External consultant with a small consultancy
You work with a small consultancy?
Before you go out and check on the different professional associations for consultants in your field, ask if your consultancy is part of an organization already. That might save you effort to find a new one and money for your membership.
If you are not that satisfied with the association your consultancy has chosen or your organization is not a member in a professional body, it can be worth checking out the different associations either as an individual member or with the consultancy as a corporate member.
External consultant with a big consultancy
Are you wasting your time with professional associations if you work with a big consultancy?
If you are a business consultant with a major consultancy, the answer is most probably: yes. If you work with a consultancy like McKinsey, Accenture or Deloitte, the most important networking opportunities will be within your company and with the client. You will find great opportunities to network to get an exciting role (or even a new job) within that circle. With the constant changes in the structure of some consultancies (Accenture probably changes theirs every 24 months), the influx of new consultants and leaving of some you know, you will probably be very busy keeping up with networking in your own company. Same applies for your clients – you change clients every so and so often and you want to make sure you stay in touch with interesting people.
Is it worth to join for the educational opportunities? Consultancies like Boston, Bain and EY usually have so many great training programs that it is not worth it. Check out your company’s classroom training and their online courses. Do they have a subscription with online libraries like Books 24×7 or publish podcasts? Maybe join one of their online communities in your area of specialization, read the newsletters for your industry or follow your partner on Twitter.
I would rather recommend to be well connected and use your internal resources than go outside. You can even find a great mentor in your consultancy that will help you not only understand the consulting business better, but also the politics of your particular consulting company.
When does a membership make sense?
While associations for a wider audience like management consultant or IT consultants make little sense for employed consultants, being part of a very specialized association can make sense for consultants, managers, senior managers and partners. (For analysts not so much yet.) Once you are known for a topic (and want to build on that reputation), you can deepen and widen your knowledge in that area inside your consultancy as well as outside of it by becoming an active member of a professional organization. Some examples:
Need more knowledge
You have been working in SAP data migration in your last projects and will most probably go on working in that area. While there is a lot of knowledge available for SAP projects in general, there is little available on data migration. There is little knowledge in books about the topic, so you decide to find a professional association that has exchanges and maybe even training available.
Stay up to date and know the market
You have been working on projects in the leadership development area. There is a lot of material available in your consultancy around the topic. Still you would like to stay updated with the latest trends in leadership development as this area is changing fast.
At the same time, you learn more about the market and the players that are not consultants – e.g. universities, non-profits and training centers.
Have a sounding board and get challenged
You are a project management office consultant. There is a lot of knowledge existing in your company. Yet you are so advanced in your career, there is little new to learn for you and it is hard to find somebody who can challenge you or that you can brainstorm difficult project situations with. By becoming member in an association in your field, you can showcase your knowledge, have something new to learn and find somebody to discuss difficult cases in cross-cultural projects.
Become known by other professionals
You have re-designed processes in finance and have rolled out 2 shared service center. There is a lot of knowledge available in your company for finance processes. You want to exchange ideas and brainstorm with other consultants though that are more specialized in shared service centers. On top of that, you want to let other professionals in your field know that you and your company have expertise in finance processes, especially SSC. To become known by other professionals as an expert for SSC, you decide to speak at an event and host a webinar.
Be recognized as an expert by clients
You work in strategy and successfully completed projects in varying industries. You would like to deepen your expertise in the media & entertainment industry though. You want to join and industry specific association to learn more about the industry and network while at the same time connecting with possible clients. You and a colleague write an article in the association’s magazine and actively advice others in the forum on strategic topics.
Before you join an association, you might want to check with your counselor or the practice lead if the consultancy can sponsor your membership or if the consultancy is a member in an association already. Or even if the consultancy wants to further pursue an engagement in that area. Even though they might have done projects in that area in that past, they might want to get out of this business area. (Actually, this talk should have taken place quite some time before you even looking up any associations. What are your career aspirations? More generalist or specialist? Do your aspirations fit with the strategic direction of your consulting company?)
If there are several professional associations available in your specialization, your consultancy also might prefer one over the other. Telling your counselor is a good idea anyway as it shows your dedication to the job.
Go for a specialized professional association in your niche
A membership in an association for management or IT consultants will most probably not benefit you. It is not focused enough for support you in your work as an internal consultant. The same applies if you work in very varying roles from Talent Management to business strategy to implementing new process.
If you work in more specialized roles and concentrate e.g. on change management or process reengineering, you can consider a professional organization in that field. It will give you access to publications in your field. It will also give you a chance to brainstorm and exchange ideas with other experts, as you most likely do not have too many other internal consultants who work in similar roles in your company.
Are there free associations for consultants?
The membership in professional associations will usually cost you between 100-300 Dollars or even more. Fortunately, there are some alternatives and options that are completely free.
Interesting for independent consultants: The Freelancers Union. It provides free membership. You can find content, groups to network and a directory. It also gives access to retirement options as well as health and dental plans in some states.
If you are independent now but have been working with a consultancy before, check out their Alumni Program. Either ask your former employer’s HR or check LinkedIn for an Alumni group.
