There's a paradox in your career as a consultant: which project assignments you get are one of the most important things to drive your career, yet you have little control over what projects you are assigned to.
So how do you make sure to get the creme de la creme of assignments?
First though, this assumes that you know what kind of projects you want to get. Before you expend effort trying to steer your assignments in one direction or another make sure you know what direction you want to go. Are there particular skills you want to develop? Are you looking for a better work / life balance? Do you want a chance to work for a particular company or in a certain location?
Not knowing what you want to get out a project, you could easily spend time advocating for a project you end up hating.
Here's a little secret of consulting managers... We're overbooked and have to ignore great deal on a day-to-day basis. It may be tempting to be a good worker bee and just execute your tasks without bothering senior folks or your manager, but given that those people are spending most of their time fighting fires, this is an easy way to slip through the crack because your consistent performance is one less thing your manager has to worry about.
Now of course you don't want to be the squeaky wheel, annoying everyone or constantly creating problems, but from time to time reach out to more senior experts and managers, and vet your ideas or issues with them. Especially if you can align these with the manager's interests and skills this can be an excellent way to quickly build rapport and spark interest in your work.
Make sure to explicitly mention what you are interested in and what you want in these conversations.You don't want to make it the sole topic of conversation, but as much as anything else your manager wants to hear what you want, even if they may not be able to deliver on it at this exact moment.
Be a Trusted Partner of Sales
Sales generally can't directly assign consultants to projects, however when a salesperson or sales support team is drafting a staffing plan for a project they usually can recommend who might be a good fit for certain roles to the consulting managers.
Another not-so-secret of healthy consulting organizations us that they need to close 110 - 125% of the business they currently can deliver to meet growth targets. This means that they will need to be constantly recruiting and that even if you are staffed on a project, you can be pulled if you are seen as essential to deliver a new deal.
Clearly having the ear of the sales and sales support teams gives you more opportunities to get on the new and exciting projects and expand your skill set in new roles. So how do you become a trusted partner of sales?
Actively, you can build a relationship with the sales person on your current project, support the sales process or help farm some leads at a current client. However, the crucial factor is consistent delivery. Sales people and consulting managers are (or realllly should be) compensated on project gross margin, so by being known as someone who can consistently deliver means you will always be on the go-to list.
Empathize with Your Client
Especially in the heat of the moment, it can be easy to bash on clients. Some seem to make it their mission to make themselves unpleasant, being demanding, dismissive or even incompetent, but to deliver your best work you need to be able to empathize with the client.
When you cannot control what project you are working on, the best thing to do is to deliver the best work you can. You do not want to get a reputation of folding under pressure or refusing to do work, so keep calm and carry on!
Having empathy helps you navigate a difficult project situation by understanding the perspective of client team members and potentially the client as a whole. After all, someone may be demanding or standoffish because they are worried about the security of their job. People may not be as motivated by this work as you because they have other higher priorities or may have personal challenges. It's not to say that people aren't ever rude or organizations aren't dysfunctional, but by empathizing, you can get insights in how to manage these situations or just help yourself take it less personally.
Develop a T-shaped Skill Set
What is a t-shaped skill set? A t-shape skill set describes a person who has deep experience in one of more areas and a broad capacity to apply their skills to other domains.
This is in contrast to X-Shaped skill sets with tremendous breadth but little depth, where the individual focus on collaboration and cross-communication or an I-Shaped skill set where the expert has significant depth, but lacks the ability or desire to apply this skill set across other domains.
Having a T-Shaped skill set makes you valuable as an expert in a particular domain but makes you even more valuable to a project as you can help bridge the differences between different parts of the team to deliver a cohesive solution.
Learn to Juggle
Maintaining some level of work-life balance in consulting is a challenge. The constant demands of projects, teams your employer vs customer makes it challenge to keep your head above water. So how do you get everything done, much less get the attention required to get on the best projects? The name of the game is efficiency.
1. Prioritize and plan your day first thing
2. Keep a running task log with things you can do in < 15 minutes
3. Work on 1 thing at a time for a fixed time block
No matter what productivity approach works best for you, to get on the best projects you need to be able to balance ongoing work with ramping up on new projects and handling the one-off requests to support sales practice leadership to position yourself as a person who gets the important work done.