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The High Flier

Many years back, The Financial Times of London wrote an article on what were then exotic careers. “What is an actuary?” the original pink paper asked its readers. The best answer would be printed and win some token award. There were no winners for a very simple reason: there were no entries.

Unlike an actuary (actually an insurance specialist who works out risk), everybody knows what a consultant is. For the staff of companies that appoints a consultant, he is a seagull manager. That, says the Urban Dictionary, is “a manager who flies in, makes a lot of noise, craps on everything, then flies off again leaving a big mess behind.”

That can’t be quite right, can it? Would a consultant have been a career in such high demand if that were true? According to a recent survey by Tata Consultancy Services and the Association of Management Consulting Firms (ACMF), eight out of 10 students from the top management schools want to take up consulting as a career. Strategy consulting, which “assists in defining a vision and goals for the business” is the favourite (54.27 per cent of the sample making it their first choice). Business consulting, which “involves advisory and implementation services related to management issues”, comes in next with 31.55 per cent. IT consulting, where most of today’s consultants really are, claims only 9.83 per cent. Marketing consultancy, finance consultancy and others of their ilk are less than 1 per cent apiece.

What is a consultant? There is no easy definition. Of course, he or he needs to be a domain expert. But that depends on the domain. A consultant in social media may be a kid with a Facebook account; there are CEOs in India who proudly claim to have juvenile mentors. On the other hand, a consultant in LAN design can’t get away with such superficial knowledge. Yet another variety is the CEO’s wife, who could come in as a consultant on office canteen nutrition levels (there was a time when she cooked at home) or interior design (“That plant has gone to pot; remove it. That flower is looking seedy.”)

People like being consultants because it is supposed to give them some degree of freedom. On paper, you can work for six months and go hitchhiking across Europe the other six. It rarely works out that way. You probably work harder and longer as a consultant than you would as a regular employee. There is a problem of financial security too when there is an economic downturn. And if you set up on your own it gets even tougher. A consultant works on different projects, so he normally should acquire a wide variety of experience. But, inevitably, domain knowledge of a different sort kicks in. An Indian IT consultant in China confesses that his biggest strength now is knowledge of the Chinese language and culture. Sure, his English is excellent and he knows his technical onions. But in China he can command a premium because of his other skills. He has become his company’s China troubleshooter.

From the company’s side, it may cost more to bring in a consultant. But, then, you are paying him only for the period he works with you. If you are in the business of supplying consultants — which most IT companies aspire to — you pay them only a small bench fee when they are not engaged in a project. When they are, they are making money for you.

“The nature of consulting is temporary and limited to project, product development and marketing,” says technology entrepreneur Sudhi Seshachala. But he admits that consultancy means different things to different people. If the TCS-AMCF survey says consultancy is the choice of the majority, it may be because the word covers a whole variety of experiences and opportunities. The seagull manager is also a high flier.

CONSULTANTS IN DEMAND

The view from students of top B-schools

Eight out of 10 students surveyed would like to take up consulting as a career

52% of the respondents are of the opinion that consulting companies provide global engagement opportunities

41.3% students with prior experience in IT or consulting are more interested in consulting

Indian B-school students are more likely to choose consulting if an internship is offered by consulting companies

54.37% respondents looking at consulting as a career are interested in strategy consulting.

28% of the students view consulting as a potential long-term career and 30% view it as a stepping stone to leadership positions

83% feel job independence is a very important factor for choosing consulting