Consulting Is A Calling, Not A Career Choice

A true consultants brain is wired differently than other people

As I reflect back on how I got into this business and what I’ve learned along the way, I’ve come to realize that one can’t just decide they want to be a consultant or take some classes that will teach them how to do it. This isn’t a profession that you can master just by working hard and sticking with it. Consultant isn’t a title you put on a business card. It’s the way you are wired.

Consulting combines critical and creative thinking with an extremely objective mindset devoid of any agendas, preconceived notions or assumptions. It requires a certain rather unique way of looking at the world that involves asking lots of questions most people never ask. It isn’t about number crunching or sharing a solution that worked in the past. It isn’t about knowing a lot about a specific industry. It is a unique way of observation and deep reflections that can uncover the cause and effect relationships behind what is happening then figure out how to address it.

You could get straight A’s in school, produce outstanding results for the organizations you worked for and give it your all and still not be any good as a consultant. Through the actual experience of consulting, you can learn to become a better consultant over time. But you have to be wired for it from birth to really do it well. The essence of a consultant’s work can’t be taught or picked up through experience.

What My Early Career Taught Me About Consulting

I spent 14 years working in a variety of positions for different companies before I found consulting. Yet, at no time during those 14 years did I ever want to be a consultant. As a matter of fact, my image of consulting was decidedly negative so it was one of those things I intended to avoid. Even my first folio brochure for my firm never mentioned the words consultant or consulting. It took me years before I felt comfortable using the word though I had actually been using the consulting process since my first job out of college.

There were many problems I solved for the companies I worked for during those 14 years that went beyond my job description. Each one was simply the application of a standard consulting process though I had no idea that’s what it was at the time. But as the years went by, it become clear to me that the most exciting part of any job was figuring out a problem no one else could solve. Ultimately, I was lead into a profession where I could do that all that time.

Lawry’s Associated Restaurants: Applying What I Learned In College To Fix A Real World Problem

My first experience occurred at the age of 22. Right out of college I joined a management training program with Lawry’s Associated Restaurants and a year later became assistant manager at Casey’s Bar & Grill in downtown Los Angeles. The restaurant was losing money and none of the veteran executives at Lawry’s could figure out how to solve it. They tried all the normal cost reduction approaches, select price increases and traffic building programs but nothing helped.

Managerial accounting works!

Six nights a week I would close the restaurant and get home around 1:30 A.M. Then, I would sit down with my accounting columnar pad, calculator and the detail computer runs of all cost generated by the restaurant. In college, I studied managerial accounting and decided I would do a breakeven analysis by comparing variable and fixed cost. That allowed me to determine how much sales the restaurant had to generate to pay for all its fixed cost and start making a profit. No one had asked me to do this. No one even knew I could do this. As far as I know, this type of analysis had never been applied to a restaurant since it was originally developed for manufacturing plants.

The first answers I got didn’t make sense. I thought I had miscalculated. So I would modify my assumptions and go through this accounting exercise again and again for a couple of weeks. It didn’t matter what changes I made or how many times I rechecked what I had done. I always got the same answer. Even if the sales of this restaurant increased and it reduced its cost, it would still lose money. The fixed cost of the restaurant were simply too high for it to ever make a profit.

The next time the Senior Vice President of Operations visited the restaurant, I showed him my analysis. Within a month, he figured out how to solve the problem by eliminating the assistant manager position and making the night bartender the night manager. That reduced the fixed cost enough for the restaurant to finally make a profit. While I didn’t know exactly how to solve the problem, my analysis led him to the solution. So my position was eliminated and I was promoted to manager of another restaurant that was losing money. My entire time at Lawry’s was spent fixing restaurants that weren’t making money.

West Coast Cycle: Unraveling The Mystery Of The Data Processing Department

Then I worked for West Coast Cycle Supply, a distributor of bicycles and bicycle parts. After a year, I become inside sales supervisor over a department of four people taking calls from customers and helping sales people in the field. One thing kept bothering me. Customers would call in to order a bicycle or a few parts but they wouldn’t get their order until three or four days later. Normally, when a bicycle shop called our department it meant they had a customer standing in their store who needed what they were ordering.

