Mid-Careerist Question

What personal characteristics and professional background are needed to make a successful transition from managing in a health services organization to becoming a management consultant?

In ACHE's Healthcare Executive Career Resource Center, we more frequently encounter established professionals who seek a transition from consulting to managing in a health services organization than vice versa. Consultants are aptly nicknamed "road warriors." If you are considering becoming a consultant, be prepared to meet unpredictable travel demands and possibly fluctuating compensation.

What attributes characterize a candidate likely to succeed as a consultant? A consultant should possess a special combination of competencies that frequently include the following:

  • Unique, highly valued technical competence
  • Superior capacity to multitask while filling varied roles
  • Highly honed project management skills
  • Excellence in establishing positive interpersonal relationships
  • Entrepreneurial flair for acquiring and conducting consulting engagements

Prospective consultants who already enjoy professional recognition and visibility will enjoy definite advantages. You can earn a respected reputation and well-connected standing in the healthcare field by getting your publications and presentations in front of potential consulting clients.

Consulting Organizations

If you do have the "right stuff" for consulting, making a career change presents a variety of options and challenges, including determining which type of consulting organization best suits you. Even though consulting organizations vary in their size and complexity, they must accomplish three basic functions: grinding, minding, and finding.

  • Grinding is the painstaking work of collecting data, analyzing it, and turning it into meaningful information for decision making.
  • Minding is managing consulting assignments so that tasks are accomplished in the proper sequence, accurately, on time, and without exceeding budgeted resources.
  • Finding involves securing consulting engagements. Some engagements will be new relationships, but business often builds from existing or earlier engagements.

Seemingly, the least complex organization would be the solo practice. If you have a unique and marketable area of expertise, this option might work for you. However, in this mode you must grind, mind, and find—be all thing to all clients.

Healthcare mangers have made such transitions successfully. One individual parlayed experience working with surgeons and ophthalmologists into a specialized practice that launched numerous joint venture ambulatory surgery and eye care surgical centers. Although the firm had only one full-time consultant, he did not work alone, nor did he rely solely on his past experience. He rented office space and hired clerical staff. He obtained health insurance coverage. And he quickly learned how to realistically price services so he could profitably cover his overhead expenses.

Starting a solo practice is not for everyone. The Member Directory on the American Association of Healthcare Consultants Web site (www.aahc.net) reveals a variety of alternatives to the solo route. Examples are independent partnerships; "boutique partnerships" that are either idependent practices or divisions of larger human services organizations; and divisions of large, international financial services organizations. Most have unique practice areas such as physician practice management, strategy, information management and coding, construction management, and laboratory and radiology management. Finally, there are also large, specialized consulting firms with national and international practices. To learn more about specialized consulting firms, go to WetFeet.com; in the Company Profiles area for consulting, examine comparative profiles for firms such as A.T. Kearney, Accenture, Bain & Co., Booz Allen Hamilton, and Boston Consulting Group.

Lifestyle Adjustments

Consulting is a competitive business, both in terms of hiring and in terms of securing business. On the career ladder for consulting, research associates appear at the lowest rung. Next come entry-, mid-, and senior-level consultants. At the top are junior and senior partners. Compensation varies accordingly; therefore, career transitions from a health services organization to a consulting position may be difficult for established, mid-career healthcare executives. Changing career tracks often requires sacrificing existing salary in the short run. Unless you bring to consulting both unique expertise and a "book of business," odds are that a salary offer—should you get one—will have to be in line with the compensation of other "minder role" consultants already in the firm. Even if you previously were compensated at a senior executive level, you shouldn't expect principal- or partner-level compensation in a consulting firm since you have not yet learned the business.

Making the change from executive to consultant will likely demand that you sacrifice status and compensation, at least in the short run. Beforehand, you must be certain that you really have a passion to consult and the skills and energy to succeed in this field. Researchers with Multi-Health Systems investigated the top emotional intelligence competencies that distinguish the most successful management consultants from the least successful. The top three attributes were assertiveness, emotional self-awareness, and reality testing. Be sure that you are emotionally aware of your motivations for pursuing a switch to consulting. Deciding whether you can tolerate the changes in lifestyle, status, and compensation is a reality test you want to take before—rather than after—you change careers.