Earlier today I read a blog post that compares consultants with corporate staff members. The author unashamedly compares consultants to major league baseball players, while grouping corporate staffers into the minor leagues. While he does make a few valid points, the theme of the post – as well as many of the assumptions he makes – are out of left field.
Before I share any further thoughts, I should briefly discuss my own past experience. For the first decade or so of my career, I was that very corporate staff member, having worked at two different relatively large (1000+ people) companies. I’ve since changed roles, and am now a business intelligence consultant. So naturally I have empathy for both groups of individuals we’re discussing here.
The article is not completely absent of reality. Amidst the demoralization of non-consultants, the author makes the valid point that staff members in a corporate environment can make the transition into consulting. Further, the article points out that consulting companies must use due care when recruiting into a consulting role someone who has never before been a consultant. Also, we are reminded that consultants often juggle multiple assignments at once, and may report through many different corporate hierarchies at once.
Apart from these few nuggets of truth, I take issue with most of the other conjecture presented by the author.
As I mentioned, I’ve worked in both camps. While I can attest to the fact that there are a lot of major leaguers in the consulting world, I’m just as quick to bring up that there are many, many superstars in the corporate world as well. If the author’s consultants fail to recognize the rock star contributions made by their clients’ staff members, they are doing those clients – and themselves – a disservice.
Also alluded to is the notion that corporate types do not have sufficient breadth of experience to be considered a major leaguer. Again referring to my own experience, I would not have had the opportunity to learn about so many different subject areas had it not been for my experience before my consulting career began. I learned how to replace and rebuild drive arrays, build servers and networks from scratch, troubleshoot network connectivity issues, develop and troubleshoot software using various languages, and lots of other tasks that I could not possibly have been trained in as as a consultant. Further, I’ve met a number of consultants who are very deep but not broad, and they end up being so laser-focused on their specialty that they have little knowledge of matters outside their area of expertise.
Curiously, the author makes little mention of dialoging with end users to discover their business needs. Note that I wrote “business needs” without mentioning technical needs. A high-quality consultant is not a hired gun who comes in simply to sling code/build a network/create a data warehouse; rather, he/she will meet with business principals to discover the root of the problem or need, and will partner with (write that down) their clients to cooperatively develop a solution. There are many sharp corporate staffers who spend much of their time in front of the business users, giving them a greater appreciation for the underlying processes than a just-show-me-the-code kind of consultant.
The underlying tone of the article reflects an us-and-them mentality. The author points to the success of his company, and draws the line between the superstars he hires and “the others” of average talent who are not consultants. Sadly, though, the author is not alone in his opinion; there are many who believe that consultants are the best-of-the-best, and that others should aspire to work their way into such a prestigious role. Fortunately, those consultants are often easy to spot – they are quick to tell the client everything that the client’s own staff are screwing up, and can often be heard shouting “The sky is falling!” during meetings with executives. While some of these types do find success, I suspect that they don’t get a lot of repeat business.
Are there great consultants and mediocre corporate staffers? You bet. But the reverse can also be found in abundance. Good consultants recognize that their clients are partners and not simply a general ledger account against which to bill, and they treat the clients’ staff members – as well as their contributions – with respect and appreciation.