Accenture for example has some really interesting local events where you cannot only update your knowledge, but also network with interesting people.
In general, groups in LinkedIn and Xing can be a good source for networking and even for job postings. Some even have offline meetings where you can meet fellow consultants or other people working in your field.
MeetUp is a great place to find groups to network in person.
Give it a try
Sometimes the only way to see if something works for you is to give it a try. Join the professional association you selected with our checklist for a year. Make a reminder in your calendar at the beginning to remind you to participate in their online community and attend their conference. Spend the money for one year and see if you get a return.
You can even track how much money you spent versus how much money you made in return.
How to make the most out of your membership with a professional association
If you decided to spend money on a professional association, you might as well make the most of it. Here is how:
Your membership fee usually includes a subscription to listserv, newsletters or journals in your field and access to the web resources the association offers. Stay up to date in your field or industry and read through the publications.
(I am personally a fan of reading books or on big screens. It is better for memorizing the content. Also, I can browse through and capture the most important ideas or read an entire paragraph if seems interesting. If you want to try speed reading, you could give Spreeder a try.)
You can learn about the newest research and from experts in your field at conferences.
Attend seminars and trainings offline and online.
Webinars are a great way to learn without having to leave your desk. With classroom trainings, you can deepen your knowledge in a topic and try out new behaviours.
Be a presenter or trainer.
It does not only give you exposure, it also deepens your learning. Teaching others is a proven way not only to improve the knowledge of the audience, but also your own knowledge.
Improve your business
Other professionals are a great way to increase your sales. They can open doors for you and connect you with clients. For that you have to build trust first that you are great at what you do. Nobody wants to recommend a colleague only to hear from a client that he did not deliver. That bad rep will fall back on them.
Your peers also have to like you to recommend you. Smile, be friendly and a good listener. Be open with your attitude and in your body language. Give before you take. (Asking for a small favor is alright though as people tend to remember and like you more. Weird, but scientifically proven.)
Use the professional association to network.
Attend their events, chapter meetings and conferences to meet and connect with professionals.
If you are intimidated by big events, start with the smaller ones. Some associations also have events for new members; these can be a great starting point as well, as everybody is on the same page: new and slightly nervous.
Another good starting point to become comfortable with attending events can be volunteering. It gives you a purpose and connects you with other members of the association. Which by the way is also a great way to network.
Volunteering on task forces and committees is another option to develop closer relationships with other members. On top of that, you can gain leadership experience, learn a bit about planning events, producing marketing or learning materials as well as drafting policies. You also get interesting insights on the politics and inner workings of the professional association.
Big added benefit: your volunteer work looks great on a resume. A friend of mine has been president of the national usability association. Together with her impressive list of experiences, I would hire her right away for anything regarding usability.
The membership officer / coordinator should be able to tell you more about volunteering opportunities for association events.
Don’t forget to network on trainings and seminars you visit. You can even use webinars to network. Contact the speaker afterwards to thank him or a person that asked a very interesting question.
Job fairs, association mixers and mentoring programs are wonderful ways to make a sale or meet other business consultants in your field.
Once you get to know people, stay in touch offline or online through Xing, LinkedIn, email or facebook.
Write for your association.
No matter if you write for a web article, newsletter, magazine or even a peer-reviewed journal: a publication will give you exposure with colleagues and possibly even clients.
Easy enough content pieces to write are:
- Case studies. Make sure you make them totally anonymous or ask your clients for permission to publish them. Including client names will give you more credibility with your audience.
- Book reviews. Make it specific for your audience.
- Interviews with innovators, customers or key achievers. You can post them as a video or audio and make a transcript for the association’s website.
Before you start, look for the submission guidelines on the website of the publication or your professional association. Alternatively, contact the editor of the publication.
Show off your membership
Include your association membership as well as your volunteer activities on your CV and your Xing and LinkedIn profiles. Also list any committee positions and publications.
Clients and employers like memberships with professional association memberships. It shows you are deeply committed in your field and really interested in what you do.
Use the discounts
Make sure to use the discounts your professional association offers on events and publications.
Talk to other consultants. They are possibly in the same life situation. Go and tell your story.
Sharing stories about difficult clients (anonymously of course), impossible commutes and the difficulties of work life balance will make you feel like you are not alone in this. You might learn from how other consultants tackle their challenges. Who knows, you might even laugh about some of your own or other consultant’s stories. You might like each other so much that you want to help each other to get business. Not to be underestimated (especially for independent consultants and expert consultants): You will feel connected. As Gareth Cook, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist puts it: “Because of how social pain and pleasure are wired into our operating system, these are motivational ends in and of themselves. We don’t focus on being connected solely in order to extract money and other resources from people – being connected needs no ulterior motive.”
Be connected. You are part of the tribe of consultants.
Are you wasting your money on professional associations? That depends – on your situation, the selection of the right association and on how much you invest. If you decide to pay for a membership, you might as well take an active role within your association. It can expand your network, increase your knowledge and advance your career.