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Passion, People and Principles

Why Do We/They Become Consultants?

post # 507 — February 25, 2008 — a Careers post

Pasi Raikisto, from Finland, raised a very interesting question in some email correspondence. He noted:

“It would be interesting to know what kind of experiences drives people to become and stay as a consultant. I know many consultants whose professional life began when they were kicked out from their “normal job”. How often is this the case? Are consultants actually underperforming compared to “normal workers”?

“Or, sometimes, it’s consultants who left professional service firms to go out on their own and start solo or small firms. Perhaps because the professional service firm did not ‘walk the talk.’

“I know that I play the devil’s advocate a bit in phrasing it this way, but I want to challenge our profession and things we stand for. Maybe this is an interesting question for broader discussion.”


Yes, Pasi, I think these are very interesting questions. A lot of the people who read and comment on this blog are consultants of one kind or another, and many left previous organizations to enter the profession (including me!)

It certainly seems as if there are a lot of (maybe a growing number of) consultants out there, who became consultants for (some of) the reasons he proposes. Why is that? Are there any broad generalizations or hypotheses about “us” that can be made? Are we a special breed?


Shama Hyder said:

I never held a corporate job. I chose to be a marketing consultant 1) because I had a knack for it, and 2) I saw a gaping void where I could be of service. I guess you could say I found my niche in the world! = )

posted on February 26, 2008

Jim Bullock said:

Um, can’t keep a day job? I’m only kind of kidding.

I had this narrative written up which turns out on reflection to be nonsense. I’m a consultant because I like to have some impact and get things done. That simple.

People who reach out for a consultant are more often willing to do something than in day-jobs and business as usual. There is some history driving this as several times I’ve “played smarter than the room.” In a business that’s limping along, if you get product development cranking like a high-performance machine, this can uncover the fact that there’s no market there. Not selling but we’re not shipping is one thing. Shipping and it doesn’t sell is quite another.

In the extra irony department, with a recent gig I got to do interim line management for over a year and remembered how much I like that. So, at the moment, I’d be pleased to pick up the right day-job where I live.

posted on February 26, 2008

Howard Cox said:

David, I don’t think consultants are under-performers at all. I think consultants are basically at their core teachers. I also believe that their might be some truth to the saying “Those that can do and those that can’t teach”. But, that does not make teachers any less valuable.

I am not sure that I am a great executive; however, I am a good executive coach. There are many fine Coaches in the sports world that were not elite athletes.

Thanks for the thought provoking post.


posted on February 27, 2008

Dale said:

I think Howard is getting to the core of the matter with his comment.. at least for those consultants genuinely interested in helping others, v.s. those who see it as primarily a vehicle for personal gain.

I recently completed a detailed Discovery Insights survey which generated a detailed 30 page report including the following:

“Dale is a natural trainer, facilitator, educator, and councellor. Underlying his characteristic tolerance is a natural curiosity. He finds the diversity of the world immensely appealing. He gravitates to other people and is highly skilled at understanding others’ needs and motivations, usually appearing friendly, tactful and sympathetic.” (I’ve purposely left out the less flattering parts.. ;-)

My point in exposing this quote is not to flatter myself, but to link back to David’s comment about what experiences drive us to be consultants – I think that its not only experience but nature / our “selves” that drive us as well. I think some people are just wired to be consultants/trainers/facilitators.

In my case, every personality /social style assessment I’ve done over the years (yes, including the infamous Myers-Briggs) has always generated the same list (as above) of roles for which I’m ideally suited. I’m sure many consultants/ trainers / faciltators have noticed the same, and if not, can reflect back on the situations / circumstances where there were most “on”, most energized. Odds are pretty good it was in a consultant/trainer/coach/facilatator role.

posted on February 27, 2008

Sameer Panchangam said:

I wouldn’t want to quote references/examples here; but the ones “kicked” out have gotten back on track and performed better after spending that year or two as individual consultants.

So I have reason (and some data) to believe that most consultants know if they are good being part of a firm or being solo.

Thanks for bringing this up.

Sameer Panchangam

posted on February 27, 2008

Michael D. Haberman, SPHR said:

I know a lot of people who became “consultants” as a result of a job loss, as did I. I think the major difference is between those that stay consultants versus those who see it as an interim activity while looking for another full-time job. Most people who start out as consultants as the result of a job loss are not suited to be consultants (at least not independent ones.) Now I am talking about human resources consultants here. But most HR people who toy with consulting do not have the interest, desire or ability to do the sales and marketing parts of the job.

posted on February 27, 2008

Victor Lombardi said:

For me, as a consultant on Internet strategy and design, there hasn’t been much difference between internal work and consulting, besides where my benefits come from. Internal job stays are generally shorter these days, and consulting gigs can be quite long. In fact, paradoxically, I think companies often have more security with consultants who are obligated to stay the course of a project whereas employees are not.

And internal jobs may require sales and marketing skills to “sell” my offering to groups within an organization.

In the Tom Peters vein of “everyone should be a professional service firm” I try to be a trusted advisor regardless of who’s name is on the pay stub.

posted on February 27, 2008

Eric Fetterolf said:

I am of the opinion that everyone is working for themselves, all the time. You just choose the method of contracting yourself to companies.

One way is to be their exclusive resourse in exchange for more “secure” paychecks. This is called being an employee. Only one organization will directly benefit from your efforts. The organization you work for creates wealth for their customers by using your talents and potential. This path is “safer”, but the rewards for being successful are more muted, (they are passed to the owners of the organization).

The other way is to offer yourself and your potential to many companies on a “first paid, first served” basis. This is called starting your own business. You directly create wealth for your customers by applying your talents, potential and resources (human or other) for your clients. This path has more “risk”, but the rewards when successful are much greater.

Consultants are sort of the “gray” area between the two. You work for an organization, but are tasked with helping multiple customers create wealth. You sample many business models and get many ideas. This allows growth and prevents stagnation, so long as the consultant organization values education and innovation.

posted on March 5, 2008

ROI Marketing, LLC said:

Some potential consultants are driven by a combination of knowing they can add value and resenting the lack of freedom (not to mention, arbitrage) held by their employeers.

posted on March 7, 2008