23rd January 2012

5 Ways Sustainability Consulting Differs From In-House Roles


Many candidates wanting to break into the sustainability field struggle to focus on the type of role that would fit them best. One client said they could see themselves working in consulting, in-house or for a non-profit. That raises a red flag to me! These are all very different cultures, contexts and offer very different roles within them.  So if you are trying to decide what is the best focus for you in order to develop a competitive story for the market, here are five ways that consulting is very different from in-house positions.

1. Pay

Many people assume that consultants earn more money than in-house, but this simply isn’t true. Acre Resources’ annual CSR Salary Survey found that consultants in 2010 earned about $15k less than in-house practioners in the UK and $24k less in continental Europe. These differences were not offset by higher bonuses, so if you are looking for the big money, perhaps look again.

2. Skills

A Senior Consultant at leading sustainability, strategy and communications consultancy, Salter Baxter, said that the trend in today’s market is that both consultants and in-house practitioners should be delivering three key skills – collaboration, innovation and engagement.  However what really sets these two types of roles apart is business development. Both roles require strong relationship building skills but consulting is much more focused on “sales”. As a consultant you will be required to bring in a certain amount per year in new business or repeat business.  You really need to love selling, writing proposals and networking.

3.  Strategy vs. Implementation

Many consultants cross over to in-house roles because they want to be more involved with the implementation of projects – to be ‘closer to the business’. Consultants tend to drop in temporarily to develop a strategy or deliver solutions in support of an in-house team.  But when the project is complete the consultant goes on to the next client, whereas the in-house practioner gets to see the project through to the end.  A consultant might not get to see the tangible results of his/her hard work.

4.  Client facing and project focused

Consultants I have worked with, in general, complain of longer hours that are less predictable. This is due to the client-facing nature of project work. If a potential client calls on a Friday afternoon and wants a proposal for new work for Tuesday, you may have to work through the weekend. Everything in consulting is time sensitive and externally driven by client needs and expectations. This can lead to quite unpredictable hours requiring undying flexibility.

5.  Diversity of sector

Consultants are motivated by the breadth of projects, sectors, and clients they get to work with. Some larger consultancies, like the Big4, may be structured by sector expertise, where one consultant may focus solely on FMCG or Retail.  But in the smaller boutiques, a consultant could be working across multiple sectors, making it a dynamic way to experience multiple types of businesses. If you are in-house you would be an expert not only in your sector, but also in your specific commercial business. You would need to know inside and out the business, which is why many in-house sustainability practioners are internal hires.

So if you are trying to decide which way to go – consulting or in-house (because don’t forget, you need to focus on one or the other track to develop a convincing customised story and CV for the market), weigh these five ways that consulting differs from in-house. Good luck deciding!

About Shannon: Shannon Houde, MBA, has coached, hired and trained CR professionals for more than 10 years. She has worked with sustainability professionals at all levels – from recent graduates to senior management to help them drive their career forward. To find out more about her Career Coaching services, follow this link.

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