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Consulting Exodus Trend?

Is it just me or have a significant number of 'A' players left our consulting firms? People come and people go. Ours is certainly not an industry of "lifers". However, within the past year or so, I've witnessed several of my consulting peers -- the folks I really look up to -- leave the consulting arena for [predominately] full-time technology product firms. A smaller number have left for full-time positions at businesses while an even smaller number left to start their own business|firm|freelance|etc.

Their departure struck me as odd because these were the type of folks who [I thought] would eventually become owner / partners at their respective firms. Certainly, the firms will carry on and continue to perform well but the departure of these folks would result in nothing less than a severe case of the hiccups and quite possibly a minor cardiac event.

You know who you are. Please comment. Do we [the consulting industry] have a brain drain issue? Is this a normal cycle / paradigm?

Taking some creative freedom, I'm going to speculate on an explanation for these unexpected [at least by me] departures. Don't be turned off by the "negative" speculations. I close with a positive one--which I'm optimistic is the case.


According to one of my Microsoft buddies, they essentially "fire" their employees from their role just about every 2 years. Fire is probably too aggressive of a word but in effect, you cannot continue in your same role.

While you're groomed to transition into a new, different role; you can't just stay put getting fat and happy, never challenging yourself in your current role. It's also not just some random role--it's a role that will assist you in achieving your and the company's overarching vision. I think this makes a heck of a lot of sense.

It's easy to become complacent. Despite what we may claim, humans really don't dig lots of change. Further, we like to relish in our accomplishments.

In stark contrast, the folks I highlight above were not wallowing in their success. They were some of the strongest innovators I've seen. They creatively developed processes, business models, and methods--some of which were adopted by both the regional and national communities. They are the influencers with, at times, a quasi-national following.

So, maybe their respective firms just couldn't keep up. The firm wasn't able or in a position to keep feeding these innovators new and interesting problems, challenges, and opportunities for growth. They just tapped out all the growth opportunities their employer could present.


These might be two separate issues but I think they're related enough that I'm loping them together. Depending upon your levels of experience, what you bring to the table in talent, your skills, your market, and your network; many of us can only make as much consulting as our client is willing to pay.

You bill out at $x, your firm takes y% off the top leaving you with something we'll call $z. $x changes very infrequently. Every firm hopes to raise $x at some point but it never happens. Clients usually have the upper hand. Just about the only time $x changes is when switching clients; and even then the market will pay only so much.

Ok, so you quickly ratchet up your salary (translation: billable rate) and you nearly break your neck smacking into the upper end of rates for your market. What do you do? You could bill more hours--if the client is amenable--but your family might not like that. You could take on some side work. But again, this is consuming extra "life" time.

Personally, I think consulting firms need to overcome this downward market rate pressure with some sort of equity opportunity--and it needs to be very publicly broadcast as a carrot. When I have a clear stake in the game; a significant "up side", I'm more apt to contribute. I'm going to give it everything I have (well, I do anyway but this would help folks to stick around). Am I enticed by promotions? They're nice [Dear Employer: not spitting in the wind here...I love my job;-)] but it doesn't contribute to the bottom line.

So, maybe these folks outgrew the market and their compensation?


Again, somewhat related so I'll combine...were these folks feeling as though their contributions weren't valued? Were they working for The Man? "Bill more hours! Recruit more folks! Increase your project size!" Profitability is important but if that's all management is interested in, that firm won't be around long.

I love solving problems for clients but it can be a PITA at the same time. Despite all your great experience and wonderfully insightful advice, a lot of times, clients do the exact opposite of what's best. Sometimes there are valid and justifiable reasons but a lot of the time, it's bureaucracy, politics, budgets, "enterprise standards", centralized management, or some other non-value-add and less-than-optimal reason.

This can be very, very frustrating. Added up over time, perhaps these folks just said, "The hell with it! If clients don't want my advice, then fine. I'm John Galt and I'll take my motor to my utopia land! Ha!"


