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Jun 15 2012

Core Principles for New Consultants


By: Nathan Brewer, Vice President, Sapient Government Services


In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, one of my business school professors commented that before the crisis all of his students wanted to be investment bankers, but now they all wanted to be consultants. This renewed interest in the profession is not surprising, and I believe that many are still drawn to consulting for the same reasons I was initially: to help clients solve hard problems. I often speak to groups of new hires and, particularly with recent college grads, and I find myself returning time and time again to seven core principles that continue to serve me well both as a consultant and a leader. 


1. Honor your clients.


Consulting begins and ends with clients: without them, you are just someone with an opinion. Clients are important for the obvious reasons, but they are also a wonderful source of feedback on your personal performance and your firm’s strategy. Clients trust us as consultants to help them on their most challenging problems—problems they can’t solve on their own. Honor this trust by providing them with the best service possible, which means bringing your A-game to every interaction and never forgetting that they are your reason for being. If you do not like serving clients, you need to find another profession.


2. You don’t know everything—or really much of anything at all—and that’s OK.


Walking into the Vanderbilt University library for the first time as a freshman was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. As I roamed the vast stacks, I saw all the books I would never have a chance to read, and began to understand how much I would never know. The point is, as you progress in your career, you will learn a great deal about some things and remain painfully ignorant about others. What derails many good consultants is that as they gain more confidence in their specialized expertise, they forget how small their scope really is. They lose perspective—they forget about the stacks—and can be blind to the other problems their clients are struggling with. Realizing that you don’t know everything makes you hungry to keep learning, to keep asking insightful questions, which ultimately helps you find new and more effective ways to serve your clients. There is no one that you cannot learn from. As one of my early mentors used to preach, “Learn. Learn some more and then keep on learning.”


3. Know when to lead, when to follow, and when to ask for help.


As a kid, I was obsessed with movies and stories that featured the solitary hero leading the charge over an insurmountable hill. But my early leadership experiences taught me that in consulting, there is no solitary hero; in fact, the top-ranked person in the room rarely has all the answers. The reason that team-based consulting is so powerful is that it enables the group’s collective wisdom. 


Many consultants are challenged, however, as they try to grow in an organization and want to be seen as a leader. This leads them to make the mistake of always putting themselves out front, constantly trying to lead the charge over the hill. For a consulting firm to work at its best, the most junior person in the room must be empowered to lead when it’s appropriate. If you want your own growth to really take off, you will find that being a great follower is as important as being a great leader. 


4. Nurture your life outside of work and avoid burnout.


There will be times in your life during which work will be your priority, but there should be equally as many where something else—having a child, caring for an aging parent, or fueling an outside interest—takes center stage. After struggling for years, what I have finally realized is we all have a different definition of what balance means for our lives and that it likely will be something I am always striving for, rather than achieving. 


Instead, I think the key is examining your life and your habits along the way, constantly making sure you are living the life you want to live–if not for your personal satisfaction, then for the sake of your career. Because however you find it, balance is critical to becoming multi-dimensional. This is where I see young consultants struggling the most: they get wrapped up in one firm’s culture or one client’s project, and that experience becomes the lens through which they see the world. This one-dimensional perspective will eventually affect relationships with friends and loved ones, and will be a huge disadvantage when working with clients. 



5. Have faith in something.


In Conan O’Brien’s farewell address from “The Tonight Show,” he said something that has stayed with me: “Please do not be cynical. I hate's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen." He was talking about believing in something, about having faith.


Consulting requires an enormous amount of faith. Faith in your own skills, faith in your team and your company, and ultimately faith in what your clients are trying to do. Fortunately, there are a number of firms that take their core values—their beliefs—seriously, and this can become a great source of faith. Indeed, one of the formative experiences of my first year in consulting was witnessing my firm stand by its commitment to a difficult client, even though it cost the firm a large amount of money. That experience taught me that when we make a commitment to a client, we honor it no matter what. In the subsequent 13 years, knowing I could have faith in the company’s commitment to its clients has proved to be a great source of motivation and guidance for me and my teams.


6. There is no perfect project.


One of the classic mistakes that young ambitious consultants make is that they are always searching for the perfect project—the coolest work, the best growth opportunities. In fact, my first project was far from perfect but turned out to be the perfect project for me. At the time I dreaded the assignment, which was years-old and involved aging technology. Once on the ground, however, I found a team motivated to grow each other and finish strong. It was the perfect opportunity as a young consultant, one I might have passed over in search of the ideal.


7. Learn a craft, even if it’s not your dream. It will pay huge dividends for you in the long run.


As a writer coming into the consulting field, the last thing I wanted to do was become a project manager; in fact, I actively avoided it. Despite my best efforts, however, over time I slowly learned the craft of project management. Later, I would lead a number of high-stakes projects and even enjoy it. But more importantly, even since leaving the role of day-to-day PM, these skills have helped me in countless ways. As you embark on your consulting career, find a craft and invest in it. It doesn’t have to be your life’s calling, but the collateral benefits of developing and refining a set of skills, even in a field you wouldn’t have at first chosen, can help strengthen your career at each step of the journey.


Article can be viewed here: 



Author: Nathan Brewer, Vice President, Sapient Government Services


A 13-year veteran of Sapient, Nathan leads our Citizen Safety & Services and Defense Divisions working with a variety of federal government and non-profit organizations. At Sapient, Nathan has worked with both public and private sector clients on countless projects, including marketing and branding efforts, project management and strategy development.


Nathan holds an MBA from Emory University, a MS in Engineering and Technology Management from Oklahoma State University, and a BA in English from Vanderbilt University. 


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