Businesses Need Help From Management Consultants The Buzz


To keep afloat, companies have to be super-productive, yet keep costs low. That means keeping the best workers, streamlining production and cutting fat.

But even people who've been in their industry for decades can't possibly know everything about their business.

Enter the management consultant.

Management consultants are problem solvers, and the problems can be in any aspect of business.

A business may know lots about building widgets, but be clueless about breaking into overseas markets. Or they may know accounting, yet not know how to keep company morale up -- and are losing their best workers as a result. That's when management consultants are called in.

Andrew DeBoda has a consulting firm. "A company will come to us and say, 'We've done great in the past, but something's going wrong now, and we don't know what,'" he says. "Or they may ask, 'How do we downsize and still keep the business going?'"

The management consultant's first step is to do research. Look at the problem, analyze how things are currently done, interview employees and management, and even check out technical problems. This can be tricky.

"If the company says I'm a consultant for downsizing, obviously I'll get a lukewarm response form employees," says DeBoda. "But if they say I'm here to turn around the company, employees will be more helpful. Every company, every engagement is different."

Once the research is done, the consultant writes a report. "I have to present a proposal to the company, saying what I'll do and how I'll do it, and why it will work. Then the company looks over the proposal and decides who to go with, me or another management consultant.

"The more time you put in on the proposal, the better chance you have of getting the engagement. And with the proposal done, half the work is already completed."

Once a company accepts a proposal, the management consultant may be asked to implement it. In most cases, management consultants don't work alone on problems because they can't know everything about every aspect of business. So they specialize in particular business areas.

"Management consulting includes 42 different subsets and classifications," says DeBoda. "My practice is called financial management, and I cover everything from financing to taxation and accounting, but I also do marketing."

When he needs help with other aspects of a business, he'll subcontract. That means he hires management consultants who are experts in other areas to help him analyze a company's problems and get the job done.

Most consultants also specialize in specific industries. DeBoda, for example, is an expert on the motion picture industry. He knows how it works, who the major players are, and what needs and problems are particular to companies that make movies.

Given a choice, clients will go to him before they go to someone who may be a whiz in marketing but has only worked for manufacturing firms.

So anyone who wants to make a business of consulting not only needs to know their stuff, they also have to get years of experience in a particular industry before they're taken seriously.

Two Ways Into the Field

Jeff Gruenert is a former management consultant. He says there are really two ways of getting into the field.

"You get a job at a consulting firm for a year or so as a researcher. Then you get your master's degree, preferably something like an MBA or a master's in accounting," he says.

"If you're at a really good school -- getting really, really good grades -- the firm will hire you back as a junior, junior, junior consultant. Then you have to go out and prove yourself. In the beginning, they'll put you on as part of a team and you have to work your way up."

Even then, the road is rocky. Being a management consultant isn't just about brains and experience. It takes a certain kind of personality to make a great management consultant.

"It's a very competitive field," says Gruenert, "and it takes a tremendous mix of personal charisma and salesmanship, combined with industry experience and some sort of credential. You have to constantly be selling yourself and your firm."

Heather Osler is president of a management consulting association. "Just by the virtue of the work, they have to be extroverted, creative, energetic -- and they have to have egos," she says. "There's a lot of selling and a lot of marketing, and that takes a lot of moxie."

The second way to become a management consultant is probably the most common one: do something else first. "It's really a second career," says consultant John Blackford.

Blackford specializes in the management of manufacturing companies. He ran a manufacturing company himself for 15 years.

"Companies are looking for top management judgment," he says, "and that's something you only get when you really run something.

"It's experience-based, so you have to get the experience first. There are many other things that are knowledge-based, that you can do right out of college, but this isn't one of them."

"You have to back up your book learning with experience," says consultant Zelda Durden. "Most people don't start consulting until their 50s. I'm an extremely rare case -- I started at 34 -- and when I walk into a room with consultants, I'm the only one without gray hair."

The Economics of the Field

"The field is definitely growing," says Osler.

Expect very long hours, including work on nights and weekends. Gruenert says one of his best analysts was lured away to a private firm. "And he went from working 40 hours a week here, to working 80 to 100 hours a week. But he's also making twice as much."

A lot of management consultants are self-employed.

"The great problem is you must have customers, and until you get the first one, there's no word of mouth," says Gruenert. "Some people are able to go out there and get work and then build on it. Some aren't."

That's why real persistence and a competitive attitude are necessary to get rolling in the field.

Durden found it difficult to go it alone at first. "My first 18 months were rough, but you learn as you go."

What's crucial, she says, is drive and a positive attitude. Durden specializes in fields dominated by men -- she's an engineering expert for high-tech companies. But she doesn't let anything stop her.

"I just keep going," she says. "I don't see handicaps. The key is I'm an engineer, and engineers will only talk to other engineers. So once I get their attention, we can speak the same language, we understand each other."

If you really want to be a management consultant, chances are you won't be doing it right out of school. You won't have enough experience yet. But it's never too early to get started on the right path.

"Keep it in mind," says Blackford. "Be aware that consulting is a long-term possibility. You can lay the groundwork by getting a good grounding in whatever field you go into. If you always have consulting at the back of your mind, you can eventually age into it.

"And," he adds, "speaking from experience, it's a great thing to do as a second career."

Links

Institute of Management Consultants
Certifies management consultants and provides networking and other services

Association Management Consultants
Provides management and consulting services to non-profit associations and public sector organizations

International Council of Management Consulting Institutes
News, programs and conferences about management consulting