The top rung of the consulting ladder at a large firm can look distant at times, but each step you take—if they’re the right steps—could bring you closer to that coveted and lucrative senior level. To help you develop concrete strategies to reach your consulting career goals, we asked Duncan Mathison, senior account executive at Drake Beam Morin (DBM) for advice on climbing the consulting ladder. DBM is a worldwide firm that helps organizations select, develop, retain, and transition employees by providing leadership, executive coaching, and career counseling.

Mathison offered 10 strategies to help you reach the top rung of the consulting ladder. The first five were discussed in a recent article. Here, we offer the remaining five strategies.
This is the second of two articles about climbing the consulting ladder. To find out what you missed, read “Five ways to climb the consulting ladder” from the IT consultant archives.
One: Develop your customer service and client management skills
“If you ask most [consulting] firms why a client uses them, they will speak of their technical competence,” Mathison said. ”But if you ask the client companies why they pick a particular firm, it’s usually because of a combination of client service and interpersonal skills: Are you responsive? Do you know how to handle things when they go wrong? Do you know how to set expectations? Do you know how to work with our people?”

Mathison suggests that low-level consultants pay attention to “the people who make the big bucks,” as they are the ones who serve clients well in terms of responsiveness, problem solving, setting expectations, and working with a client’s staff.

Mathison also suggests reading Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting (Jossey-Bass, 1999) to better understand the nature of the relationship between the client and the service provider. “[Block] really talks about how to manage the relationship, from the early stages of the contracting phase to actually delivering services,” Mathison said. “There’s a real art and science to it—having to manage the relationship effectively.”

Two: Understand the issues that drive your clients’ business
Because many consulting firms build their expertise on a particular industry, such as retail or certain manufacturing segments, Mathison said it’s key for consultants to understand the specific business issues that drive what their clients are doing. To serve your clients well, he suggests that you should be able to answer the following questions about your clients’ businesses in depth:

  • What is going on in the industry?
  • What is technology’s role in the industry?
  • What does the industry want to achieve competitively?

“So the idea is that when you’re in a discussion with a client or client company, you really understand what they’re trying to achieve from a business perspective more so than from a technical perspective,” Mathison said. “This is one of the things that tends to hold people back. They’re really good at the technical stuff, but they don’t know why it needs to be done.”

Three: Know your style and use it wisely
To find out if you’re succeeding in your climb up the consulting ladder, Mathison suggests you ask yourself the following questions:

  • When new projects come up, am I asked to be a member of the team?
  • Am I a part of key decisions made with respect to group projects, or am I told later?

“If you find yourself not involved in team interaction or decision-making, it might be because of your interpersonal skills in meetings and peer interaction,” Mathison said. “It means you probably need to educate yourself about how you come across to people.”

Mathison suggests asking for feedback from other team members or taking a personality profile test like the Myers Briggs test to try to determine what the problem might be.

“Maybe you’re very analytical,” Mathison said. “If the situation calls for thorough analysis, that’s great. If the situation calls for quick decision making, that’s not great. You’ll still be doing an analysis when everybody else is saying, ‘Let’s go.’ The other thing is that when you’re under a lot of stress, you may find yourself in ‘analysis paralysis.’”

By becoming aware of your interpersonal style, you can also recognize your “preferred approach” to problems. Mathison said that any approach, if overused or used in the wrong situation, could become a liability. If you’re very conscientious about how you apply your style, you’ll be less likely to need to make apologies later.

“The more you know [about your interpersonal style], the more you’re able to apply yourself in an effective way in team situations,” Mathison said.

Four: Use your review process to improve yourself
Mathison said that some consultants miss a valuable opportunity for feedback during their organization’s review process. A review is an ideal time to ask for feedback about how you are perceived in the organization and to make it clear to your boss that you’d like to be involved in better engagements, client development activities, or project management activities.

“You should say, ‘I’d like to develop my career, be more valuable to the organization, and get involved in more interesting work. What is it that I would need to do in order to get there? How can we make this work?’”

Mathison said that many consultants simply fail to ask these important questions. After goals are identified for a consultant during this process, it’s important to meet those goals by going to classes, reading, or entering into a mentoring relationship with someone at the firm who already has your desired skills.

Five: Don’t depend on firm-hopping to advance
Don’t switch firms for the money, Mathison warns. He said it’s important to remember that hopping from firm to firm is not a sure way to advance in the consulting world.

“When you switch firms, you do become a competitor automatically,” Mathison said. “People should be thoughtful before they go switching firms because switching does not represent a two-way street. It’s a one-way hop.”

Mathison said firm-hopping is also not the way to solve problems you may be having in your present firm. “If you identify a technical hole that you’re in, or some team issue that has to do with your style, or that you’re awkward around clients when it comes to contracting discussions, it’s not going to get any better if you change firms,” Mathison said. “[In fact], you may be stereotyped. If you’ve determined to develop yourself professionally, first do that in your current firm. If that does not work out, switch after you’ve gained some skills.”
Do you have advice for junior consultants who want to rise to the top? Send us your tips, tricks, or personal stories in an e-mail or post your comments below.