning session with all the key architects or consultants in place.

Having a thought process like this isn’t a trained skill but one that comes from experience, both failures and successes.  An architect holds back based on the failures and uncertainties that they know should be researched in-depth first.  An architect also opens their minds and exposes themselves to the concepts others may or may not be considering.

Taking all of this into account, the documented definition of enterprise architecture directly relates and we can see how an architect must think, act, react and process a total solution in consulting terms.  For example, look at the Wikipedia.org definition of Enterprise ArchitectureEnterprise architecture (EA) is the process of translating business vision and strategy into effective enterprise change by creating, communicating and improving the key requirements, principles and models that describe the enterprise’s future state and enable its evolution.

Reading this definition is precisely how an architect processes building blocks.  In consulting, those building blocks compound with estimation, design implications of other areas, teams, consultants and so forth.

As we can see, architect is a major stage in a consulting career path. This stage should be an ultimate goal and a stage anyone can obtain while taking what Matt Kestian said from the first paragraph about what is a critical nature to have in a consultant or team.  While accumulating experience and skills from mentors and other architects, this stage can and will be obtained by any consultant that works hard to meet it.

Principal Architect

A principal architect or consultant starts to form paths leading into key strategic areas of the business.  It is very common to follow the stage of principal in terms of a technical based practice or practice that spawns to sales and building the overall practices that compose the consulting business itself.  At this point, skills are extremely tuned but, more importantly, the business and how we drive and build it is a fundamental key to how a principal grows and meets the expectations.

In the architect role, we’ve seen the processing and expectations that go into being successful.  With the principal stage, architecture branches processing into new areas of improvement.  Sales and competition start to play a large role.  Principal level consultants seek new goals in the form of projects and clients.  This can be from exposing projects to other key business entities in an existing client, or by branching out in the technical community, speaking and exposing the consulting practice and skills it holds to new and potential clients.

In short, a principal consultant or architect envisions growth while maintaining an extremely high level of architecture.  Reputation is a key aspect to this while leading to training other consultants and architects, giving exposure to the consulting practice during speaking engagements and overall, building a presence which the consulting practice can rely on and utilize as a stable resource to build business.

Setting goals, building and meeting each stage in consulting

In any career path, goals must be set in order to obtain or meet the requirements of each stage.  This is as prevalent in consulting as any field or career path.  There is one exception that is important in consulting that may not be as easily obtained in other careers – exposure.

Consulting can and at times will be a lonely path. Consultants all have periods of time that they are set out on their own, to lead a project, build client relations or work on small teams.  This separation from the managerial or practice leads (principal architects) of the consulting practice can have an impact on how we move to the next stage.  As stated earlier, all careers relate to almost everything we’ve discussed and this will be no exception.  However, this is even more critical in consulting for the reasons of separation than it may be in other careers.  Simply asked, “How do we promote through the stages in this career path if separation and exposure of our work is not seen?”

Now, before moving on, separation and the fact work is gone unnoticed is a failure on part of the consulting practice itself.  Not all practices are like this. However, it is a truth in consulting nonetheless.

Everyone should make an effort to put value and placement of themselves in the stage they are currently in.  This involves self-appraisal beyond a form required by a review process.  Take the following example of placing an architect and meeting the needs of potentially moving to the stage of principal. This outline is a segment of a self-appraisal that is performed every six months.  This is done with one primary objective; determine if personal growth and expectations are being met.

 

Skills

  1. Highly tuned
    • Skills assessments
    • Exposure and skills obtained out of practice fulfilling success
  2. Overall visualization and requirements of all areas needed in architectural design
    • Met by <successful experiences added
    • Client success additional details
  3. Pulling skills and providing training to others
    • Community speaking
    • Training internally within the practice
    • Certifications or awards obtain
    • Authoring

Business Exposure and Growth

  1. Found key clients
    • Client successfully signed details

Internal growth and mentoring

  1. Mentoring provided
    • Key consultants mentored for building consulting skills internally to the practice

Salary value

  1. Place the value of what you’ve built on the salary expectations in consulting

Past growth rates

  1. Stages achieved
    • Years, months…promotional aspects and the rate that growth has taken

 

As consultants, we should never rely only on what is noticed or observed in a review process.  Review processes are critical but need to be coupled with internal reviews and self-appraisal and value placement based on the consultant and the practice’s review process to allow both parties to understand where and how each stage can be achieved.

Summary

Starting a career in consulting can lead to many paths.  The three stage career path outlined in this article portrays a common one.  While not focusing on titles but the stages of a career, placing personal value and where you fit in the stages and pulling that together with the practices expectations, consultants will move through the path gaining the skills needed to be successful.  Putting the will and the ambition to meet these goals in will quickly prove to a consultant that skills and highly tuned architectural abilities will come naturally and fall into place.