When we received an order, we would send it to the computer processing department where it was keyed into the computer so a printed order could be generated. The orders keyed in today would be printed out at the end of the day so the warehouse could pick them the next day and ship them out. Once again, it wasn’t my job to figure out a new and better system for handing orders. No one asked me to find a solution to the time lag problem but I didn’t like hearing customers complaining about it all the time.

The trouble was I really didn’t understand why the order system was set up the way it was and I learned that almost no one else did either. I talked with the President, Vice President, Sales Manager and Controller. No one could explain to me why this had to be done this way. They just told me it couldn’t be done any other way because of the computer system. This was 1975. I knew absolutely nothing about computers. They were this mysterious thing that was run by experts who knew computers but didn’t know anything about the business. No one else understood them which meant that the people who actually knew how to run the business couldn’t ask the right questions of these mysterious experts.

I was curious so I scheduled a meeting with the data processing manager to learn more. That led to a second meeting and a third. Every time I would learn something it would create more questions. Until that fateful day when the manager explained the difference between a batch processing and real time order system. I kept asking why we couldn’t print out each order the moment it arrived and send it to the warehouse. Remember, this is 1975. Today, that is common practice. We were using a batch processing system which meant a group of orders had to be entered then order entry stopped so they could run a batch of all these orders. That group of orders was then sent to the warehouse. It would be too expensive at the time to convert the system from batch processing to a much more costly real time order system.

While I still didn’t understand the technological issues behind this system, I had finally learned enough to ask one question that helped to fix the problem. Did the system limit us to only one batch a day? He said you can run as many batches as you want. That’s when I ask him why we couldn’t run a batch first thing in the morning then every couple of hours for the orders that had arrived during that time which would result in several batches being sent to the warehouse every day. No one had ever thought about running more than one batch during the day. This resulted in any order that arrived before 2 PM going to the warehouse and being shipped the same day. We couldn’t change the computer system. But we could change how we used it.

Consultant’s Brains Are Just Wired Differently

These are just two of many examples that represent my fondest memories working for different companies. Asking questions that no one else asked, figuring out different ways to diagnose problems and finding novel solutions were the things that excited me the most. Looking back today, what I was doing is called internal consulting. I was acting as a consultant while employed by the company on top of my regular job duties. They didn’t hire me to do this and never expected me to do this. But I discovered that I had a natural talent for it which others didn’t seem to possess.

The people I worked with and for where outstanding at what they did. They were bright, experienced and successful. I learned so much from all of them. But after working for five different companies during those 14 years including a national restaurant chain with over 7000 employees and 40 individuals at corporate headquarters, one thing became clear to me. I had a knack for analyzing and solving the problems that perplexed everyone else. I was wired differently than the rest of them.

Consultants brains are wired differently
Consultants brains are wired differently

In my late twenties, I went through over 20 hours of testing by an industrial psychologist. I was given business problem solving test, critical thinking test and much more. There were two results from this testing that jumped out. For the problem solving test, the norm group I was compared against were CEO’s, not people my age or in my current position. Against CEO’s, this 27 year old scored better than 95% of CEO’s at business problem solving. They may have had a couple of decades of experience over me, but they didn’t have my wiring.

Another test showed that my natural thinking inclinations were process oriented. Only 4% of the entire population had a similar inclination. The minute I was given this result, I knew what they meant. How something got done was as important to me as what got done. At the time, I had no idea what this meant in terms of career direction. It was only after a few years working as a consultant that the meaning became clear.

Consultants have to be process oriented to figure out the real cause behind why things occur and all the issues that must be addressed for the solution to work. Working harder, trying harder and controlling things better are rarely the answers that yield superior results. Yes, all those things may need to be done but real solutions usually involve some type of change to the way things are done as well.

When I add up all my early work experiences, the results of these tests and what I’ve learned after 25 years as a professional consultant, it’s clear to me that true consultants are wired differently than other people. This is not something that can be taught. Consulting isn’t something you choose to do. It chooses you.