for over 15 years i’ve had these questions asked by friends, family, colleagues, and complete strangers: what is consulting; or rather, what is a consultant? is there a difference between a contractor and one? how do you become a consultant? want to hear a funny joke about consultants? my answers, respectively… great question, there’s a lot really, that depends, and absolutely!
i’ve heard it said that a consultant is someone you hire when you want to spend money making up your own mind. that’s both clever and apt. i may be in the market to hire one to help me settle on definitive answers once and for all.
alison griswold of the business insider says that consulting is a nebulous field few people seem to understand. her article, from early this year, is a fun read and lays-out a typical monday’s schedule for a 3rd year noob. why noob, you ask? because three years is not enough time to be expert at anything.
but i’m getting ahead of myself. let’s back-up for a second and agree on semantics.
what is a consultant?
1. a person who gives professional or expert advice
2. a person who consults someone or something.
1690-1700; (< F) < Latin consultant- (stem of consultans, present participle of consultare).
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
holding this at face value there’s a key word, Expert. the same source defines an expert as “a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; [a] specialist; [an] authority.” therefore, a consultant is an expert in her or his field and gets paid to deliver their skill… professional [and] expert advice; there really is no ‘or’ in my opinion.
so the question boils down to expertise, but what does it take to be an expert? malcolm gladwell, in his book Outliers, is credited with the 10,000 hour rule: he contends that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” is what it takes to become a specialist, an authority, world-class. in other words, an expert. a bunch of people jumped on that hypothesis and a series of back-and-forth followed (perform a google search on “10000 hour rule” and you’ll see what i mean.
others contend it’s more complicated than that, however, and the time required to be an expert differs between domains (e.g. sports, music, games, professions, etc). it also is a function of how one practices and a few other variables. the journal of psychological science published a meta-analysis on this. the business insider also published an article and cited fran johansson’s book, The Click Moment, which states as a premise: “…strategy, planning, and careful analysis can no longer guarantee strong performance; today’s business environments are far too random and complicated.”
personally, i like the 10,000 hour (+/- a few hours) rule for most things in the business-world of consulting. assuming there are an average of 160 business hours in a month, 10,000 gives us 5.2 years of working full-time to become experts. but it’s only a rule of thumb really, and it’s interesting that education (i.e. college degrees) seldom comes into the equation. so yes, virginia, 3 years is insufficient, imho, to be considered an expert without some extraordinary circumstances. i’m personally 3x 10,000 hours in my field and i’ll be the first to say that i’m nowhere close to knowing it all. i will say this, however: i know more of what i know more than you know of what i know or of what you know of what i know. more or less.
it reminds me of the old adage — if you and i are hiking and come across a savage tiger, i don’t have to outrun the tiger, i just have to outrun you.
now we’re back to square, bow to your corner and bow to your partner. i’ll sum up my definition this way: a consultant is someone who has more expertise to bring to bear on an opportunity (i.e. challenge, problem, task) than the entity who’s willing to pay them or they have a commensurate expertise with greater availability and agility to tackle an opportunity where using or hiring an employee is inefficient or unfeasible.
consultant v. contractor
here’s an oldie but goodie… think of a tomato; is it a fruit or is it a vegetable? the answer, of course, is that it’s both. what make it quizzical is the use of two disparate semantics; ‘fruit’ is a biological term. fruit is produced by a flowering plant (called an angiosperm) after the pollination of the flower. a fertilized ovule develops into seed structure(s) and the surrounding tissue forms the fruit (called a pericarp). ‘vegetable’ is culinary.
insofar as consulting, unless you are a w-2 employee performing the role of internal consultant for some company, you are most certainly a contracted resource. the reciprocal, however, doesn’t hold. it’s very possible (if not probable) that one is a contracted resource but not a consultant. we say this person is working in a staff-augmentation role; a company needs person-resources but for whatever reason, usually economic, an employee relationship is not viable. contractors receive a 1099, not a w-2. retaining a professional services firm is simply an extrapolation/extension of the theme.
that one was easy.
how to become a consultant
this one is harder. how does anyone become anything? how do you get to carnegie hall? we used to call them the big-5 consulting firms but i think it’s more like 3 or 4 now. these firms recruit college seniors in a way that boggles. they hire based on gpa, looks, interview skills, and the willingness to commit to brutal travel schedules. they wrangle new hires into training boot-camps, teach them on arcane methodologies, and test their ability to function on mundane tasks after nights of revelry. then they staff these new consultants at $100+/hr billable rates into corporate clients. thus, the life of a professional consultant is born. that’s one way.
another way is to spend your life doing something to the point of convincing yourself that you are more marketable ‘out there’ than you are ‘in here’. hang your own shingle, capitalize on your network of people and submit proposals by weight and page.
cultivate skills that no one formally teaches such as effective listening and learning from failures and mistakes. be kind, be ethical, be fair, and genuinely make your clients’ problems your own to solve. there are other details to be sure but those are dependent on what type of consultant you want to be.
i can’t tell you how to become a consultant any more than that, but i will say make every experience a learning one. i’ve written before about one of my favorite authors, richard moran. you should check him out and read my previous post, on the topic of failure.
if you’ve not yet seen the movie, Office Space, go watch; it’s a modern classic. consultants, rightfully or otherwise, frequently get a bad rap and lawyer jokes are often interchangeable (just change the noun to consultant). the Bobs exist, to be sure, just as lousy employees dot the 28th floor of corporate hq. take it all in stride and enjoy a good one, even when it’s at your own expense:
a shepherd was herding his flock of sheep in a remote pasture one day when he saw a dust cloud over the hill making it’s way towards him.
when the rental car comes to a stop the driver, a young man in an armani suit, gucci shoes, and ray-ban sunglasses hops out and says to the shepherd, “i can tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock and for my time and expertise i’ll only ask for one of your sheep as payment.”
the shepherd looks at the man then looks at his flock and answers, “sure, it’s a deal.”
the man parks his car, whips out his notebook computer, connects it to his smartphone, surfs to a reference page on the internet, where he pulls up a gps satellite system, which he then feeds to a spreadsheet. he taps away on the keyboard with complex formulas and clipart, makes graphs and finally prints out a full-color, 150-page report on his portable laserjet printer. finally, he turns to the shepherd and says, “you have exactly 1,382 sheep.”
“that’s incredible,” says the shepherd as he watches the man select one of the animals and stuffs it into the trunk of his car.
then the shepherd says to the young man, “hey, if i can tell you exactly what you do for a living, will you give me back my animal?”
the man thinks about it for a second and then says, “sure, why not?”
“you’re a consultant.” says the shepherd.
“that’s absolutely correct,” says the man, “but how did you know?”
“simple.” answered the shepherd. “you showed up here uninvited; you gave me an answer to a problem i didn’t even have; and you don’t know shit about my business because you just took my dog.”
so the next time someone asks me what i do for a living, i’m not going to say, ‘i’m a consultant.’ instead, i’m going to say that i’m a professional problem solver.
and a good day is when i solve more problems than i create.