How to tell if you’ll get that consultancy

“Do you like telling people what to do?” Jennifer had asked me, only half joking, during our informal interview for my first major consulting role.

“Oh, yes, very much,” I’d laughed back, half serious, remembering a childhood full of being called “bossy,” later tempered by lots of literature on emotional intelligence.

One week later, I was hired to manage a 15-person team on a United Nations project, wearing my favourite blue blazer for added confidence, installing a new email address on my laptop.

That year was one of my favorites, not solely because of the steep learning curve and the feeling of being challenged, learning on the go, and the chance to do what I was truly passionate about – but also because of the inherent benefits that come with being a consultant:  interesting, high-level work, a global team, maybe the flexibility to work from home, and the chance to contribute to work that really matters, all without the challenges of a full-time job. Who wouldn’t want to be a consultant?

Yet so often, these exciting, dynamic contracts can feel so out of reach. Several years ago, at a meditation event, I met a tall woman with cornrowed hair and eyes glittering with intelligence, who introduced herself as a higher education specialist with PhD in education and  looking for a new challenge.

“What do you do?” Diana then asked me, curious but nonchalant.

“I’m a consultant,” I told her, “and I’m working on an environmental risk management and mitigation project with USAID.”

“How in the world does a 23-year-old get hired to be a consultant?!” she cried, stunned.

But that’s exactly the point: since it’s so often short-term and all about deliverables, getting hired as a consultant is almost never about age, race, nationality, or socio-economic status and far more based on your chances of doing a good job, which should, ideally, be 100% or higher.

“I’d love to get a consultancy at the World Bank, or even something in India,” Diana continued, “but I’m not sure how to actually get a contract. And I always thought they want someone with a lot of experience.”

Not necessarily. Consultancies are like Rubik’s cubes: you simply need to get the colours to match.

Here’s how can you predict your chances of success on a consultancy (and then demonstrate that in the application):

1. The Harry meets Sally moment.
Just like with meeting your soulmate, finding the right consultancy position doesn’t get announced on a loudspeaker. Rather, you’ll know it when what they need and what you can (and like) to do are a natural click.

Right before finding the UN project position advertised on Idealist, I’d applied to (and been rejected by) five other consultancies. In each case, the job sounded interesting, the project goals I could get on board with, and the organization was respectable enough that I’d work for them. But none were a natural, obvious fit that guaranteed synergy; either because I did not have the right education, nor previous work experience that perfectly overlapped with the consultancy’s duties, or I lacked a passion for their theme. Last week, I was invited to interview for a contract with a different UN agency: from the moment I read the job description, I thought, I am exactly what they’re looking for and they will not find a better fit.

After all, Sally wasn’t the most beautiful and Harry not the richest. But it was a soundless, fairly uneventful click from the very beginning.

2. The “Sure, I’ve done that!” Feeling
As a consultant, you’re there to perform, and perform well, from day one: spotting problems before they are serious, planning the day’s work before it has to be executed, and proposing ideas before your boss asks for results. You can accurately predict your chances of success doing this if, when reading the job description, you get that feeling of “Sure, I’ve already done this!” – which will tell you that you have a good chance of getting the role, and will come through in your application as confidence in your ability to hit the ground running.

3. You’d happily say adios to sick leave.

As a consultant, you generally don’t get the perks and benefits of a full time job, like paid time off, paid sick leave, and days off to look after a sick relative, or even maternity leave. Consultancies mean being on-call all the time, and working around the needs of the project. Plus, the schedule can wear you out.”Since I started, I haven’t had a break,” said a friend at the OECD. “I haven’t had a proper week of vacation in over six months.”

Instead, vacation benefits are paid to you in dollars while you’re on the job (i.e. You factor in those costs when setting your rate), and I’ve always thought this was a fair, if sometmes inconvenient deal.

Nonetheless, I’m sometimes envious of friends who take three-week vacations without a glance at their inbox, and my brother who can rely on his team when he’s not at work. They, however, envy my ability to take a day off without asking for permission, and the fact that I set my own salary – consulting has its own set of perks.

