Sep 20, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Chandler Bing’s job on Friends was a mystery to his Central Perk squad. And while we now know that he worked in data processing, there is another job out there that is equally shrouded in mystery for many people: consulting. Odds are, you know someone who works as a consultant. You may also know that consulting positions are in great demand. But do you know what a consultant actually does?

Read on for a closer look at this popular profession.

What is a Consultant?

Before we can understand what a consultant does, we must first understand what consulting is. The Institute of Consulting defines this work as, "The provision to businesses of objective advice and assistance relating to the strategy, structure, management and operations of an organization in pursuit of its long-term purposes and objectives. Such assistance may include the identification of options with recommendations; the provision of additional resources; and/or the implementation of solutions.”

In other (and simpler) words, consultants provide external advice to businesses. Because of their expertise, many consultants work for large consulting firms as management consultants, where they command some of the highest salaries in the professional world, according to Other consulting categories including in-house corporate consultants and independent consultants.

There are many different types of consultants, including strategy, operations healthcare, financial advisory, human resources, risk and compliance, environmental, software, sales, marketing, engineering, image, social media and career coaching.

Becoming a Consultant

A bachelor’s degree is the minimum qualification necessary to becoming a consultant.  Many future consultants study in related fields such as business, although those with plans to work in a specific field of consultancy may pursue studies in that subject matter. Some employers prioritize consulting candidates with MBAs or other master’s degrees. Additionally, credentials like the Certified Management Consultant (CMC) certification conferred by the Institute of Management Consultants USA may give you an additional inside edge.

But academic credentials are not enough when it comes to positioning yourself as a consultant, however. Also essential is work experience. After all, how can you expect to advise companies when you have not been in the trenches yourself? In fact, many people become consultants after working for many years in a field and/or as a second career.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Consultant?

In addition to education and hands-on experience, several skills are also integral to consulting success.

For starters, the ability to network cannot be overstated. Forbes’ The Muse asserts, “Consulting is really the art of making connections — not only in terms of the work, but perhaps more importantly, with people. Developing solid networks, both internally at the firm and externally at the client, is crucial. Within consulting firms and on client sites, you are constantly convincing (and proving) to new people that you are and would be a valuable asset to a project.”

And then there’s the teamwork aspect. “The job also requires you to share ideas, explain concepts, and present findings almost on a daily basis. You’ll be working on teams of people you may have just met, but you must show clients a united front forged from the fires of Mount Doom to ensure that their projects will be executed seamlessly. If you run into the SVP [senior vice president] in the elevator and she casually asks how your team’s recommendations are coming along, you’re going to want to make sure you can calmly summarize things the same way your teammate did when she met with her peers that morning — or five minutes ago,” continues The Muse.

So if you’re not a people person, consulting work may not be for you.

The Muse also identifies several other qualities found in top performers in consulting, including being “a safe pair of hands,” otherwise called accountability; paying attention to detail; being a willing go-to and jack-of-all-trades; knowing how to think before you act; resourcefulness; and not being afraid to ask for clarification.

Comfort with ambiguity is also pivotal. As corporate consultant Benji Bourinat told The Muse, “Consultants are like chameleons. Most employees are defined by their role or position, but consultants can create their own brand. From one project to another, we develop flexibility; we build analogies between issues we have previously addressed; we interpret our own expertise to innovate. Consulting isn’t only based on competencies, but also ideation.”

One last upside or downside of consulting, depending on your personal preferences? Travel is very much part of the job description. If the idea of being on the road, seeing new things, and meeting new people is appealing to you, then consulting may be the perfect fit. However, if you are a homebody, the demanding travel requirements of consulting may be a challenge.

And speaking of the challenges of consulting, this line of work offers rewards in equal measure.

“The very nature of it nurtures your creative, tactical, and entrepreneurial thinking. It also provides great responsibilities and allows you to diversify your knowledge and industry experience. Plus, a consultant’s endeavors have direct and measurable impact on the organization or entity that he or she works for. It’s tangible — it’s real,” continues Bourinat.

Think this could be the career for you? Read more about becoming a consultant.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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