We have an inside joke in management consulting: ace a project and you immediately become the expert on that subject, even if that was the first and only project you completed in that subject.
To anyone outside of management consulting, that makes no sense. It’s like cooking one steak to a medium-rare, perfectly seasoned, with great side dishes, and calling yourself a chef. I acknowledge there are similarities, but there is also a vast difference between being a superb cook and being a chef.
Firms throw consultants onto projects where they are not the expert. This can be because of resource constraints (experts are on other projects), geographical constraints (experts are in other countries and the client does not want to pay for travel), costs (experts are too expensive and the client has a limited budget), etc. Consultants, as a result, have to find creative strategies to complete the project and give the client what they need.
The consultant’s career trajectory takes off after completing the project. The project and all the assets the consultants used to complete the project become part of the consultant. For example, a consultant completes a project in business process mapping and streamlining, and the consultant, if they are smart about it, becomes the go-to person for business process mapping and streamlining.
To become ‘smart about it’, you need three things: an audience, being consistent, and the ability to add value. Let’s inspect each of these and identify actionable takeaways for you, shall we?
Find an audience with a vested interest in your work
As a consultant, when you do an incredible job on one project, you get your name out to others. You (or your bosses) tell others about what project you completed, how satisfied the client was, and the work that you did. Taking the example above, if you completed a project in business process mapping and streamlining, you become top of mind for other projects with similar work. When I worked as a consultant, I was quite introverted, so had to rely on my managers and coworkers to promote my expertise. But my career skyrocketed when they did and I delivered.
As a writer, I always felt awkward promoting my articles, blog, or my books. I felt weird asking for people to buy my books. But do you know what I realized? The point of telling people was not so I could earn money (though back in the day it was). The point of telling people was so they knew what my expertise was in. Rather than trying to ‘sell’ people on my work, I let it happen organically. I told people about what I was working on without asking for anything in return. This way, I can still get sales of my book if people are interested, but the bigger goal is to get my name out there as the ‘expert’ or the ‘authority’ in a particular subject.
- Continually find ways to either talk about your work or to let others (bosses, coworkers) talk about your work. If you are doing excellent work, then others can benefit because they know who to turn to for that work.
- Self-promotion can be awkward if you are approaching it from a pure money perspective. Think of self-promotion as a way of announcing to the world what you are an authority in and how you can help (where you both win). Don’t think of it as a transaction (where you will often lose).
- The best audience you can find for your work is those that care about what you do. They care because presumably it will help them with their work or add value to their lives). On the other hand, if you tell people that don’t care about your work, your career isn’t likely to take off.
Consistent and continuous improvement
You aced one project, and now you are being asked by other people in the company to replicate your success and work on other projects. You’re set! Well, not quite. Just because you aced one project and they (your colleagues and bosses) know your name far and wide is one part of being an expert. The second part is not just replicating your success, but adapting and improving it for other projects. No project is the same. Any two customers do not have the same needs. No organization has the same business processes (or whatever you are an authority in).
The glorious part of any work you do is you can use a lot of your previous work and expertise to adapt things as needed to new projects. From being an expert in business process mapping and improvement, you can take the same expertise and adapt it to different sectors and industries. You start in a particular niche and then expand from there. Perhaps you know IT organizations best, well who says that Government organizations, or Private Sector organizations don’t have business processes?
What’s interesting about consulting is that any time we start a new project, we are never starting from scratch. And while you may not be in consulting, whatever work you completed on your first project can and should be used, albeit not in the same way.
Finally, as you do more work, for example, in business process mapping, use what you have learned on new projects to improve your current ‘assets’ aka the templates and work you use and re-use for each project. Perhaps you add a section that is specific to a particular industry or sector (technology business processes, or supply chain business processes for manufacturing companies). Or you list out the questions and concerns you have encountered from previous projects.
- Start small and scale as you build systems
- Focus on a specific niche at first and then expand
- Build on your work as you go. Never settle for version 1.0.
That brings me to the next ‘step’ in building your authority and expertise: adding value. You can have an audience that cares about the work you do. You can consistently improve the work you do. But without adding value to other people’s (customer’s) lives, it will all be for naught. What does adding value look like? From a management consultant perspective:
- Helping the customer save money or get a better return on investment
- Saving the customer time, reducing the mistakes they make, or supporting automation/technology replacement in the future
- Defining a strategy that can guide the organization forward in uncertainty
- Holding the hand of the customer through a major transformation (either business or technological)
- Giving perspectives, lessons learned, and insights from other similar customers
- (Add your own for your line of work)
But how do you know whether you are adding value? It’s simple. We consultants ask. Either at the end of the project, or midway through a longer project, we have people from our company, not on the project, come in to ask the customer what we are doing well, and what we need to improve on. And on the project team, we always have open channels for the customer to tell us what they like and don’t like.
Finally, one last point that I heard from James Altucher. You may have heard the idea that to succeed, you have to “under-promise and over-deliver”. When James was working on his business, he decided that too many people were under-promising and over-delivering, so he took it even further: he over-promised and over-delivered. One of his businesses was building websites for companies, so not only did he promise a short turnaround time, he delivered projects in half the promised time, and added several features he knew the clients wanted, but never asked or paid for.
- Continually add value (whatever that means to you and your customers).
- Get feedback so you know what is and isn’t working.
- Under-promising and over-delivering do not work anymore, instead, over-promise and over-deliver.