Being a consultant sounds like an enviable job that comes with a great deal of freedom and respect, and possibly a lot of money. That may all be true, but keep in mind it doesn't come without earning the title. After all, when you're the pro that business owners call in, you're expected to be well worth your fees.
Obviously you have to start with a formal accounting education. Once that's under your belt, you need time to build a solid foundation of knowledge, preferably in public accounting where you can gain broad experience. While you are putting in the time establishing that foundation, here are some points to keep in mind that can help you prepare for your ultimate goal:
- You'll need exposure to a variety of industries, so view new assignments as opportunities to add to your knowledge. Spend time talking to clients to learn what their industry-specific concerns are. Every industry has idiosyncrasies, and your understanding of them will increase your value.
- If you hope to focus your practice on certain areas, join a trade association for that industry. Attend their conferences and you'll find yourself on the cutting edge of legislative changes.
- Within the trade association, serve actively on a committee that involves accounting, such as budget or finance. Building a practice as a consultant depends heavily on referrals, and this is a great way to exhibit your abilities and develop a good reputation.
- Study trade journals for your target industries to stay on top of industry news.
- Become familiar with the major accounting software programs so that you'll be able to recommend the one that will best meet client needs.
- Learn public speaking so that you can be comfortable in conversations with powerful people. This is a great way to build confidence. As a consultant, you may have all the right answers, but if you do not look and sound confident, you won't have an audience.
- Cultivate the habit of listening during a conversation, more than talking. That will accomplish several goals: you'll get a feel for what your clients really need; you'll learn much about your clients' industries; and the less you talk and the more you listen to your client talk, the more likely he or she is to judge you to be a brilliant conversationalist... it's human nature.
- Develop the ability to deliver the bitter pill. That is, anybody can tell a client what they want to hear, but consultants are paid to tell clients what they need to hear, even when the news is bad.
- Read books and takes courses on selling. Not only will you need to sell yourself and market your services, but you'll learn volumes about sincere and effective communication.
- Learn to golf. If that sounds frivolous, you should know that experts say more deals are begun on the golf course than in the boardroom. Tips to remember: The back nine holes are considered the best place to bring up business. Forty-three percent of the biggest deals start on the golf course, and 81 percent of those are finalized within a few days of the game. (From The Boardroom to the Back Nine: The Importance of Golf in Business. Conducted by Guideline Research & Consulting for Starwood Hotels.)