Ultra-specialization: the secret to being a successful consultant

We sit across from each other, broad cups of peppermint tea cupped in our hands, oblivious to everyone else.

I am seduced by his wavy blond hair and blue eyes, easy smile and rich vocabulary. Earlier that evening, he told me about graduating from the world’s top university, and his new job in the capital city, with a large, sort of bureaucratic and slow organisation.

“Doesn’t seem like you,” I say. “Wouldn’t you rather do something else?”

“It’s a 9 to 5,” he says. “I want to do something after five p.m., something more flexible.”

“What are you thinking of doing?” I ask him, totally jazzed to find a kindred spirit in entrepreneurial passions.

Obviously, I want to launch right into a sales pitch for becoming a consultant, but the moment is not quite right.

“Well, they have the best hot pot at my favourite restaurant in Shanghai,” he says, face full of nostalgia. “I thought about opening a hot pot place, maybe make it fusion cuisine.”

I lean back, slowly sipping my tea. All previous sentiment evaporates immediately; I am unimpressed by his silly business ideas.

“What do you think of that idea?” he asks with his boyish grin, and I wonder, do they teach them this charm at the Ivy Leagues?

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” I say in a flat voice, setting down my cup. “Go ask your clients. They are your buyers, it’s what they think that counts.”

“I’m still curious to know your opinion,” he insists, and I think, damn, he’s good.

“I don’t want to play in the $2 sandbox,” I say. “I’d rather play in the $200 sandbox.”

He looks a little nonplussed. I decide to try a different tack.

“Think about what you’re already good at,” I tell him, trying to also say, ‘Dude! Forget the Chinese restaurant!’

That brilliant white smile reappears: “I’ve done tennis coaching at $50/hour!” he says. His face lights up, and it’s immediately obvious that he is more than very good at tennis, not least from his rate.

“But just I don’t know how I’d scale that,” eyes turn towards his now-empty cup.
“Just record lessons on the fastest backhand ever,” I tell him, “And then put it online. That’s your scaling-up strategy.”

“Yeah, but nobody learns tennis online,” he counters swiftly.

“My brother learnt the breaststroke from YouTube videos,” I respond, slowly. “And everything I know about classical dance is from watching videos of the New York City ballet.

“What about those kids in Belarus, who can’t play tennis outside most of the year? Or the ones in Egypt who love the game but can’t afford to rent a court for an hour?” I say, remembering the hours batting the fuzzy green ball against the walls of our tiny city apartment as an eight-year-old.

“That’s true,” he says, eyes distant.

The conversation moves on to travel and growing up in a country in which your parents no longer live; like me, he spent his influential 13 years in a place where education outranks entrepreneurship, with parents who pushed learning from books over lemonade stands on the street, and an expensive education that makes you think, I should have a LinkedIn-worthy job title.
Who would he be if all he did was teach tennis on the internet?

But consulting is counter-intuitive, in that, even in the NGO world where everyone is obsessed about getting that prestigious position at the U.N., it’s not about playing the prestige game, it’s about high-quality service to tightly-defined, “niched-down” clientele that you want so much to succeed, they feel it instantly. Think less “climate change and sustainability” and more “project management for five-year projects run by certification schemes in Southeast Asia. After two full months studying the consultancies published every day, 33 conversations on Skype and in person with my colleagues and old friends, to learn what most bugged them about their projects and where they really needed help, and endless hours perusing the websites of the organisations that interested me, I knew my clients so well, I could even predict which projects they would not invest in.

To my own surprise and delight, my clients – people passionate about improving livelihoods, just like me – have been a joy to get to know. Interview after interview, my heart swells with feeling; I want so much for their projects to succeed, I’d happily work for free. Instead, thanks to gentle goading from my mentors, I’ve worked on asking them to pay me the rate I believe is fair, and they say, “Fine, of course, no problem,” or “Yeah, sure, totally.”

Thanks to a relentless focus on what my clients need (rather than what I’m most passionate about this month), my consulting business has grown from a restless desire to do more into a business serving large international orgnisations poised at the forefront of anti-poverty work, and phone calls from old friends to say, “We’re looking for someone, do you think you could help us with this project?”

Start from what you know how to do in your sleep, remember that studying your clients never stops, and let the people you want to serve guide you to your first (and second and fifth) contract.

Because there are some things they don’t teach you at Harvard.

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?