Moving up the consulting ranks is no longer a matter of the years you put in at the firm. It's about the work you do, the contacts you make, and the drive you have to excel and advance.
Moving from a junior consultant position to a senior role used to be a simple matter of putting in the expected number of years—seniority was related to how long you'd been around rather than how good you were.
But due to the complexity of the IT industry and changing employer expectations, more professionals are remaining as juniors, while others with less tenure move up quickly to the senior ranks. It’s no longer a matter of how much time a consultant has toiled for a firm, but how that consultant has spent his or her time.
“Many consultants make the mistake of thinking that they have done a wide range of projects, when they have really only done the same job over and over,” said Chris Bergman, a senior consultant.
What makes a senior consultant
People who make the jump from junior to senior often share a common set of traits, including being hungry for challenges and a strong ambition.
Consultants that advance are focused intently on the job and how to do it to the best of their abilities. They know how to work with people and have an understanding of what they do that goes beyond their current job.
Senior level people understand that senior positions require more than technical skills. You need the ability to communicate effectively in all mediums, a capability to interact with senior management, an understanding of the overall direction of the company and the industry, and the ability to read the political signs in the road.
"You need to know how what you do fits into the overall good of the corporation," said Joan Gustafson, president of Success and Leadership Dynamics, a consulting firm in Anthem, AZ.
These soft skills are often more important than technical expertise in moving up.
Set high goals
Moving up means setting goals—targeting a specific position and actively working to gain the skills, knowledge, and experience to reach it. You’re no longer competing with peers—you’re competing with your own career expectations.
While moving from a junior to senior position is best done within the ranks of a company, it can also be a goal for an independent consultant.
When I first started out in consulting, my goal was to move up through the ranks of a major consulting firm, and I approached my role with that in mind constantly. For example, when I left one firm to take a higher role with another, my soon-to-be ex-boss asked how I had managed to work on twice as many projects as any other consultant on my team. I told him that I had gotten to know the sales manger attached to our largest clients and that he gave me a heads-up when projects were coming in. If I was interested in the project, I’d ask to serve as project lead. My boss laughed in appreciation and told me I had “figured out how to work the system.” I remember thinking that it was more like I had figured out how to ask for what I wanted.
To advance in any firm, it’s actions that matter, not words, or even who you know. You need to do your part and put in the time and effort—and show the results.
Focus on where you want to go
Anyone can set high goals, but often other things tend to get in the way. Just as you can’t become a CTO or CIO overnight, you can’t jump into a senior position. The trick is to stay focused and not get sidetracked. A good career approach is to think at least two levels ahead. That can mean next week/next month or next year/five years down the road.
I started out in environmental regulatory compliance. In the mid-1980s, I looked at the industry and business trends and saw that the huge push for environmental cleanup was trickling to an end. I decided to move out of the industry. Since the environmental industry was still a lucrative area, many colleagues believed I was making a bad career move. But moving at that point put me in a stronger career position for the next wave of work and advancement. You need to try to anticipate what will happen down the road and take action.
Knowing when to move on is a critical career decision, whether related to a firm or a specialty, for juniors who want to move ahead. There is a human tendency to keep riding along due to various excuses—the job market isn’t there, the right opportunity hasn’t come along, changes in your personal life—but you can’t let it deter your career goals forever.
Get the ego out of the way
Junior consultants seeking the senior level shouldn’t focus on "being the best" or being better than everyone else. Compete with yourself and compare your performance and results today to what you achieved yesterday. The desire to constantly and consistently improve will lead to performance achievements.
Another way to improve performance is to work on larger projects and focus on job functions instead of titles.
For example, a senior technical person whose experience is in single-location or regional projects with less than 10,000 users isn’t senior when it comes to a multinational systems integration project with 250,000 users. In taking a team leader position on the big project, that consultant can gain invaluable experience that will help achieve the senior level.
Juniors who want to move up should also tap senior level people to help develop skills. Whether you’re a team leader, a project manager, a department manager, or an executive, you're working with people who have potential and ambition—just like you. It’s critical to move any ego out of the way and learn from them to help develop your skills.
As a senior consultant, I've always tried to teach people. During a brief stint with a large consulting firm, I moved up the ranks very quickly and my willingness to help juniors was one reason I advanced. One of the VPs told me that every time he talked to junior consultants, they would relate how I had helped them.
Successful performers aren't under any illusions that they can achieve everything on their own. They know how to partner with others without overriding, controlling, or competing with the talents of those around them. They support the leadership of their peers as eagerly as they will take on the leadership of a project themselves. They can work with people at all levels of the company, and bring value to the table every time.
There aren’t any lone rangers at the top of the consulting field, because consultants can’t make it to the top alone. It takes a team and a dream; you need to recognize your weaknesses and surround yourself with people who can provide those skills. They'll teach you and you'll become better at what you do.
These resources can be your immediate coworkers or supervisors and anyone you can interact with or learn from. Getting involved in multiple projects often brings you in contact with people outside your usual sphere, especially with businesses focusing on cross-disciplinary projects and IT supporting the business.
For example, in leaving the environmental regulatory arena, I've had the chance to work on projects that I likely wouldn't have otherwise. Working on these projects has introduced me to people I wouldn’t have met—who then taught me about leveraging auctions for purchasing and sales, how executive decisions are made, limiting liability, and a wide range of industries, from steel and automotive to biotech and telecom.
Junior-level people often say that senior people spend their time in meetings and that’s very true. The higher you get, the more things are done by consensus—a group of people that decide the overall approach and build consensus to move forward. As you become more senior, you can easily spot the key players in any given department. The goal is to learn to work with them, so you’ll have access to information and opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have.
Organizations spend millions of dollars every year to train and develop the performance of their staffs. Consultants spend millions of dollars every year trying to figure out how to get ahead. The truth is, your potential lies within you and you alone. It's your choices, and your perception about work, that will ultimately determine your career advancement.