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.
In this article of the Successful Consulting Series, we’re going to discuss the process of interviewing for a consultant position. As with many of the other articles in this series, there is still much value that can be taken and related to fulltime employment and other positions or careers. The basis of this article will go over the interview process, questions to think about prior and be prepared for, and managing an interview as it relates to employment for a consulting firm or company that consists of a technology based consulting services offering.
Who is interviewing who?
One of the most critical aspects to an interview is the fact that the interviewee should be as much part of it as the interviewer and vice versa. This is as much, if not more, important in consulting positions. Every consulting position and company has unique key values and cons that need to be ascertained prior to making any level of decision of accepting a position. Aside from researching a potential consulting company, the hours you have with the individual(s) you’ve been allotted the time to talk to is the time you have to gain the knowledge to find the answers required to place value and cons into the possible future relationship. Employment is a relationship between a consultant and a company. The value of the relationship is the first question that needs to be answered. Will this relationship be stable? Will the relationship retain longevity? Will the relationship cause a stressful situation in team, one-on-one or client basis?
Employment is a Relationship
There should be a great deal of time and energy spent on determining if the relationship between you and the potential consulting position, company and team will last. Draw on several areas to determine this.
- Skills in-house that complement your own
- Including sales, client relations and technical skills
- Confidence that you can relate to and work with the team
- Can you have a discussion on a level field with team members?
- Can you and management retain the same relationship?
- Determine if the company respects and stands by their consultants
- Respect, initiative and pursuit (Work Ethics) as they relate to a company’s employees
Determining these key answers can be difficult but not impossible. There are not many interviews that consist of being questioned for the complete time allocated without time left for you to interview the company or team members. If this time is not allowed or feasible, this could be the first sign that the relationship may not be fundamentally stable. This can be shown given time that the employer has taken for both management and team members to go through an interview with you. If this time is rocky, with many interruptions or being cut short, that may indicate there is little value in the team dynamics over other things. Team dynamics and how they function in a well-rounded group can be critical to overall success. One or two team members can cripple a successful team. This can be even more dramatic in terms of failure when the company forces situations that allow for something as important as the little time to determine if a person is a right fit for the company and team or if the company and team is a right fit for the person. Again, this should be taken seriously and not ignored or set aside if it seems apparent as an issue.
Team Dynamics and Value
Outside of independent consulting, a team is as important to success for consulting as skills. Determining if a team meets the same presentation, skills and direction that you have and want should be sought after during the interview(s). One thing that may seem trivial or missed during an interview process is interviews with the team members you potentially could be placed with. When the initial discussion is initiated between a potential consultant and an employer, part of that conversation should consists of you, the potential consultant, requesting to meet the team. This can be done in several ways. Lunch with the team is an extremely effective method as well as individual or team interviews. If this is not possible due to the team being client located or geographically spread across distances, attempt to make time for each or for a group conference call. The goal is, determining if there is a fit in the already-built team dynamics for you. You should also be able to determine if the team is functioning well as it is built at that time. Some questions that can be taken from this and also answered can be:
- Does the team work well together?
- Is there an apparent poor presentation of the team as a whole?
- Most importantly: Do you fit in the team in several ways?
- Your attitude towards work meeting theirs
- Your initiative and other work ethics
- Your experience fits with the others
- Is there a comfort level built in the short time
Several other answers and possibly more questions will come from the time spent interviewing or meeting with the team. Ensure that all of these answers are satisfied before making a decision. Remember, the potential consultant is interviewing the company as much as vice versa.
Do you have any questions?
With almost all interviews, the interview ends with the interviewer asking, “Do you have any questions for me?“ Take full advantage of this question. A question that can be extremely effective is, “How do you like it here – the people, the team, the success of the business and overall, your feel for the company being a success story?”
Although this seems like a loaded question it can bring out details on how each person that is presented with the question replies to it. If the interview is in person, pay close attention to the demeanor of them when this is asked. This can tell you if the question has made the interviewer or team member uncomfortable which leads to a negative feeling towards the company. Body language can be as effective in answering important questions as the verbal answer.
What questions to expect?
More often than not, before a person goes into an interview, they search what common questions would be asked and what would be potentially effective answers. Although this is an acceptable method for something such as a technical interview, it doesn’t work as well for other types of interviews. The reason this may work against a person is the fact that all people interview differently and ask a various amount of questions. Consulting goes about the same and in some cases, more in-depth lines of questioning that can vary greatly based on the interviewer, level of interviewer and skills the interviewer based on how many interview processes they have been through. Although this is a major factor, we can put basic lines of questioning into the same career path stages discussed in an earlier article and base the tempo and level of questions on each.
Note: Examples are examples and should not be the only preparation or skill consumed for an interview process. The means and goal of this article should be, take away a concept or method in which you should form for your own specific manner in which you either interview or be an interviewer.
Interviewing for each stage – Starting out
Interviewing for a consultant position or entry level consulting position can be the most challenging. If a person has little knowledge of consulting, this could be potentially a point of stress leading up to or during an interview. One aspect to interviewing a potential consultant is finding a stress point or fracture point in which the person has. This is important! As a consultant, stress may be compounded and higher than many other positions in fulltime employment. This is the nature of consulting in time and workload expectations. Work ethics as an experienced consultant typically lower a great deal of stress in those areas but, to a person entering consulting for the first time, it is something that a good interviewer will seek out – how long does it take to stress them.
