“After more than a decade in leadership roles across various global media agencies, I asked my current employer if I could transition to a consulting role. And they agreed. So this year, I’ve become a principal consultant to the chief transformation officer at the global media firm where I’ve worked for the last two years. I help plan, design and drive adoption of change across key digital transformation projects in our firm. I also nurture and coach our key talent and prepare them for leadership roles. My own hands-on experience in digital transformation and marketing has helped me build credibility and trust internally, coupled with the fact that I have a good understanding of the internal processes, systems and the strategic challenges facing the business. In many ways, I remain the quintessential insider who is expected to have a more holistic view of our change management agenda. Of late though, I have begun to wonder whether I should continue playing the role of a full-time consultant. Or am I better off moving to a part-time consulting role, take on other clients, widen my sphere of influence and acquire a more diverse experience? What do you think is the best course of action from a long-term career standpoint?
~ Name withheld
It’s a question that many leaders face, but only a few of them actually give up the operational/line role and take up an internal consulting role. Doing this has many advantages as well as disadvantages—for the organisation and the individual taking on the role. I’ll try and identify a few.
From the organisation’s perspective, it is easier to work with someone who knows the system, the people and the issues. There is no need for extended knowledge transition in explaining the situation. And the learnings and ideas will be retained within the organisation.
For the employee too there are benefits of being an internal consultant. They would be able to see the organisation in a new light. They can work on less operational jobs and focus more on the strategic, talent and change-related aspects of the job—typically the responsibility of the C suite. A young employee taking on such a consulting role would get a helicopter view of things very quickly and a better chance of being recognised by the leadership for other challenging roles.
In my experience, I have seen this arrangement working well when the organisation is rolling out a solution across multiple locations and countries. For example, when a large-scale IT system is being rolled out to a new location, some of the team would be drawn from a location that has already adopted this system, since their expertise and experience would provide valuable and practical insights to the teams at the new location.
For the employee though, building a career as an internal consultant is fraught with risks. The internal consulting role needs to be contrasted with external consultants to understand the issues better. Let’s look at a few of them.
1. Consultants are expected to bring in a diverse set of skills: problem identification, knowledge of industry/best practices, cross-industry exposure, awareness of tools and techniques used in different business situations, facilitation, and mentoring, to name a few. As a consultant, one has to constantly engage and hone these skills in real business settings—and they have to keep getting better at a few skills with every engagement. In other words, they need to be known and recognised for the niche skill they bring to the table. It can be strategic (market entry, mergers and acquisitions, joint venture), operational (programme management, people management), technical (IT or core R&D). In the case of internal consultants, they would have to rely on their organisation to provide these opportunities to stay on top of their game. Few organisations are able to provide these opportunities on an ongoing basis. In such a scenario, the consultant would certainly be constrained by the variety offered in an organisation and they may have to invest their own time and effort to get such exposure.
2. It is also important to consider the benefits an external consultant brings along. Some key differentiated ones are: ability to connect the organisation to their network of contacts—in the same industry, the government, and best practice organisations; bringing in a truly unbiased external perspective and the ability to attach their name to a report that signals external validation; the ability to cut across hierarchies; and the ability to say and do the right thing without fear of getting into a political situation with the leadership. In contrast, these are not things the internal consultant would be able to do consistently, thus reducing their potential to play a comprehensive role.
A good example highlighting these points comes to mind. I have in my previous roles been an external consultant in the customer relationship management (CRM) domain. I used to work with four-five customers simultaneously on their CRM programs. In addition, I used to meet a lot of companies that were either exploring solutions or were stuck with understanding their customer management programs. This exposure gave me a worldview of what was working and what wasn’t with CRM programs, the broad industry and technology trends and a playbook to help with adoption. I did meet a few companies that had appointed an internal consultant to explore their CRM programs. I could see that they were competent, but simply lacked the perspective and experience of the evolving field outside their own organisations.
3. The maturity of the organisation matters a lot in how they treat the careers of internal consultants.
Typical organisations place much importance on performing line jobs for career progression. As a consultant with limited direct line responsibilities, the chances of getting up the hierarchy are usually limited. I have also seen internal consultants being rendered redundant after a change in the strategy or after a leadership change.
However, there are examples of organisations that promoted highly experienced line managers as consultants. One great example is Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, who rose from being a shop floor supervisor to a mentor/consultant to the entire Toyota supplier network (including Toyota). Toyota needed an ambassador to talk to their partners about their unique production process, a process that was largely invented by Ohno. Hence, in his later years, Ohno played the role of a consultant rather than a manager in the Toyota system.
So how can organisations and internal consultants maximise the opportunity of the arrangement?
From an organisation’s perspective, I have seen some arrangements that work. Here are a few:
1. Define a career path for internal consultants. This is much more difficult than it sounds. In some cases, I have seen a time-bound programme after which the consultant returns to the line job. In others, I have seen a function created—often called a COE (centre of excellence) where such consultants are housed. There could also be rotation of the consultants into and out of the COE to maintain a high level of productivity. If the role of an internal consultant is seen as aspirational, the better candidates will opt for it. Else the top talent may not want to participate in this effort.
2. Define clear goals for consulting work—either specific outcomes or tasks. For example, after the conclusion of an M&A activity, the consultant could return to the line work. Or in the case of a COE, hand-hold a specific project to fruition, like a proof of concept or a commercial idea. The definition should include whether the role is just an advisory position or does it involve the judgement of decision making. This is usually not well highlighted, and a major source of misunderstanding.
3. Provide enough opportunities for the consultant to step outside the organisation. Allow them to participate in industry and cross-industry programmes, hackathons, open source forums etc., and encourage them to build their independent brand. The last one is a bit contentious, but in a socially connected world, such efforts have a positive rub-off effect on both the consultants and the organisation.
4. Build a knowledge platform for sharing the learnings of the consultants. In most organisations, learnings are never fully captured, because people are too busy “running stuff”. Internal consultants will need to be mandated to capture learnings, experiments, war stories and anecdotes for communication and future reference.
In my experience, there are a few areas that are not well addressed and cause internal conflict. If the organisation can make these explicit, they can reap a lot out of the arrangement
1. Create a structure that is independent of existing hierarchy—this could help in reducing the politics behind the functioning.
2. Pay attention to what an internal consultant is saying without any risk to their careers. Ring-fence them in some way so that they can be candid and forthright in their assessment of situations.
From an individual’s perspective, I think a few actions can make them more effective in their internal consulting jobs:
1. Seek to take on wicked challenges and own the business outcomes, where possible.
2. Don’t shy away from taking on specific objectives and key results for an area of work.
3. Stay on top of the domain you are operating in and seek both internal and external help to address new situations.
4. Publish and share the work that you do for internal and external audiences. This will help the work get noticed and appreciated.
Progressive organisations have defined managers to play the role of a consultant in addition to their line responsibilities. This makes everyone think and act in a more well-rounded way, but does not necessarily get the full advantages of a specialised consulting role. The role of an internal consultant is evolving, and in a typical organisation, does come with some of the restrictions I mentioned before.
In the current situation described in the question, I would suggest that you take the skills and knowledge gained as an internal consultant and bring it as a differentiator to the next line job when it is time to step onto the elevator. However, if you want to build deep domain expertise in a particular area, a better option would be to join an external consulting outfit that fulfils your aspirations, for they can best prepare you to play the role of a well-rounded consultant, including how to value your work and sell it to clients.
- Consulting is more than giving advice, by Arthur N. Turner | Harvard Business Review
- Managing knowledge through stories: Stop knowledge from walking out the door, by Indranil Chakraborty | Founding Fuel