January 19, 2021

How to have a second career as an innovation consultant

Don’t make these common mistakes.

A few weeks ago I found myself interviewing someone for the role of innovation consultant. They were experienced — they had started investment funds, acquired companies, and launched new business units — but they were struggling with one of the basics of consulting: describing all this in tangible steps and relating it to outcomes. It was at this point I fully realised how different the mindsets are between the inhouse expert and the consultant.

When you picture a first-year consultant you might imagine a fresh graduate mired in Excel sheets and PowerPoints but there is another class: the experienced hire.

This is going to be the hardest year of your life.

As an experienced hire, you are an old dog learning new tricks, having to rapidly adapt your working style to the consulting format. When I first started consulting over a year ago, a partner at a large strategy firm who mentors me said: “This is going to be the hardest year of your life”. He was also an experienced hire that came into consulting as a second career. I scoffed at the time. I now agree.

Many experienced hires crash out within a year.

Innovation relies on operators, thought diversity and generalists who can zoom in and out of the detail. Experienced hires are vital to enriching the pool of people yet so many fail to get into the industry or crash out within a year.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

First of all, you have to understand why it's hard. As an inhouse technical lead or business unit lead, you have social capital, reputation, a network and the pace will be slower. When you go into innovation consulting you face cross-sector ambiguity — solving problems for clients who are concerned about their problems not your historic achievements. Every meeting you need to reestablish your social capital and surf the waves of ever-changing companies.

Lesson 1 — finding the right firm:

The innovation game has many tribes, design, venture, digital transformation, strategy and more. Where do you fit? It depends what you want to do. (Disclaimer: this is my take.)

  • Design: marketing, human-centred, design, likely to work primarily with marketing teams and create propositions.
  • Venture or strategy: business building, proof of concepts, MVPs and scaleups (I live here). Here you craft the strategy, get into a roadmap of actually building the proof of concept and getting it to customers, sell or get investment for it and finally scale the idea.
  • Digital transformation: more akin to operations, helping companies take an existing state and applying new technology and reducing the cost base.
  • Additionally — there are tech validation specialists, government funding bodies and research groups, NGOs, and charities which all have roles.

Lesson 2 —  interviewing:

Do not use 'we' when talking about your experience. Yes, you will have operated in teams, but when being interviewed the person opposite is looking to understand:

  • Can you explain an outcome in the steps it took to get there and in a logical and structure format that a client can understand?
  • Could you be left alone with a CEO to explain why they are buying a Ferrari's worth of time to work with you?
  • Can you think beyond incremental steps, see larger disruptive opportunities in the market and communicate them in commercial terms that will get them funded?
  • And most critically, for any opportunity or case study you are asked to do, have you thought about the customer and talked to them?

Read 'Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation' by Marc Cosentino — it's a fantastic guide to any consulting application.

Lesson 3 — role grades and salaries:

As a mid-to-senior level manager, you might be surprised to be offered lower grades and pay. It is worth knowing that:

  • Design tends to pay less
  • Digital transformation pays a mid-level salary
  • Venture or strategy pays the most

If you’re coming in senior and expecting that salary to be matched, you need to demonstrate the ability to be commercially-minded, have a network and be able to convert brilliant insight into sales.

Lesson 4 —  work:

You need to get comfortable with the concept of creating work that is “client ready”: work that is clear, visual and digestible. The innovation part and 'spark' may come from your experience, but realise that this can be learnt and isn’t mysticism or magic.

The harder part is core consulting skills: communicating clearly, storyboarding decks, creating clear paper trails, running workshops and managing clients — Google it and learn it, or search YouTube for consulting advice. If you get this core element right, as Gustav Flaubert wrote, “you may be violent and original in your work” and focus on the innovation.

Overall, working in innovation, ventures and strategy means getting comfortable being wrong, wrestling ambiguity and using your deep experience of company realities to help clients unlock new innovation. As an experienced hire you know how to get business cases through — you know the politics, the industry and the needs of customers. Use that. Leverage your knowledge but don’t rely on it — you’re going to be uncomfortable all the time and that’s where the fun starts.

Is it worth it? Hell yes.

Is it worth it? Hell yes. I’ve had the best time of my career and learnt so much. I pinch myself daily that I get to work in different sectors shaping growth and innovations that will change customers' lives.

But it is hard, and especially in the time of Covid-19 the innovation consulting market faces tough questions about the value it offers. Years of design firms failing to deliver outcomes have made clients sceptical. Ground yourself in the solid business skills and realities of operating that you learn in house and get on the innovation consulting rollercoaster.