Going to the dark side: Should you consider becoming a consultant?

It's the time of year when you may be considering major life and career changes, and perhaps consulting is on your radar. Here's what you need to know before making the move.

Happy business colleagues in modern office using tablet

Image: nd3000, Getty Images/iStockphoto

As the old saying implies, most of us can't help but occasionally wonder if the grass really is greener on the other side. I've spoken with countless colleagues in the consulting world that have entertained--and often moved forward with--dreams of trying their hands in an industry role; just as I've had similar chats with industry colleagues and clients that have considered making a move into consulting. Both are noble pursuits, and both are not without their flaws and unique benefits. If you're a technology leader that's thinking about a move to the "dark side" and trying consulting, here are a few things to keep in mind as you consider this type of move.

SEE: 24 tips for delivering bad news (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Get ready for routine uncertainty

If there's one thing I find that makes or breaks a successful consultant, it's an ability to thrive in an uncertain environment. Some people think I'm joking when I tell them I have no idea where I'll be physically working, what company I'll be working with, and what I'll be trying to accomplish weeks from now, but it's absolutely true. For some people, that's a thrilling proposition and very different from a predictable role where they can map out their future with relative certainty months, or even years out. Consulting provides a unique opportunity to quickly gain wildly diverse experiences across industries, geographies, and technologies, and also creates an opportunity to reinvent your career on a regular basis as you acquire new experiences and quickly develop new skills.

The downside to this unpredictability is what drives many people to leave the profession. It's difficult to plan everything from family events to routine doctor visits when you could literally be anywhere in the world, in some cases with a day's notice (or less). The excitement of the unknown can quickly become a frightening instability and a sense that you have no control over your destiny. 

SEE: How to find work-life balance as a consultant: 7 tips (TechRepublic)

Assess your ability to self-market

Whether you're in a giant global consulting firm or hanging out a shingle as a sole proprietor, one of the more challenging aspects of consulting is that you now have to heavily market a distinct product--you. You must constantly be updating your colleagues as well as existing and new clients about your capabilities, offerings, and how you can help them advance their agenda. Some find these marketing activities distasteful, but they are critical to success in the field, and almost without fail, the consultant who markets him- or herself well will get the client call versus the excellent implementer who fails to market at all.

Determine your willingness to take on several jobs

Another aspect of the consulting world that catches new entrants unawares is the diverse number of roles that one has to take on. In an industry job, you likely have to manage staff, run a portfolio of projects, and perhaps participate in some extracurricular roles like community outreach or partner relationship work. In consulting, you can add formal coaching and mentoring jobs, internal offerings, product development, and leading internal initiatives to that roster. At the more active consulting firms, there will be an all-you-can-eat buffet of opportunities and roles available, to the point that it becomes a bit of an art to decide which to pursue and which to pass up. Even in a one-person shop you'll have to understand accounting and finance, marketing and sales, and--as I used to joke with my wife--perhaps even play the role of janitor on occasion.

You also have a formal client-facing role at one or more projects, and a formal role within your firm. Like the uncertainty of the business, this can be invigorating or wildly frustrating.

Prepare to become an "influencer" rather than a "commander"

Every job requires a degree of influence in addition to formal leadership structures, but this is even more acute in consulting, where you have no direct responsibility for your clients' decision-making. While you can certainly influence the formal disciplinary process up to firing someone from your own company's staff, you'll lack that ability for the client team. 

Occasionally you'll have client staff that underperform or even peers and stakeholders that range from barely competent to actively trying to sabotage your work. You'll lack the ability to take direct action in most of these cases, and rather need to accomplish your objectives through influence or deft organizational maneuvering. The silver lining to this is that you'll likely be moving on from that client at some point and no longer have to deal with the dysfunction.

If you can thrive in this type of environment, there are few careers that provide the breadth of opportunity and excitement of consulting. In many ways, it's like being able to change jobs every few months and experience a new set of people and challenges, all while maintaining the consistency of one employer. Just make sure that you're tempering whatever rosy visions you have of a consulting career with the reality that it's a uniquely uncertain field with its own set of challenges.

Also see