In this article, I hope to share with you some tips and guidelines picked up over many years as an IT service management consultant. I have been blessed with managers who led by example and would share experiences so that I could learn from them. Some of the advice was through lessons learned the hard way.
I hope this gives you the motivation to strive for excellence and to recover quickly from mishaps, accepting that they are a part and parcel of the road to success. There are some rules that can be broken. There are distinguishing factors that separate those who lag versus those who lead. My university degree back in 1997 was the soil bed and seeds. Everything else, I learned in the real world. I hope you can apply some of my advice to your own career.
Tip #1: Be Yourself
Sometimes a bad apple or two can spoil the barrel. The image of consultants being rough people who come with their “wonder” methodology and try forcing it on the masses and being paid far more than their value is unfortunately common.
By contrast, the majority of the consultants I know are quite down to earth people with a family life and care about the well-being of their clients. When you see how much personal time they need to invest in their jobs, the marginal increase in salaries is in most cases justifiable.
So my tip here is that when you are out as a consultant, be yourself. Keep a pleasant smile on your face. Prove to your stakeholders that you care about them, professionally and generally as people. Some years ago, I’d left my car lights on in the car park of a high security client site. I was surprised to have a senior manager from another department drive up and offer to help start my engine up.
Be attuned to the environment you work in—stay on the pulse of things—but don’t sacrifice your values. Your process documentation might be updated or replaced one day, but your smile and good rapport with your colleagues will always be remembered.
One of my mistakes has been trying to be perfect at what I do. Traveling and seeing people across the world helped broaden my perspective. I found that, in reality, everybody is like me. So be kind to others and to yourself as well!
Tip #2: Be Flexible
Once upon a time, I was placed on a large-scale and high-profile project. The client was one of the largest governmental ministries in the country and was undergoing some major technology transformation. This was quite early in my consulting career, so I was very much focused on the intellectual capital of my company and engrossed in how to tweak and develop it for the need of my customer.
The client had been left with an extensive assessment report extending beyond 150 pages of recommendations. My scope was going to be around enhancing maturity only of a couple of the ITIL processes. It was clear to me that the scope of work was not clear to any of the stakeholders. We had constraints and had to deliver tangible value.
One of the first things I did was to persuade the client manager that we would use the ISO 20000 standard as our reference, and he agreed. This was very helpful as our timelines were stringent and quantifying maturity increases using numerical methods was going to be artificial and not beneficial to our customer at that point of time. I also explained how we should focus on only a few key recommendations of the assessment report. This again was finally accepted. The project moved forward in a constructive manner, and the client agreed to increase budget spend for additional resources to help us cover the limited scope in a focused and effective manner.
What I learned here was that so many of our clients understand the problem very well. They are extremely intelligent people who know their environments. What they don’t always have though is clarity on what the best solution is at that time. What alternatives exist for them? How could they combine elements of the solution from different areas into something holistic and complete? We must be the sincere and trusted advisors they need. We should put together a solution that may not necessarily be exactly what we put in the proposal. But based upon our analysis of the real situation, we may need to adjust aspects of our solution and then explain and clarify why this is what is best for our customer at that time. This will sometimes include discussions on the project scoping and how to deliver that which is most beneficial.
As consultants, we are a package deal. We do need to be constantly skill building. If, for example, you don’t know Microsoft Excel very well, ask your company for some training or self-learn according to the setup provided by your company. Success isn’t always about results; it is about you and being a shortcut. I am ready to do just about anything my customers require, of course keeping in mind my experience and background. If the requirement is below my level and I can get a junior person to help, it doesn’t make sense for me to use important project time when I could be on higher value responsibilities.
Keep your expectations aligned. Things will go wrong. It is our reaction to them that is important. Always be a problem solver. Learn to forgive and move on. Don’t forget there are many kind and great people who helped bring you to where you are today; many of them, you will never even know their names. If you feel it hard to forgive people who have erred against you, remember that even without your realizing, you have also hurt many people in the daily flow of life. All or most of them have probably forgiven you, without any apology from your side. So stay optimistic, forgive your fellow human beings, and treat people as you would like to be treated.
As consultants, we have to always be ready to go. Surprise is the norm in our industry. I have been asked to travel abroad to new projects with two-days’ notice! If the business demand is there; be flexible and move fast. Don’t feel bad about it; you are not alone. Stay positive. One tip for new projects though is always to ask for a few days before an on-site engagement to go through project documentation. You want to understand things as best as you can before moving on site. Prepare your full list of questions beforehand. Remember that many things will be unwritten; you will have to learn them on the ground.
I am often asked about working within a consulting firm versus going independent. I have certainly considered the latter option in the past. For myself as a family person, being part of a bigger organization is important. I can create a work and personal life balance that I know would be not possible for me otherwise. It also makes things simpler in our relationship with the client since is the business details are taken care of by various people in my company. My focus is then only on the delivery side, on improving myself and on what my customer needs from my side.
Tip #3: Be Patient
Organizations are at the end of the day composed of people—mere mortals just like you and me. Human beings have feelings; they take time to adopt new systems and approaches. Consultancy work often means you are delivering at a pace that is a step ahead of your client organization.
This is where you need help from your organizational change management team. They need to oversee your work and ensure that the intended delivery is making an actual impact with your client, one that is also being accepted by your key stakeholders.
Try to match your pace with what your project sponsor expects. I have worked on projects where I am expected to bring in major change. Other customers prefer that I work alongside their people and give them a helping hand.
