Tech & Work

Five tips for avoiding the layoff list

Make sure you're behaving in a manner that will keep you in the good graces of your client company by brushing up on these best practices. When competition is fierce, one misstep could cost you your position.


Consultants are easy targets in this economy. After all, we’re not permanent employees, so it’s often easier for the CIO or IT manager to ax us than an in-house staffer. And many times we make it easier than it should be by our own behavior at a client site.

These refreshers on best practices while at a client worksite will help you avoid giving managers a reason to put your name at the top of the list when layoffs come down.

1. Leave your arrogance at home
Listen to this feedback from a fellow consultant about a recent position: “When I worked for Bell, I had 32 consultants working under me. I kicked the VP out of his office because we needed the space. I ran everything on that project. This [current client work] project is boring compared to the projects I used to do at Bell.”

Three months after telling me this story, that consultant called me looking for work. Not only had Bell fired her, but the agency she worked for wouldn’t place her anywhere after her behavior at the client site. She could talk the talk and get in the door, but once she was in, it turned out she didn’t know how to do anything—especially how to make friends and influence others.

As the recent TechRepublic article "Blend in with the prime contractor to create a more pleasant work environment" explains, poor consultant behavior not only hurts the consultant, but the client and future relationships as well. The article offers a great client rule to live by: The client has hired me to do a job. All of us, working together, can accomplish things that, working apart, we never could. It is up to me to create the cohesion that will allow that to happen. The client doesn't care how many of us there are. He only cares that the job gets done on time, under budget, and with as many useful features as possible.

2. Don't blow deadlines, especially important ones
We must remember that there is a reason IT managers and project leaders create target deadlines. But some consultants believe that if you miss one, you can just set another target and then maybe blame in-house people for missing the deadline.

One consultant I recently talked with related how he replaced a colleague who kept setting new target dates.

“I’m like the world’s most expensive tech writer, but the consultant before me worked on this project for six months and didn’t produce anything. He kept blaming it on the developers, but really it was just that he shouldn’t have been there at that stage of the project. If he had said that, they would have held the job for him, but he just kept floating along and making excuses. They ended up paying literally four times his rate to bring me in. I finished all three phases of the project in less than a month.”

Meeting deadlines in IT is no different than meeting deadlines in your personal life—in doing so you advance goals, expectations, and achievements. No consultant wants to become known as the person who can’t ever get it done on time and on budget—there’ll be little work coming in the future.

3. Don't aggravate the client
It's so easy to annoy the client—skip meetings, come in late and leave early, or never actually provide a deliverable until the client has asked three times.

Consultants typically don’t have regular working hours. It’s one of the things that set us apart from the client's employees. But some consultants take that freedom way over the traditional line of business—they think that just because they don’t have to punch a time clock, it’s nobody’s business when they come and go. They also sometimes take a very flippant approach to meetings.

An IT project manager related the following situation: “I knew it wasn’t going to be good when the senior-level consultant we hired for the project was swapped out for a junior one the week after the contract was signed. This one can’t get here before 9:30, leaves by 5:30, and still takes at least a full hour for lunch. He missed two team meetings before I pointed out that he really should attend the project team meetings for the project he’s working on. When I finally got the specs he’d been working on for three months, they had another company’s name in the first paragraph—it was obviously a cut-and-paste job. We walked him out the next morning.”

Acting as an independent client at a firm’s client is a sure way to stall your career at the consulting firm.

4. Don't play games
In an effort to hide their own incompetence, or laziness, some consultants change things without asking anyone, then blame the ensuing problems on a lack of preventive maintenance and, to top it off, offer to create a policy statement to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

It all makes for a tenuous work environment that will always end up costing the consultant future work.

One company that had gone through significant growth hired a consulting firm to install a software package that required some system configuration and customization.

“We asked them specifically if this version of this software would work with our version of our operating system. They said yes. Six weeks later, I’m on the phone with the manufacturer, and they tell me that they won’t work together. It’s in the documentation. The consultant still swears that it will. We keep pushing back the rollout date because it’s taking so much work to get this program to run on our system. I just know that when this thing breaks because they had to screw around with it, I’m going to have the manufacturer come in and fix it and then bill the consultants for it. There is no way these clowns are coming back,” said the client.

A consultant’s primary goal from the moment he steps through a client’s doors should be to blend in with the client environment and avoid any disruption of culture or project goals. I admit that this can be difficult if the client’s behavior isn’t good or the work environment is already fraught with issues. Check out these TechRepublic articles that offer solid advice and insight for dealing with this kind of scenario.

5. Don't act as if the initial project is just a stepping-stone
Each client and project deserves your full attention and offers the opportunity to network for future business. You can’t have the attitude that you only took a position to get in the door with the company or firm. The focus of your project is not to leverage this project into more work for your firm.

“It used to be what I hated most about hiring big consulting firms: They train everyone to write the final report to recommend additional work for them. They’re always looking for more work and contract extensions. Now it seems everyone does it, with rare exceptions,” said one senior manager.

Just as importantly, you need to wrap up projects and leave a client on a good note—this follow-up work is just as important as successful project completion. Check out this TechRepublic article, "My work here is done: Tips for wrapping up projects," for best practices about concluding projects and keeping the client door open for future work.

One more quick tip
In today’s job market, every client and every project is a potential lead for a future engagement. It doesn’t matter if you’re an independent or working for a firm—your behavior and project work are key elements for both your career and your company’s business goals.

If you take the attitude that a client or project is just a stepping-stone to a bigger and better project, you’ll soon realize that you’re out of stones to step on and find yourself without work or a job.

One independent consultant who’s taken this approach sadly hasn’t yet learned his lesson.

“It shouldn’t matter that I have a few phone calls when I’m at a client’s site,” he said. “I’m there 10 to 12 hours a day, the project was wrapping up in less than a month, and I needed to find my next project. I can’t just sit on the bench. Lining up my next client is just good business,” he claimed.

Last I heard, he, along with many other consultants who haven’t changed their behavior, was still available and looking for work.

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