Things I Wish I Knew on My Path to a Career in Consulting

When I finished my undergraduate degree, I did not know that I wanted to work in consulting. I had built – to paraphrase Liam Neeson – a very specific set of skills for a different career, only to discover that was not the career I really wanted after graduating. My path to a career in consulting was by no means the most direct path, and it was filled with a great deal of frustration, disappointment, and – yes – rejection. So, I write this blog post today with the hope that I can save you, dear reader, some of the difficulties that I had to figure out for myself.

Working Your Network

The Value of Connection

One of the most common things that one will hear when they get into consulting is that “your network is one of your most powerful assets.” This message has been drilled into me as a consultant and the longer I have been in this career, the more I have found it to be true. As a consultant, your network is how you get staffed on the projects you want, how you get answers to the questions your clients ask you, and how you can learn about new opportunities to grow in your career.

Before the introverted readers close out of this blog post in despair, let me assure you that while “networking” may come more naturally to some, it is absolutely a skill that can be learned by anyone. There are many consultants, myself included, who are not dyed in the wool extroverts, but rather have built calluses around some of the activities necessary to gather contacts and grow the relationships we need. That’s really what networking is. Making it a habit to engage in behaviors that will help you connect with others in the right places so that when you need them, you can reach out to those connections for guidance or help.

Beyond LinkedIn

But what does it look like? Social networks are ubiquitous, and LinkedIn is certainly a helpful tool – but the number of connections someone has on their profile is not necessarily indicative of the power of their network. The best experiences that I have had leveraging interactions on LinkedIn to something real have all been through relationships that existed outside of the platform. When I was first applying to consulting firms, the most helpful advice and guidance I was given all came from alumni from the universities that I attended for undergrad or graduate school. The final referral that got my foot in the door at my first consulting firm was my wife’s cousin who worked in the tax side of the firm. The point is while going to local meetups or joining networking groups can help – it is the people that you establish real, meaningful connections with that will likely be the ones to invest the effort to really help you.

Just 15 Minutes

Everyone has 15 minutes. Everyone has also had to start their careers, and know how difficult it can be, and how painfully awkward it can be to take that first step to reach out. One of the things that I have had to learn is that it is okay to ask others for some of their time. One thing that I love about my current firm is that it does not matter if a person is my peer, or a senior principal with the firm, I can absolutely reach out and ask for 15 minutes of their time – even if it is just for a conversation and introduction. This is what I was talking about earlier when I mentioned needing to cultivate habits that will enable the connections you need to succeed. You need to believe that you are worth talking to; you are, trust me. Send a message, be polite, and ask someone for 15 minutes of their time. When in doubt, ask them to tell you their story – everyone loves talking about themselves. You never know, that one conversation can be the door you need to open.

Building Your Resume

Find Your Direction

One of the biggest mistakes that I see people make on their resumes when first starting out is that they try to have one, all encompassing document for any possible role that might be willing to take them. I know I did the exact same thing right after I graduated. The thing is, hiring managers are looking for a specific person with a specific skill set to fit a specific role. Figure out what it is that you want to do, and tailor your resume in that direction. For example, if you want to go into consulting, do you want to be within technology consulting, strategy consulting, or human capital consulting? Do you know the differences? It may take time to figure out exactly what it is that you want to do. However, the more time and effort you spend figuring out what it is that you’re passionate about, and what you want to do – the better you will be prepared when you’re eventually asked the “why this job,” question in your interview, and the happier you will be in the long run with the job you find.

A Basket of Skills

It’s easy to say, “figure out what you want to do,” but much harder to actually get hired to do that job. I know this to be true from personal experience. A friend of mine coined the phrase “basket of skills,” and I have used that concept ever since. 