These folks departing are quite talented. They are innovative and very creative. Perhaps this began to clash head on with a mature, lethargic, static company culture. Being ultra-creative and/or innovative can cause quite the disruption in a non-progressive or fat-and-happy firm. Maybe the culture had shifted to that of a "let's live high off the hog on the business and clients we've landed"...? Or maybe an acquisition or takeover from some other entity fundamentally changed the company landscape...?


I really hope you've made it this far. I'm sure I'll get tons of "TLDR" comments but here's my optimistic speculation--and I really hope it's true: these folks departed because they found their absolute dream job, role, and/or company. I may be a bit cynical from time to time (I can hear the, "that's an understatement!" chants...pipe down) but at heart, I'm an optimist.


Maybe I'm just curious or maybe envious. Regardless, please provide your thoughts below.

  1. Do we have a significant issue with consulting firms and our most talented folks? Or is this just a natural migration / transition?
  2. If this is an issue, what should be done about it?

Feel free to post anonymously if you prefer.

Regardless, I wish these talent-studs and stud-ettes the best of luck in their careers and in their pursuit of contributing to the world and lassoing contentment.


Anonymous said…
Hey Jeff! Great post! I love to see thought being chewed on, and I think you've captured that.

Secondly! Let me say that this is the first time I've heard an Atlas Shrugged reference!! hahaha (great book, but dear lord is it long).

Thirdly! May I add to your list??
"Ease/lack of resistance for/of ocupational movement".

Whats the disincentive these days for moving jobs? You aren't looked at oddly if you've had 2/3 different jobs in one year anymore, in fact it adds diversity if its beeen with the right companies. There is certainly a larger incentive list: greener grass/ more money, new people, new experiences, new responsabilities, change of location even.

Perhaps it could be due to communial factors. The corporation/company used to provide the community for employees, but your A' listers I'm sure are involved in the larger community. So they're community is portable. Again, where's the incentive? (Drucker writes alot about this)

So to sum up my ramblings, where's the beef!? (or incentive in less funny terms).
Jeff Hunsaker said…
@zach Insightful points.

So #1, it's easy (and potentially with rich up-side) to be transient. And #2, community no longer tied [exclusively] to one's company.

I hadn't thought of those but I think you're right on. Solid thoughts. Thanks for commenting!
Shawn Domer said…
I am not going to provide any insightful thoughts at this time, but this was definitely an awesome post. I do completely agree with Zach's additional point.

Sometimes the clients have the upper hand with the 'A' listers as well. They can take the route of, I know what you get paid and what I pay for you. What if I offered you your going rate as your own salary? If money is what is important and you do like what you do for this company, then to the individual they are willing to make the switch. If they get bored, they can just make the switch again.
Anonymous said…
ok, Jeff. You've called me onto the carpet. I realized that many of my colleagues, past and present, will be reading this so please, everyone, take my comments in the spirit in which they are intended. This is an honest opinion in the spirit of community and open dialogue. It is not meant to negatively reflect any of my past employers, ALL of whom I still have strong personal and professional relationships with and mean no offense. My thoughts are my own and are in no way a reflection of those companies.

First, I think the issue you bring up is not limited to consulting. When I left the company that I worked for prior to my last employer I was clearly on the path to management and in short order would have been making a good amount of money more than I am now. That is what the "safe" choice would have been. When I told my father I was leaving he was surprised and said I was making a huge mistake. But I'm not pragmatic. So I followed my heart and moved on. It was about me. Not about my company or my boss or co-workers. It was me.

I believe the patterns that you outline parallels the path that many young workers (<40 somethings) are following these days. There's a notion of "If it's not your dream job or you're under valued then go out and get it!" Which if I read you right, you're basically outlining. It seems to me that your reasons for leaving are actually procedural and are stepping stones on the path to finding your dream job. If that is the case, then the question really is "why isn't Consulting seen as more of a destination rather than a stepping stone to a dream job?" To which I don't know. If that's how folks feel, then I'm not entirely sure. Frankly, I got into consulting to get away from the "machine" as you call it and get back to pure software development. It just so happened that my main client while on staff was less about software and more about keeping the lights on. They were great folks and I enjoyed that job so I don't mean to imply that if I did. It just wasn't what I was looking for. I'm not saying that it wouldn't have happened for me in consulting. It probably would have but an opportunity to do what I was longing to do with people that I respected highly came along and I had to make a choice: "wait for a project to come along to fill the void or take the opportunity." AGAIN, that has nothing to do with anyone I worked with or the projects I worked on. It has everything to do with me and my journey. Which brings me to my thoughts on this subject....

