What I learned from being a strategic consultant

What I learned from being a strategic consultant

Photo by Robert Frank

When I graduated in 2010, I didn’t have a clue about my future except for one thing:

Don’t spend the next four years drawing bathroom details.

I landed a job with AECOM’s Strategy Plus practice (then DEGW) shortly after graduating, and a whole new world of workplace research, change management and executive summaries lay before me. I was on my way to becoming a “strategic consultant,” whatever that meant…

Four years later, I’m a little bit older, I’ve got a better idea of what a Strategic Consultant is, and I still haven’t drawn a single bathroom detail. It’s been a formative four years, with a lot of accomplishments and just as many mistakes. I learned many invaluable lessons that will undoubtedly stay with me, and it makes it that much harder to say that these are my last few weeks at Strategy Plus before embarking on my next challenge. It’s true; all good things come to an end.

Looking back on my time with Strategy Plus, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with really great people on all sorts of projects, each challenging me to think differently, explore further, and no matter how difficult, produce results. The following are the top four things I’ve learned as a strategic consultant (and how I’ve applied them to my life).

Don’t expect everyone to listen

It’s easy to get invested and attached to a project. I could spend months doing research and developing recommendations that will help my client be successful, but unforeseen factors could prevent the recommendations from being implemented. It can be a huge blow to the ego, because it feels as if all that time was invested and the client spent their money for nothing. It took me some time to realize that this wasn’t the case – the client paid for expertise and advice, and what I have done is to provide the best recommendations for their success. It may eventually get implemented, but that’s all that the client asked for. Like opinions, people may ask you for them but they don’t necessarily have to listen to you.

Change is scary, but worthwhile

No matter how beneficial a recommendation may be, if it disrupts daily life in just the smallest way, prepare for resistance. Understandably – you work long enough doing something, you’ll start to understand how things work, you can predict outcomes, and eventually you develop a sense of control. Change is scary because it’s risky. Change asks you to abandon that control and do something different and foreign, something that may not have been done before so there is no precedent, no example to compare to. But what is life without risk? The thing with risks is this: there’s a chance that things may go poorly, or really, really well. And even if it isn’t what you’d hoped, you will have learned one way not to do things and you can bet the next attempt will be better.

Money doesn’t change ideas

Don’t get me wrong, money is a very real factor in consulting. It can either limit how much time you invest or offer you opportunities to try something different, or on a larger scale. However, I think that’s about all that money should affect: the scale of the work, not the quality. Whether the budget is hundreds of thousands of dollars, or just a few thousand, if I’m not giving it my all, I’m doing it wrong. Develop ideas and recommendations at the highest quality possible because at the end of the day, money doesn’t create ideas, you do.

Creativity is a choice

Let’s lay it out on the table. It’s clear that in this career (and in life), people may not listen to my valued opinion, people may resist and oppose me, and circumstances might prevent me from executing my ideas exactly how I envisioned, but none of this should stop me from creating great things and ideas. Why? Because, put simply, I don’t have control over those external factors. All I can control is how I adapt to situations, and what I choose to do from that point on. Not every project will be glamorous but there are always opportunities for creativity, even if you’re tackling the same issue on three different projects. I know it’s easier said than done, but I’ve learned, and truly believe, that creativity is only limited by how much you’re willing to do and how far you’re willing to explore.

Being a strategic consultant has shown me many new things and taught me a great deal about people as well as, even more so, about myself. As I prepare for an indefinite adventure exploring the country by myself, I can’t stop thinking about how foreign it will be and how this trip will completely force me out of my comfort zone. It’s exciting and intimidating, but after writing this, I realize I may be more prepared for it than I think.

 

Danny TranDanny Tran is a consultant at AECOM’s Strategy Plus practice in San Francisco.

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