Financial Post

Financial Post

Financial Post

So, you want to be a consultant, do you?
A solid grounding in your field of choice is crucial, as is the willingness to work hard and invest in the right education
By David Cobain
For the Financial Post

Forget driving locomotives, delving into patients’ grey cells, even piloting the Concorde. As the Western Hemisphere moves toward a comprehensive service economy, the coolest aspiration for today’s teens may be management consulting, providing for a fee supplemental expertise on various aspects of corporate affairs.

While perhaps not as exciting as chauffeuring the high and the mighty through the stratosphere, or as rewarding as the Mercedes-and-Mediterranean lifestyles of brain surgeons, management consulting has a cachet all its own. It offers professional status, variety, scope for self-employment and — for the best — earning levels way above the average.

But how does an ambitious young man or woman break into the business? What schooling do aspirants need, what interests should they have? And how do they find answers to their questions? We asked two management consultants running their own small companies.

Douglas Fisher, president of FHG International, a food service and franchise consultancy with offices in Toronto and Miami, had an unconventional start in the business. “I dropped out of university and went ski-bumming,” he confesses. Today, he continues to feel the magnetic pull of the slopes.

Fisher: Ideally, aspiring consultants should work for five years in the field in which they plan to specialize as practitioners.

“During those years, I learned the restaurant business from the bottom up and ran two restaurants in Utah,” Fisher says. Then I returned to do an undergraduate degree at York University, and a master’s in hotel and food service administration. Originally, I planned to have my own restaurant, but I began thinking of management consultancy.”

Fisher liked the restaurant business and wanted to stay in it. “But I began to see the drawbacks of working for one company. I wanted to be able to explore, to continue to be challenged, to solve problems. The idea of consulting and being able to be in 10 different people’s businesses was pretty exciting to me.”

Fisher opened his practice within months of finishing his schooling in 1984 and has not, he says, regretted his decision for a minute. His only concern about his chosen industry is the increasing number of individuals who regard it as employment of last resort, a respite between their last job and the one they hope to find.

“They’re not necessarily the right people to be consulting,” Fisher says. “But for the young man or woman who decides early on management consulting, I would recommend a number of preparations. The first is to complete their university education, and take a degree reflecting their interests. A master’s of business administration or a law degree would be excellent.”

Ideally, aspiring consultants should work for five years between their undergraduate studies and attending graduate school. “This provides experience in the field that interests them,” Fisher says. “They can go into industry and learn the practical aspects of taking an academic background and putting it into the real business world.”

“Once they’ve learned about marketing or information technology or whatever interests them, and come to understand the dynamics of the industry, I think they should be in a position to hang out a shingle and call themselves management consultants.”

But if a student is unsure whether to pursue a career in management consulting, Fisher says, an “eye-opening experience” is taking a course offered by the Institute of Certified Management Consultants. “At the same time, they should try to find a mentor in the business to determine whether it’s the type of work that really interests them,” he says.

Not as sanguine about the importance or effectiveness of certification by the institute, a process requiring six examinations and a case study, is Mike Kennedy, who runs Performance Executive Development in Montreal and Ottawa. “My understanding is that, basically, this means someone has worked for a consulting firm for a couple of years and passed an exam,” he says.

Kennedy, formerly director of placement for MBA program at McGill University, also maintains that graduate degrees are not always indicative of competence of employability. “Some of the most successful consultants I’ve met didn’t have very strong academic backgrounds,” he says. “More important considerations are the individual’s business skills and ethics.”

Kennedy believes individuals’ understanding of their personal skills and their ability to apply them creatively to other people’s problems are key to being a good management consultant.

“One skill that is extremely important, in my experience, is writing well,” he says. “A lot of consulting involves writing reports and preparing presentations. It’s surprising how many business people don’t enjoy writing and don’t do it particularly well. If you can’t write well, I would not recommend management consulting as a career.”

Networking, the ability to get on well with a variety of individuals who might provide recommendations, is also vital to successful management consultancy, Kennedy says. So are having a realistic idea of what to charge for professional services and tolerance for the sense of isolation that so often afflicts the self-employed.

Finally, both men stress the need to keep overhead down. Avoid outside financing, they say, but buy good office equipment. Indispensable, and increasingly affordable, are a computer, a laser printer and a fax machine.

These, plus talent, skill and effort, should take a new management consultant a long way. Perhaps one day, even on a Mediterranean vacation.