Anyone who has ever played a role-playing video game, or watched the Mandalorian on Disney+ will be familiar with the concept of a “get-quest.” The assignor of the quest has something the main character wants, and tells the main character that in order to get that thing, they must go acquire some other item or set of items to trade. Think of hiring managers or recruiters in the same way. They have a job that you want. In order to get that job, you need to go and acquire specific things to fulfill your end of the deal. Excellent PowerPoint abilities? Add that skill to your basket. Lean six sigma certification? Add that skill to your basket. Each line on that job description is another item that you need to go “add to your basket” so you can bring it back and exchange it for the job to complete your quest.

Telling Your Story

Gathering skills is not a one time exercise to be completed prior to your first job and then never worked on again. One of the things that consulting constantly talks about in terms of defining your performance in any given year is, “what is your story?” What did you do that was amazing and demonstrates that you’re a top performer? This strategy should also be a defining characteristic of your resume when you are trying to move from one job to the next. As I mentioned earlier, you should always be thinking about where it is that you want to go – and use that direction to guide you in the decisions you make with respect to what experiences you pursue so the next time you go to tell your story, you’ve had the experiences you needed to fill your basket with the right skills. Then, write your resume to focus on how you really set yourself apart in the role, rather than wasting space describing what anyone in that position would have been expected to do.

The Importance of Perseverance

“No” Means “Not Yet”

This may come as a shock, but in your job search you will likely be told, “No” alot. Like a whole lot. Prior to getting my first full time job, I submitted more than 300 applications. Prior to getting my first offer to work at my current employer, I applied no less than 9 times. I was told, “No,” over and over again. It was not fun. It made me question every decision I’d made, and whether I would ever be good enough to get any job. But I got through it. The first 8 rejections that I received from my current employer had no bearing whatsoever on the 9th application I submitted that was ultimately successful. I had to constantly grow, reassess what I had to offer, and add new skills to my basket. In doing so, I was ultimately able to get the role that I wanted. I have read that the defining characteristic of successful people is not affluence, education, or even intelligence – but rather “grit.” Grit is defined as a person’s willingness to get up, learn from their mistakes, and continue on despite setbacks. It is this quality that is the best predictor of success. 

Confident Humility

One defining lesson that I have learned from my time in consulting is that as a consultant, one of your primary values to the client is confidence. This does not necessarily mean that you are confident that you know everything, or that you should give the appearance of being infallible, but that you are confident in your ability to get to the right answer. You can grow your confidence through your research, your experiences, or your network of friends and colleagues. Your confidence in your own ability to grow and adapt will be one thing that will allow you to get past any rejections you receive, bolstered by the knowledge you have the capacity to improve yourself. It is for this reason that in addition to confidence, humility is paradoxically equally important. It will do you no good to be “confident” that your skills are what a company needs, if the hiring manager feels otherwise. The best leaders that I have worked with have been the ones most willing to solicit input from others, and not insist that their way was best, simply because it was their way. Solicit feedback, welcome it, and own the reality that you will always have more to grow and learn. 

Be Open to Opportunities

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a mentor that I got while I was at University of Washington. He told me that, “While it is good to have a direction you want your life to go, do not be so focused on that goal that you ignore other opportunities as they arise.” To be honest, at the time this seemed like generic advice that did not mean much of anything. However, the longer that I have been in my career, the more I have come to appreciate how wise that advice was. The first two jobs that I had after college were not companies that I ever would have seen myself working for, and yet each one of them gave me some of the skills I needed to get one step closer to the career I ultimately wanted. As you progress in your career and develop your skill sets to build our story, the more time you spend on any one path will start to close doors to other paths you might have taken. As such, it is important to give each door that is opened for you its due consideration, even if it was not necessarily the door you expected.

The Take Away

If you take nothing else away from this blog post, let it be the following three concepts:

  1. Be confident in your own self worth.
  2. Be willing to acknowledge that you have room to grow.
  3. Be ready to take advantage of opportunities you weren’t looking for.
Andrew Weckerly graduated from the University of Wisconsin with undergraduate degrees in Political Science, East Asian Studies, and Chinese.  He graduated from the University of Washington with a master’s degree in China Studies.
By Andrew Weckerly
Andrew Weckerly Senior Consultant