Finding the fit

Ever-changing accounting requirements, escalating IT needs and dissatisfaction with outsourcing and offshoring are driving strong demand for consultants. Professionals with a realistic understanding of their skills and what the market needs can craft a rewarding, long-term consulting career. More than a quarter of consultants surveyed in 2006 said that compensation is the most attractive aspect of their consulting career, up from just 13 percent in a 2000 survey. “Flexible schedule” is the most cited benefit of consulting.

The surveys were conducted by Robert Half Management Resources, the world’s largest project consulting firm providing senior-level accounting and financial talent.

Smart Business spoke with Mike Shapow, Chicago vice president of Robert Half Management Resources, about how professionals can become successful consultants and how companies can make effective use of consultants and temporary workers.

What is your advice for someone who is considering becoming a consultant?
Start by doing a hard self assessment to figure out what you’re good at. This may involve further developing the skills and training you already have. Successful consultants tend to be specialists, not generalists, so avoid the temptation to say ‘I can do that’ for every opportunity.

Once you’ve identified your focus, you need to get the word out. Getting involved with professional associations is an outstanding way to become visible. In our business, we are always looking for talent, so we attend a lot of association events.

What are realistic expectations for someone entering the field?
It can be challenging for a consultant to line up a new engagement while working on a project. A lot of people underestimate how difficult that is. Most people are skilled at being able to sell themselves, or have a strong and specific professional skill set. Very few people have both. That’s why working with a professional staffing firm is an excellent step. They will serve as your talent agent to place you in situations where your skills can be most effective.

How should businesses select consultants?
A lot of people are conditioned to respond to the rsum, and that is a mistake. So many times there are really good candidates who don’t write good rsums, and vice versa. Some people look great on paper but don’t deliver. Companies should interview the prospective consultant with someone who understands the skill set, so they can have a more substantive discussion and get a better feel for the candidate. If you’re working through a staffing company, you can arrange a two- or three-day ‘working interview’ where the consultant is actually on the job. In the unlikely event that the consultant is not a good fit, some companies will pay the consultant but not bill the client, which provides a good opportunity to assess without risk.

How can companies effectively manage consultants?
Consultants should be managed just like regular employees. That means make sure they understand expectations, know the limits of their project, and have someone available to turn to.

When companies are unhappy with their consultants, it’s usually because they hire them and never talk to them again. They don’t give them the tools and resources to be successful. A common example is to exclude consultants from day-to-day communications, such as meetings and e-mails. That’s a mistake. It might be easy to leave consultants out because they’re is working on a special project, but they miss out on a lot of valuable informal communication.

Describe some situations where consultants can add a lot of value.
Consultants are great for companies in transition. That might mean a company that is relocating, downsizing, in the middle of a merger or acquisition, or in bankruptcy. It is hard to hire permanent people when you can’t tell them what the future will look like. Consultants understand this and can work under those circumstances.

Special projects are another good opportunity to handle with consultants. If companies need to create new financial reports, tax research, special financial analysis, or help integrating a new ERP system, consultants are a good option.

Consultants are also very valuable when there is sudden change, such as someone taking maternity leave, an unexpected resignation, or when there is greater-than-expected response to an early retirement offer. Having a consultant in place, even if he or she is only an 85 percent fit for the position, takes the pressure off the company to hire the first person they see.

MICHAEL SHAPOW is Chicago vice president of Robert Half Management Resources, based in the firm’s Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., office. Reach the author of “How to Market an Information Systems Consulting Niche” at (630) 368-0307 or [email protected].