Have you applied for a UN consultancy? Tell me in the comments below – what’s surprised you about the application process?

The interview went well. What can I do to ensure they pick me?

“Yesterday I had an interview with UNHCR. It went quite well. Most of the questions were fairly standard — albeit that one of the panelists seemed a little disappointed when I said — after he’d asked — that I don’t have experience with a few specific types of cases. But there, unfortunately, there’s little I can change about that.

“I’ve had two internships at UNHCR. Do you think that at this stage it could still be appropriate to ask some of my former colleagues there to put in a good word for me? Or is this something that could also backfire? They informed me that there will be no further interviews or other assessments and that they would notify me of the outcome in three weeks.”

How to handle Impostor Syndrome

My phone rings at 11:05 a.m on Monday morning; I’m at the grocery store, stuffing spinach into a canvas tote bag. The number is not a local one; I answer, and don’t recognise the voice at the other end, amidst the shuffle at the check-out line.

“Malaika, it’s me, I’m sorry I haven’t contacted you in a while, but I need to ask for your advice.”

It’s an acquaintance from German class; we met while struggling through grammar, and sort of bonded because we both work on climate change and sustainability in our day jobs. Last October, he received a plum position in Sri Lanka, and moved there to chair a climate fund.

The line crackles. I’m a little taken aback by his call, and startled that he’s asking me (ME!) for advice. I pick up my groceries, heading home, listening as he lays out the project he’s working on, what he needs help with, his email address.

“Sure, I’ll write you,” I tell him, happy to help. After hanging up, I lean against the kitchen wall, smiling. Somehow, this guy who’s CEO of an investment body, is asking me for advice. The call gives me a boost of confidence; combined with lots of sunshine and the promise of spring, it seems like life cannot get better.

Later that afternoon, still on a high, I call my best friend, and tell her the news.

“It’s amazing that he considers me an expert,” I tell her.

“People love getting free advice,” she says in a monotone voice. “You’re only an expert if they’re hiring you.”

My happy bubble bursts, I immediately feel deflated, and I begin to wonder if ten years of working in climate change and sustainability is not enough to make me an expert. Impostor Syndrome sets in; suddenly, I’m just another girl with a couple of degrees and lots of questions.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, writes about this in her book, Lean In:

“Don’t flaunt your success, or even let people know about your success”, she told herself while in business school.

This morning, warm cups of coffee in our hands, a dear friend – herself a doctor – tells me something similar. “It’s intimidating when you speak so confidently,” she says.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be confident, I think. Perhaps I’m not really an expert, or anything of the sort.

This is the part that no one talks about: the doubt that plagues you late at night, the moments of unsurety that seem to come from nowhere, the seconds after someone has asked you a question when you pause for what feels like æons wondering, am I even qualified to answer?

Ten years of climate change work, sustainability jargon as familiar to me as my morning breakfast, hundreds of LinkedIn connections who work in this sector, job offers left and right, and still, I have these moments of doubt, compounded by loved ones who unknowingly underline the questions rather than buoying me up with that beloved trope, “You can do it.”

This month, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s easy to think Impostor Syndrome is a primarily female situation. But another friend, a guy with a popular niche blog and thousands of subscribers, tells me he never tells anyone about his website.

Despite the doubts, as Sandberg so wisely writes, in order to grow and challenge ourselves, we have to believe in our own abilities.

We have to underline our own prowess, remind ourselves of our right to succeed, and bear in mind that we’re here to play the long game, great projects and great careers are not built overnight, and the little things deserve to be celebrated, even if it’s a party of one.

After the phone call with my friend, I felt bad for about two hours before realising, hey, she doesn’t work in climate change and doesn’t know how this sector operates. Plus, I’m happy that they aren’t hiring me because I have enough on my plate right now.

Wherever you are, whatever you’re working on, tune out the noise, set up your emotional boundaries, and charge forward. We are all champions if we choose to be.