The first and best advice for a person interviewing for their first consulting position is, relax! The interviewing company should be aware of the fact this is a new career path and take that into account. This should not be a negative factor against you unless there was misleading information or a position is simply not ideal for a new consultant.
What a person entering consulting can do to prepare is start gaining knowledge of areas such as estimation of work, presenting themselves, time management and building relationships with others. All of these can relate to other career paths. Fulltime employment and most IT positions consist of all of them. Estimation of work can be directly related to estimating how long tasks will take both for daily tasks and project management. In consulting, estimating projects is a lot like estimating normal functions in a fulltime position. Use that as well as some research on topics such as documenting statements of work and billable hours per time management of clients.
As with estimation, how you present yourself, time management and building relationships can all relate to your prior experiences as a fulltime employee. Use examples of ways in prior positions that you’ve presented an idea, budget need or upgrade of something. This can relate to time management. Talk about the project management for a group or team in the department (be careful not to violate the code of confidentiality between your current or past employers in this). Finally, relationships are all around us in fulltime employment as much as consulting, such as relationships with other departments like customer services, insides sales or human resources. These are all relationships that many fulltime employment positions must build as much as a relationship between a client and consultant. Dig into those relationships and use them to your advantage in showing how this can be transferred into a consulting position.
Architect – Senior Level Consultant
Interviewing for a higher level consulting position will take a new dynamic. A good interviewer will look for the things discussed earlier, such as the ability for you to be part of interviewing the company and people for a right fit. Technical skills at this point are important and they should be fully discussed in some depth with the interviewer. In most cases in the interview process, technical interviewers will be chosen to interview you. Something that can be more effective and show how well the skills between the team and yourself may fit is, forgo preparation for these technical interviews. Rely on your experience, at-hand skills and how well you discuss a technical question with the interviewer. More times than not, the discussion over a question reveals true skill levels more than whitepaper could. Now, don’t take this as a way out of answering basic or mid-level technical questions that should be known. As a consultant, questions like these are asked during client discussions. Those questions can be critical. If you are an architect in a discussion with a client for the basis of being a technical resource, there is an expectation to follow through with a precise, technical answer. That should be determined as a skill during a technical interview at this level.
Estimation should be of high importance at this point. During an interview it is very common to be given a situation or project outline and then asked to estimate it. The process that can come from this is a design discussion while estimation is performed. During that time, much more is answered for the interviewer than the actual ability to estimate or design. An interviewer will determine the ability of the potential consultant to work with the team, work in front of a client and overall ability to function under a stressful situation. At this point, standing in front of a room of people or even one person, would be a good interviewer’s effective way to attempt to find the stress fracturing point in a candidate. As the interviewee, don’t be afraid of this situation. Remember, as much as you are being interviewed, it goes the other way around. A great way to lower a stressful situation is to start determining if the same guidelines are working towards the interviewer(s). Can the interviewers work well with you, are their skills being offered up as a functional method to work with you on the design and estimation session, and most importantly, can you picture the team functioning with you on it?
Interviewing for a principal level position takes on a different layer of questioning and need to dig further into if the relationship will be stable. A principal consultant should have experience building client relations, sales and really be tuned into building the technology practice itself. Truly, principal consultants have been through the ringer and interviewing should really be a completely one-sided event. This means, the principal consultant is fully interviewing the company to see if it is a fit and a good move. There are some objectives that should be determined here. One of the largest is the avenue in which the practice is moving for the company. Will the principal consultant be able to help build the practice, or even lead it?
What to expect?
Many interviews for consulting positions will be different from fulltime employment in terms of the setting as well. It is very common for 90% to 100% of an interview process to be performed remotely and over a conference or phone call. This differs from fulltime employment in the phone screening process typically being the only phone interview during the entire process. In consulting, consultants, management, directors and so on may all be geographically spread across distances or placed at clients and billable time must be considered during the process. This can lead to lunch hour calls or late calls during the normal business day. Be prepared to complete the interview experience completely by phone. Even with this variable in the process, ensure the same questions you need answered, are. Also remember, if the company you are interviewing with is not meeting the goal of making the interview happen, this is a good sign the relationship is not a great fit. A good team-oriented consulting company will take the time to meet with you and find the time for team members to meet with you. This may take weeks or in some cases, months, but the time should be allocated. Your potential employment as a consultant in the company is as valuable to them as it is to you being offered a position.
Finally, don’t sell yourself out if the situation doesn’t fit. If travel time is too high, the commute is far too great, benefits simply cannot support a family or something just doesn’t feel right, make sure not to make a decision that is regrettable. Consulting is a great career and with a career path that can be rapid and extremely successful. Taking consulting positions with companies that are not a good fit, will hinder that and cause ill feelings towards the profession when in reality, it was simply not a good fit.
This article has gone over a lot in a short time and has only scratched the surface of how dynamic an interview process can be. The greatest takeaway is the concept of interviewing from both sides of the table, as well as key areas to focus on as an interviewer and an interviewee. Consulting is a great profession and one that lends itself to success for people with work ethics that include high levels of respect for the field, pursuit of building their professional career and initiative to grow themselves with a great company as a consultant.