I have one mandate in this life. This will be pithy but it's true. "Love your life, everyday."

That's it. I think that we are all responsible for our happiness, well being and sense of purpose in this world. I left consulting not because I didn't like it or was chasing the notion of a dream job or any other reason... I just saw an opportunity to enter a state of being; to operate on a level I've not yet had the opportunity to operate. You get a very limited time to do everything you possibly could want in this life and everyday is important. It's as simple as that.

I've often been accused of denying the pragmatic in favor of the emotional. I'm a right brain person that wears his emotions and passion on his sleeve to a fault. I often feel like the odd man out in software development for that reason. Many people see the science in computer science... I'm constantly looking (at|for) the art. Moving when I did was a choice to follow the art and not the business. I didn't do it for money. I did it for love. I did it for life.

I suppose that's as close as you can get to "dream job." The truth is, Jeff, I don't believe in a dream job. I don't believe anything in this life is so final as a dream job (maybe death and taxes?). I think the dream job is to love it everyday and getting closer to everyday is the real goal. Steve jobs once said (paraphrasing) something like: if you wake up too many days in a row and you're not truly excited about what you're going to do that day then you have an obligation to yourself to do something else immediately.

That's how I tend to live my life. I love to meet with great people. I love to be the dumbest guy in the room. I love to listen to smart folks inspire one another and the closer I am to that the happier I am. I can't say that's why the exodus is taking place but perhaps folks are, like me, wanting something more personal than someone else's limitations. Consulting after all is the futile act of overcoming the poor decisions of others and leading them from a point of utter abstruseness to enlightenment. If that doesn't sounds fun... consulting is not a good fit.

I've recently suggested 5 people get into consulting (one of which I hope will be a co-worker for you very soon!) because, knowing them, knowing their journeys, I believe they will find happiness there.

In the end, my goals are simple: meet great people, learn every day and do good. Sometimes I do that as a consultant and sometimes not. Mostly, it has very little to do with the title, company or pay grade and everything to do with state of mind.

This may not be the pragmatic answer you were hoping for but it's honest; it's more relevant than a contrived answer about factors that don't make sense to me. Talking after tonight's CINNUG... that's it. I go where that is happening as often as possible.
Anonymous said…
@fallenrogue - Though your ideas are noble and say alot about your great character, I'm sorry buddy I just don't think they're that common.

I believe that most people put labels(factors) to life to help them feel in control of what they are doing.
I believe that people see the almighty dollar as the destination and that the ammount of money they make is directly tied to thier happiness.
I believe that doing a hard days work is quickly losing its value.
I believe that people would rather B*tch about a problem than actually do something about it.
I believe that I should stop saying I believe in this post!

Your comment:
"If it's not your dream job or you're under valued then go out and get it!"
Is something that has been weighing on my mind as of late. We are in the midst of a generation who were told we could do no wrong, and achieve the stars just because we exist. Dr.Spock was wrong, and now we're paying for the consequences.

Perhaps I'm just not ready to believe that our society (even A' players) has come so far and become so noble that we would follow our ideals and happiness to become fuller people. (short of you fallenrogue, you freak!)
Anonymous said…
@zach: and?

"...achieve the stars just because we exist"

Really? I was always told: "you can do anything if you put your mind to it." Is that no longer the mantra? Complacency is not the reason for someone to change jobs and if people are moving for a 3-10% salary bump... well if that makes them happy, good for them. It's not what drives me.

That said, I believe that passion, ambition, drive and love are much more powerful motivators than money. The person you can't easily buy is very difficult to come by. That doesn't mean don't be business savy or smart or not negotiate but does the small amount of money equal the happiness that you think you're missing? If it does, chase that, if it doesn't... it's time to look a little deeper.

I'm going to take your advice and blog on this topic as soon as I have time because aparently my approach to my "work" life is... uncommon. I, frankly, don't understand why.

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