Consulting to In-House: Does It Pay?

By John Parkinson  |  Posted 07-10-2008

After 20-plus years as a consultant, I moved into a corporate job and was surprised to find that many of my colleagues are different from the people I worked with previously. They aren't worse or less capable than the people in consulting, but they are different.

Consulting seeks out and develops a certain kind of person. Consulting firms consider turnover rates in the high teens healthy, and they foster an up-or-out culture and environment. Not everyone finds that attractive, despite the rewards and incentives offered. The kind of person who chooses to make a career in consulting generally comes with a bundle of attitudes and motivations that smart managers learn to use to run the business and to develop the human capital the company needs.

All organizations depend on people, but if you build up the capital base differently, you will have to manage and develop that base differently. That's where the real challenges occur when you move from consulting to corporate.

Some of the challenges are obvious--work/life balance, tolerance for ambiguity, habits of self-direction--but some are not. With new challenges comes the need to question whether familiar management and motivational tools will be effective in developing people and meeting business needs.

Many of the management tools I used as a manager of consultants--such as strategic incentives--remain useful. However, they generally have to be employed differently.

Strategic incentives don't work as well in the corporate world, and there are situations--managing tacit knowledge among long-tenured employees, for instance--in which the consulting managers' toolkit doesn't offer any effective tools. In these cases, new tools, such as mediation, recognition and reward systems, need to be acquired, practiced and mastered. That makes the job challenging and engaging.

Here are the main adjustments I've made:

  • Balancing process and outcome: Consulting is driven by outcomes, using process as a tool to get resource leverage. Almost the reverse is true in the corporate world. Getting the balance right requires changes to "the way we do things here" that aren't easily implemented.
  • Establishing a workable level of tolerance for change. Consultants have it, and the ambiguity that comes with it. The corporate workforce's tolerance is generally lower, but it can be elevated, despite people resisting change.
  • Managing change--which is more a collection of folk myths about something that did or didn't work rather than a real process--provides some necessary tools. Move too fast, and the organization becomes dysfunctional; move too slow, and you don't get the required outcomes.
  • Making decisions. This is the one change that I have found most challenging. Decisions must be made to get things done, but if I make all the decisions, my teams will never develop better decision-making skills.

Some decisions will be mistakes, but that's how we learn. In consulting, making mistakes is an accepted cost of developing people. But I'm not sure the corporate world understands that mistakes are inevitable if you want people to learn how to make better decisions.

This is a fascinating, engaging work in progress for me. Until a lot of the new practices take hold, it's the leadership team that has to provide the energy for change. But, bottom line, that's why they pay us the big bucks, right?

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