I visited with one client for whom I had developed a service catalogue. One and a half years later, they were still working on the same old service catalogue and making tweaks here and there. There had been a reorganization driven by their corporate planning and the initial management support for the project was lacking. In life, things will happen that are beyond our scope or domain; what’s important is that we focus on our value add because that is what we have control over.
Tip #4: Strike the Balance
We live in an age where some predict that robots will take over our jobs, we are planning to provide passenger flights to Mars and the Moon, and where cars will take you where you need to go driven by software. Things are changing at a rapid pace. As consultants, we must remember that our goal is to deliver tangible value.
So try to establish a median modus operandi. Don’t overly impress your clients in the first few weeks of the project and then become lax. Work on yourself personally and professionally to establish routine in your life so that you can provide the same to your customers. Once routine becomes part of your life, you will be the first to appreciate the benefits that follow.
If nature is your interest, do break away to the Brecon Beacons, Yellowstone Park, or your local option to unwind and refresh. Ensure your child is improving his studies by keeping in touch with him. If they want to try go-karting with you on the weekend, make sure you don’t miss out. These things are essential to keeping your mind fresh so when you begin the new day, you have the drive to make it a productive and beneficial one.
Sometimes you will be in a leading role on a project, and your work day will start at 6 A.M. or earlier. You will be under the pressure of deadlines and striving to meet delivery at the high standard expected. Other times, between projects, you may be engaged with some proposal work. This might give you an hour in the day where you can take stock and catch up with your reading of ITSM material, blogs, or that training course you were planning to go for this year. Use downtime very carefully because it is just as precious as uptime.
Tip #5: Be a Team Player
Remember that, as a consultant, you are one piece of the jigsaw. If you have to take a few days off to complete the wall papering that you know has to get done, by all means do so. So long as you give advance notice, your client, team, and manager will find a way around it. Or they can find somebody to cover while you are away. Although you are important, don’t forget that you are part of a wider family.
Allow team members to contribute and critique your work. You will be surprised how beneficial that can be for improving the quality of your own delivery. One of my biggest challenges in moving into consultancy was the pace of delivery. Being somewhat of a perfectionist, I struggled for quite some time. Perfection is the enemy of done. So be sure to deliver against expectations, but don’t aim to be completely perfect. Your work will go through a quality process where peers will point things out, and you will deliver something that has a more collaborative effort behind it.
Tip #6: Solve Problems
If you can’t be part of the solution, don’t be part of the problem. I am sure you have heard this before. Remember that you as a consultant are only there for a very short time in the lifetime of organizations. A culture exists. There were political battles in place for a long time before you, and they will continue to stay beyond your tenure. If a person sits in a manager’s chair not because of a competency, but perhaps because of their manager being an old friend from university days, remember, none of these factors are in your control. Don’t waste your precious time even thinking about them.
You want to focus on the things that affect you; focus on yourself and making yourself the best you can be. Do you know who your stakeholders are? Are you meeting their expectations? Be proactive and solution oriented. You and your company were brought on board to address an issue; that is the only issue that you need to focus on. Be open, but don’t be an open book. Troublemakers may try to divert your focus, but they will give up after some time. Sometimes a company will run a project only to consume budget that needs to be used up before the end of the financial calendar. Your role here might be only to coordinate a few things and move silently forward.
Do you know who your stakeholders are? Are you meeting their expectations?
Over time, your brand reputation will become established. Be friendly but give people space. The pearl is precious for a reason; don’t become too common or available so that your lustre fades away.
Tip #7: Always Put the Customer First
Place ethics and your high moral standard over and above temporal gains. As consultants, we have to run profitable operations. Make good rules and stick with them. A manager I worked for years ago disliked me because I refused to share documents from former projects with him. I knew this would be a breach of my agreement with my former clients, and so I refused to bow down to pressure. On some projects, I have worked with respectable and professional people; others, not so much. However one remarkable thing is that if you establish yourself with a high standard, people will adapt to you. And in the end, you will succeed.
Even though you are a consultant, always imagine that you are the CEO or CIO of the client. Let that mentality govern your thinking and decision making. A manager of a large corporation I did some work for told me how a specific technology could automate one of their business processes/functions to the extent that 15,000 people could lose their jobs. Many would be retrained, but many would need to retire. The company management decided not to automate the process and thus jobs were saved. Smart discussions were made between the company and the government’s labour ministry so that extra funding could help them keep things on track. As consultants, our job is to advise and guide our clients to solutions that are best for them and their stakeholders.
Be the Best You Can Be
You must maintain a flexible and focussed mindset to be a successful consultant. With the passing of time, you will see things fall into place and stabilize. What seems like chaos actually has within it structure and form. Enjoy your work and strive to be the best you can. Balance work and personal life well and be helpful to those who need it. I hope these tips are beneficial; your feedback is most welcome.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of his current or former employers or clients. All comments are personal to the author and are not indicative of any company, employer, client, or any other party.
Musab Qureshi is a managing consultant for Strategy & Transformation Consulting, the consulting arm of Wipro. He started his ITIL journey in 2004 working on a service catalogue for a utility provider. Since then he has helped numerous organisations build and deliver their service management capabilities aligned with best practice. He is certified with the ITIL V3 Expert and the ISO 20000 Consultant certifications. Contact Musab via email , and connect with him on LinkedIn.