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9:46am EDT August 30, 2006
According to a nationwide survey developed by Robert Half Management Resources, nearly one-third of all CFOs say a flexible schedule is the most attractive aspect of a career in consulting.

The survey, conducted by an independent research firm, included responses from 1,400 CFOs from a stratified random sample of U.S. companies with more than 20 employees.

“The demands of today’s financial executives are taking a toll on their work/life balance due to the number of hours they put in at the office,” says Scott Patenaude, vice president of the Houston Region of Robert Half Management Resources.

Smart Business talked to Patenaude about what it takes to make the transition from executive to consultant.

Why are financial executives interested in becoming consultants?
Flexibility is the No. 1 benefit because consultants have the ability to control their schedule. Also, for those seeking to bridge the gap to full-time employment, consulting is a great way to test-drive a position or company.

What types of consulting projects are in demand today?
Financial groups within companies need services that can help them cut costs, increase operational efficiencies, meet regulatory requirements and improve their accounting processes. Companies today are requesting consultants to support a variety of projects, including internal audit, financial and SEC reporting, and tax. They are also brought in to work on large-scale initiatives, such as financial systems upgrades, mergers or acquisitions and business process improvement efforts.

What type of person is best suited for consulting work?
Those who thrive on new experiences, have an entrepreneurial spirit, and are committed to ongoing learning tend to be the most successful consultants. Those who prefer the predictability of working for a single employer with regular hours may not be best suited for consulting work. Some professionals don’t like the idea of marketing their services or handling the paperwork associated with working independently. For these people, working with a specialized staffing company enables them to focus on the project and not the administrative aspects of consulting.

Is a certain personality type more inclined for consulting work?
Someone who is independent and enjoys a challenge and stretching themselves. I’ve seen people fresh out of school who really like the variety and challenge that comes from working in different environments. I’ve also seen people nearing retirement age who don’t want to retire and have a lot of skill sets built up over the length of their career. What’s great about the consulting lifestyle is that it provides a large degree of flexibility. Consultants can work very hard, taking on multiple projects, and then take time off between engagements. They dictate their own hours.

What other benefits does a consulting career offer?
Consultants are continuously learning. They are exposed to a broad cross-section of companies that afford them opportunities to learn new skills and enhance their existing ones. They can also maintain or attain new certifications. Independent consultants often have better financial control because they’re their own boss; they can set their own rates, depending on what the market will bear. They can also put in as many hours as they want, provided the demand for work is there.

Instead of retiring, some professionals choose to go down the consulting path. It allows for the flexibility of semi-retirement while still contributing to companies in meaningful ways. Consulting can also act as a bridge between jobs. It allows the person to showcase skills to a prospective employer — like an audition for the job.

What are the potential disadvantages?
Consultants don’t always get the same perks they had working at an established company. Often, there’s no paid vacation. Health benefits can be an issue, and it’s rare for consultants to acquire equity in a company. While being a consultant clearly provides greater control of your time, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll work fewer hours. If you’re working from home, it could also be difficult to separate your personal life from business.

There may also be periods of financial instability.

What benefits are there for companies that use consultants?
A big benefit is cost efficiency and effectiveness. Companies only pay consultants when they use their services. In fact, consultants can help companies uncover inefficiencies in their own processes and make improvements.

Also, there is very little ramp-up time because consultants often move from one environment to the next. They can quickly jump in and need very little direction. They can also impart their knowledge to full-time staff during the engagement.

SCOTT PATENAUDE is vice president of the Houston Region of Robert Half Management Resources. Reach him at (832) 216-4804 or scott.patenaude@rhi.com.