Financial staffing and interim management firm Robert Half Management Resources recently surveyed 1,000 CFOs and found that nine in ten respondents view a consulting career as attractive for senior-level accounting and finance executives. "It's been as much driven by employers as it has by employees," said Tim Hird, executive vice-president at the firm.
Consulting is especially attractive to finance professionals, whose expertise is highly coveted by companies worldwide. Finance experts help clients with strategic growth, mergers and acquisitions, initial public offerings, technology implementation, cross-border deals, and special projects. Often, clients hire interim CFOs to fill temporary gaps.
But consulting is not for everyone. The benefits? You choose the projects that inspire you; you make a critical difference for your clients' businesses; you can strengthen and augment your skills and knowledge more quickly than in a traditional role. The negatives? You take a financial risk, not knowing when your next paycheque will arrive; you need to invest heavily in business development, whether or not it's your forte; you are outside looking in, with decisions ultimately made by someone else.
"Sometimes you do not see the result of your work, the outcome of your contribution," said Robert Bodenstein, owner of InfoManagement Unternehmensberatung, an IT and management consulting firm in Vienna. Bodenstein is also vice-chair of The International Council of Management Consulting Institutes in Zurich.
Still, if you want to become an independent consultant, you must be ready. What skills do finance professionals need to make this transition?
We asked consulting experts to weigh in on the skills — and personality traits — that are needed to succeed:
Specific domain expertise. Before launching your consulting career, you must know your niche and convey where you can provide value to clients. The bridge to success "is identifying what you are an expert at and being able to sell that to somebody", said Brad Fingeroot, founder of Fingeroot Advisory LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm specialising in corporate strategy, market analysis, and commercial due diligence.
Adaptability. Consulting jobs bring with them a lack of organisation and uncertainty, which is why you're hired in the first place. "Consultants are brought in to create structure and define direction, so you are faced all the time with nebulous situations and non-well-defined challenges," said David Bernal, the founder and managing partner of Growth Decisions Inc., a Chicago-based boutique consultancy that helps corporate clients grow, evolve, and innovate.
So it's crucial to have a high tolerance for uncertainty. In addition, every project brings its own difficulties, "so consultants need to be comfortable adjusting to the varying aspects of each assignment, from the people involved to the necessary technology", Hird said.
Determination and drive. Consulting isn't for the faint of heart. Fingeroot received more than 40 proposal rejections after launching his practice in 2017, but he pushed on. "Getting the first client is always the hardest," he said. So you must be dogged in your quest to grow your business and be able to shrug off rejections when they occur.
You must also network and market your services continuously, but especially early on. From there, you need to retain clients. "Being able to sell it and maintain client relationships is a huge part of being an independent consultant," Fingeroot noted. "You need to have the motivation and desire to work through the sales process."
Technical dexterity. Now more than ever independent consultants must be tech-savvy. Depending on your area of expertise, you may utilise budgeting, forecasting, artificial intelligence, or other tools.
"The ability to understand and interpret business data, model business operations, and use advanced computing tools is becoming increasingly more critical," Bernal said. According to a 2018 blog post by Robert Half, accounting consultants that are "well-versed in different types of software, like enterprise resource planning (ERP)", have an edge over competitors.
Leadership knack and team management. During the contract phrase you'll help outline the project and its expected outcome. "Once this is defined, you are in the driver's seat and are expected to be the one to achieve the expected outcomes," Bodenstein said. You must also "be able to motivate stakeholders across different business units and departments", added Hird. "Sometimes you may have to navigate complex political situations."
Project management proficiency. Clients will hire you for your expertise and competence. So you must have "the confidence of taking a diffuse challenge" and shaping it into "an actionable path for solution", Bernal noted. "The ability to articulate, drive, and complete projects from definition to results is critical."
Good character and communication skills. As a consultant, you should understand the processes at each client site and know how people work in various industries and companies. You must be adept at cultivating professional relationships and then practise business ethics and morality, noted Robert Anthony, a British chartered certified accountant and principal partner at Anthony & Cie and Anthony & Cie International, advisory firms in Valbonne, France. In addition, he said, consultants must be discreet and humble, and "they need to have loyalty, and above all, honesty". Anthony is also a member of GGI Geneva Group International, a worldwide alliance of independent accounting, consulting, and law firms that provide specialised services to clients.
Client focus. The key to success for any independent consultant, Bernal summarised, is to do great work for your clients. So pay attention to your clients' business needs and concerns, first and foremost. "When you do great work, clients want you back, provide great recommendations, or refer you business," he said. "As consultants we must listen, coach, and be obsessed with solving the specific client challenge at hand."
— Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.