10 tips for surviving as a consultant

I’ve been a consultant for about 6 months and I’m starting to develop a mindset which is helping me to survive. Consultancy can be a tough, impersonal place.

If you want my opinion on why it’s like this, I think it’s because consultancy is an industry where confidence is king. There are a lot of people who are quite good at pretending they know what they’re talking about.

Consultancy is also incentivised by money and I’d hazard this sales-type environment, attracts a disproportionate number of sociopaths. The flip side is that if you can let the bullshit wash over you, the variety and good people, can leave you thoroughly fulfilled.

At least I say this now, ask me again in 6 months.

My tips for surviving as a consultant:

1 Learn to say no
My experience has been that senior folk will rush up to your desk and say, “quick! The client needs this on Monday, you’ve got to work on it now”. You spend your family time working on a document which goes to the client by the deadline. Then you don’t hear anything again for 2 months. Saying “no” doesn’t diminish you in people’s eyes, it makes your time more valuable.

The same, I think, applies to client requests. The best suppliers I work with set expectations and we end up in an adult relationship.

Me – “Can you do this by tomorrow lunchtime?”

Supplier – “Sorry Charlie I haven’t got time, the earliest I can get it to you is Thursday. Is that okay?”

This kind of mutual respect creates so called, “collaboration”. The challenge you have to this attitude usually comes from procurement who only focus on squeezing as much work from a contract, with little regard for the relationship.

2 Don’t care too much
Ambitious, passionate people like yourselves find this difficult. You want to do a good job and you’ve probably grown up being told how clever you are by your parents and teachers. The mistake is letting this perception define you.

At BP I had an agreement with my colleague @gemstgem that we were the team that “gave a shit”. We were the ones who wanted to work on side projects and improve work-life beyond our remit. BP was slow.

Consultancy is the opposite. There’s too much to do. So now the mantra is DGAS, “don’t give a shit”. Only in very extreme cases is your work a matter of life and death. Taking on too much and fretting about everything you’ve got to do, will only stress you out and make you miserable.

3 Ignore the constant noise of panic
If you don’t deliver x project on time, the client kicks off and you get fired, will your family and friends still love you? If the answer is yes, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Don’t let anxious people infect you with their anxiety.

4 Give wankers a wide berth
Occasionally you’ll meet a total prat who thinks it’s the 1980s. You can spot them because they sound like publicly educated RAF WW2 fighter pilots. Their modus operandi is to push you around. If you can avoid them, if you can’t, find an exit strategy onto another project.

5 Think about your health
Most companies don’t care about you. They care about their bottom line and not being sued. It’s a ridiculously outdated attitude and research proves it’s counterproductive. But, news flash, most companies are ridiculously outdated.

Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep, of sitting at a desk with an appropriate screen and managing your stress levels effectively. Your life is more important than getting a bid document complete for a 9am meeting. It’s a cumulative effect, and this is one of those win-win situations, the healthier you are, the less likely you’ll burn out.

6 Remind yourself you can leave
If you’re a consultant, you’ve probably made it to where you are today by being a confident, adaptable human being. Clients pay consultancies insane amounts of money for time with people like you. Finding another job will be a doddle.

The aim is to work without fear. This will actually improve your effectiveness because you’ll be able to make better, more rational decisions. It will also relieve the stress of a client or boss who’s on your back because they lack the skills to lead you properly.

7 Laugh at yourself
Laughter is a great coping mechanism. A lot of what consultants do is hilarious if you think about it. Work life plays out like an episode of Great British Bake Off where everyone is losing their minds because the sponge might not rise in time. I say, get a grip. Try to have fun. Don’t worry too much.

8 Be productive
There’s a huge amount of active in-action in consultancy. Lots of people talking about things and losing site of the end goal. You’ll often find yourself in meetings with a cast of thousands discussing fairly irrelevant decisions. My advice is to make stuff the client can use and improve it gradually. Don’t spend all your time consulting and delivering very little. Add value by doing stuff, it will make you happier.

9 Be nice
It’s super important to be nice to people, even of you think they are useless. Avoid losing your patience with people and try to project an aura of care. The journey people go on is often as valuable as the end goal. If you can shift people’s mind-set and leave a company in a more progressive place, your tenure has been a success.

10 Actually care about the client 
This is perhaps the most important thing to remember. Try and think of others before yourself. If clients respect you and can see you have their best interests at heart, you’re far less likely to encounter resistance. You will be employed for many reasons beyond just delivering x. Often your role is to lead in the modern sense of the word by offering support and reassurance.

Spot a spelling mistake? Let me know. Agree or disagree? Let me know.


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