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Are You Consultant Material?

If you think you have what it takes to make it as a high-powered consultant, read on. By Selena Chavis | Digital Exclusive

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As the Consultant Journal puts it, “When you become a consultant, you’re saying goodbye to the predictability, normalness, routine and safety of a regular job. You’re venturing out on your own, into unknown territory. From here on out, you’ll need to survive by your wits, not a paycheck that appears every two weeks without question.… But, in the long term, your decision to become a consultant may be the best thing for you. You’ll call the shots (well, except when your clients do). You’ll be in charge of scheduling your time. You can refuse projects, dump clients, and focus on work that interests you. You set your rates.”

And there lies the draw for so many accounting and finance experts: Variety, flexibility, independence.

What’s consulting really about?

Consultants are a business lifesaver. These professionals provide organizations with the flexibility to fill in missing operational gaps without having to go through the expensive and time-consuming task of hiring and training new staff.

The Consultant Journal describes consulting this way: “When you become a consultant, you offer your skills to other people. When you become a consultant, you’re saying you offer skills, knowledge and expertise that businesses or other people can use. A consultant gives advice, solves problems, makes recommendations, or provide specialized work, such as programming, editing, designing, writing, or business analysis.”

Accounting and finance consultants, specifically, are sought after for their niche expertise in, say, regulatory compliance, turnarounds, or IT infrastructure. They work as independent contractors versus employees of the hiring organization, and typically are paid by the hour, day or project, on commission, or according to performance.

The consulting field can be lucrative, with an average salary of around $92,500 nationally and just over $81,000 in Chicago, according to Glassdoor.

Where are the opportunities?

Here are a few of the types of consulting roles typically assumed by accounting and finance pros.

General Accounting

Many companies, especially startups and small businesses, pull in accounting consultants to fill gaps in staff when resources are limited and demands are high. Consultants in this type of role may need to fill a CFO or controller-like position, providing the client with extra help in interpreting or preparing complex financial data, or dealing with tax, risk management, or business development issues. These consultants also may help to design organizational structures that will improve or streamline costs and workflows associated with their finance and accounting functions.

Forensic Accounting

Integrating accounting, auditing and investigative skills, the niche field of forensic accounting provides analysis and resolutions suitable for litigation and courtroom discussions, debates and disputes. The work of forensic accounting can cross over into other specializations, such as valuation work, financial analysis and technical accounting. These professionals often work on cases that cover areas such as insurance fraud, embezzlement and money laundering. While many large companies have on-staff forensic accountants, they often prefer to hire outside consultants to add credibility to litigation teams when an expert witness is required.

Financial Analysis

Financial analysts offer a big-picture view in that their analysis is often associated with the global financial health of a business in a specific industry or economy. For instance, small companies that don’t have extra resources to devote to this kind of activity often seek a third-party to help them make long-term strategic decisions. Analysts are also often hired by banks, buy- and sell-side investment firms, insurance companies and investment banks to recommend a course of action, based on a company’s current and predicted strength.

Often CPAs, these professionals recognize key industry or international trends and provide financial insight for decision-making related to investments, and generally prepare financial models, reports and charts to illustrate data and help companies identify economic, industrial and corporate developments and opportunities.

Internal Audit

Financial executives often seek consultants for specific auditing needs, such as employee benefits plans, government compliance, nonprofit work, or private ventures. For instance, a company may conduct an internal audit to identify any shortcomings before it undergoes an audit from a government agency or investor group. In these cases, outside professionals are called upon to help companies ensure regulatory compliance, or to improve their processes and policies.

Information Systems

Advancements in accounting, business management and data systems has driven a greater dependence on technology. As such, expertise in IT-related initiatives remains a top specialization for today’s accounting professionals. Organizations often seek consultants to help them identify and deploy IT infrastructures or modify and improve existing systems. These professionals help to choose systems that will produce the greatest return on investment and position companies to respond to future market and technology trends.

What does it take to be a consultant?

These five traits and qualities are vital to today’s high-powered consultant.

1. Credentials and credibility

CPAs, CGMAs, CFAs, CFPs—the right credential for the role you intend to play is crucial. Earning the best credentials—like the CPA—only boosts your credibility.

2. Targeted expertise

Since expertise is what sells a consultant, the more niche that expertise the higher the consultant’s value to an organization. Young professionals who want to fast-track into consulting therefore should target jobs that speak to their specific fields of interest—whether manufacturing, IT, auditing, startups, etc. In addition, becoming a member of relevant trade associations can help to not only expand your knowledge, but also open doors to new connections and therefore new opportunities.

3. Confidence

Self-assurance is an all-important trait for consultants who need to communicate well with clients, work with diverse teams, and inspire confidence in the expertise they are providing. Without that, a client may question a consultant’s abilities.

4. Soft skills

The ability to communicate clearly, whether spoken or written; the capacity to speak publicly with confidence; and a knack for presenting without breaking a sweat are all vitally important. The consultant role often stands center stage, so there’s no hiding behind your laptop. The gift of the gab is a must, as is a willingness to market yourself and your expertise.

5. Personal rapport

Variety is at the heart of a consultant’s day-to-day, with an ever-changing landscape of projects, goals and teams. As such, a consultant needs to be a people person, with the ability to build rapport with diverse individuals, encourage teamwork, and convey approachability in order to be readily accepted into the fold.