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How consultants get an unfair advantage in the career stakes

Being a consultant in any industry comes with its challenges. Long hours, bad briefs, impossible deadlines and the constant sense of being a transient ‘outsider’ to the organisations you work with. But it is not all bad. Approached the right way, a few years as a consultant can supercharge your career and give you experience and insights that in-house practitioners can only dream of. Regardless of whether you work for a global management consulting firm or a boutique professional services firm the secret to maximising the career opportunity is simple. Watch, listen and learn. As a consultant it is already incumbent on you to learn everything you can about your client to provide them with appropriate and valuable advice. If you want to make the most of the opportunity you need to go one step further and see those things that aren’t essential to your core role but are valuable for personal and professional development. These are the most important areas where consultants can turn their job into a management classroom. Leadership In-house practitioners only get to see one group of managers and one CEO. As a consultant you get to deal with various management teams and CEOs on a daily basis. Watch and listen how they do things differently. How do they treat their staff? Where do they focus their energies? What are their priorities? What do they do differently to everybody else? Leadership is one of, if not the most important skills of a successful manager. Watching and learning at close quarters about what works and what doesn’t can be more valuable than a thousand leadership courses. Culture The importance of corporate culture is fundamentally lost on people who are only exposed to their own culture. After more than 10 years as a consultant I have learnt that all businesses have a defining culture; they can be bureaucratic or entrepreneurial, innovative and defensive, happy or toxic. As a consultant you get a front row seat and often get to experience first hand the culture of the organisations you work with. Changing the culture of an organisation can be extremely difficult but is sometimes necessary. Culture is always the responsibility of management so understanding why and how a culture develops is critical to building your management skill set. Organisational structure Every organisation has a unique structure that has been built over many years and is subject to constant change. Building these structures and streamlining them for efficiency can be the difference between success and failure. Managing ‘change’ is a core management skill that every leader must have. Understanding what makes one structure work and another fail is often a case of trial and error. For organisations, and individuals in those organisations, it can be a slow learning process. Seeing it happen across multiple organisations simultaneously can provide rapid fire insights those close to the situation simply cannot see. The same rules apply across multiple other areas of business and management. Regardless of what area you want to learn the most about, being a consultant provides a unique viewpoint and regardless of whether you want to do it for a short stint or as a career, you shouldn’t waste the opportunity. All you have to do is open your eyes and ears.