My career in consulting is in covered in scars.
One time I had a stakeholder scream at me on a call because we couldn’t figure out why a promised fax integration was failing (yes, it was in healthcare), all while the developer in the room with me was angrily gesticulating and mouthing swear words because the client didn’t understand. I sent daily updates for a month, paired with the developer, and demanded QA priority to expedite the delivery.
Another time, in the middle of months of long weeks and weekends, I had a VP of Product screaming at me over the phone about why a designer wasn’t delivering at the pace they expected, demanding I blame them personally. I could hear the spittle flying out of his mouth, even if I couldn’t see it. I ended up taking the blame for poor communication and expectation setting, and brought in reinforcements from our design team to get back on track.
Costs vs benefits
I learned a lot from these particular experiences, and it shaped how I plan projects, develop software, and communicate progress. I rapidly became a much better consultant and learned how to frame tense situations as anger about a project and not with me personally.
I also learned how valuable good relationships are. Fortunately, I had developed solid relationships with both people above prior to those conversations, and by fixing the problems, those relationships became even stronger afterwards.
Lastly, I realized the value of a strong support network. My manager gave me great, timely advice in those times, and I had a strong team that stepped up to help however they could. Without a great team, I doubt I would have had the space or ability to grow in the ways I did.
I also burned out like no other. In both cases, It took me at least two months to mentally and physically recover after the project successfully completed. I thought about quitting my job for a while and vowed to avoid this fatigue in the future, which of course I failed to do.
Ultimately, these "trials by fire" led to some extremely rapid development for my skillset, but I can't help but wonder about the cost vs benefit of this experience.
I wouldn’t want to go back in time to change or avoid these experiences, because I don’t think I would have become who I am today without them. I also think about all of the great people I’ve worked with that weren’t so fortunate. Burn out can hit people hard, and I’ve seen great developers and consultants leave the industry because of it.
I can't doubt the effectiveness of trial by fire for growing consultant skills, but with such a high risk of negative impact, it means we can do better. 1 in 5 highly engaged employees are at risk of burnout, a number which, after a dozen or so years in consulting, seems low.
As someone who wants to be a consultant for their entire career, I’d like to see that number drop all the way down to zero. How can that happen?
At Test Double, we do a number of things to avoid burnout and give our agents the ability to grow as consultants. Beyond just taking time off, we have:
- A distributed company with remote employees goes a long way towards keeping people closer to their families.
- Built in slack time (10% of the work week), in theory, gives the chance for the mind to wander away from their directed client work
- A growth chart and support agents that allow people to self-assess their own skills and get feedback from a peer on their current skill levels.
This mitigates the downside of burnout, which goes a long way, but it’s not as intentional about capturing the positive impacts of difficult projects.
One of the hardest things to do well as a group of consultants is effective staffing. In an ideal state, projects can be staffed with a blended set of consulting skills and experience. By leveraging a senior consultant’s skills, we can keep clients happy by making sure the strategic goals of the project are being fulfilled and create space to grow safely.
Paired with a more experienced consultant, a consultant with less experience still is at risk of failing—they will need to work hard to establish trust and good relationships, learn communication patterns, clean up messes, and learn how to prevent them—but they aren’t flying solo. There’s always an alarm they can raise, but they are also expected to deliver individually.
The consultant mindset
Although not many people dream of being a consultant when they grow up, there is certainly a mindset that is apt for consulting. Searching for this in the hiring process ensures that expectations are set properly coming in the door and further raises the success rate of growing strong consultants.
Since it’s not always possible to just hire experienced consultants who already love the job, filtering by experience isn’t always the best option. I prefer to look for the following, non-exhaustive list of abilities:
- Adapt communication styles to their audience - the goal is to be understood and agree, not to be right
- Healthy detachment from pressure - if the project’s going poorly, it’s not a reflection of you as a person
- Persistence in problem solving - building trust and credibility in difficult situations is like solving a puzzle, and you need to find all the pieces
- Valuing preventing fires versus firefighting - I’d rather have someone who was great at making a project run smoothly than someone who operates solely in hero mode to get things done
Challenging, not toxic environments
The experiences I shared took in very challenging environments, but for the reasons listed, they fell short of the definition of a toxic work environment. Be vigilant for those signs, and know when to cut bait.
Prevent harm while enabling growth
I’ve worked with some amazing consultants who have managed their own consultancies that are eager to avoid toxic work environments. Sometimes this overprotectiveness can stymie growth. The best of both worlds is possible with strong personal and professional support, as well as clear expectations for what someone is getting themselves into if they walk down this path.
If you’re about to embark on a career in consulting, look for these traits in whatever company you choose to join. If you’re already covered in scars...well, me too. It can make you stronger, but you also don’t need to keep accumulating them to keep growing.