Corporate vs. Consulting

Many HR executives are discovering -- especially in today's still-challenging economy -- that their skill sets translate nicely into consulting careers.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011
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As an undergraduate at the University of Rhode Island, Teddy deCaro never imagined pursuing a career in human resources. She was a journalism major at the height of the Watergate scandal; her aspirations were more Woodward and Bernstein than comp and benefits.

Working at Boston-based Jordan Marsh & Co. (now Macy's) for college spending money, however, she was asked to take on some training duties. She quickly fell in love with HR and training, and enrolled in the company's executive-training program after graduating with a bachelor's degree in journalism and Italian in 1975.

Over the next 17 years, deCaro worked in a variety of HR roles for Boston-based Marshalls Inc. and Chadwick's of Boston, before ending up at Newton, Mass.-based Bread & Circus, the largest natural-foods retailer in the Northeast, in 1992. Just one month into the job, however, the company was sold to Whole Foods.

deCaro was offered the opportunity to relocate and stay with the company, but that was something she was not willing to do. So she launched her own business instead, an HR consulting firm aptly named The deCaro Consulting Group Inc., and gave herself 18 months to make it work. That was 18 years ago.

deCaro is not the only HR executive to jump off the corporate ladder in favor of a consulting career. It's not uncommon to find diehard corporate HR executives who have traded the corner office for a consulting career or vice versa. Their reasons for making the swap vary.

For some, like deCaro, it was an alternative to staying in a job whose parameters had changed. Others were simply driven by an entrepreneurial spirit and had long dreamed of making a living as an independent consultant. Still others turned to consulting because they found themselves out of a job or had come to the realization that tough economic conditions were putting their long-term career paths at risk.

For all of them, the ability to pursue both consulting and corporate HR provides ample opportunities to contribute in their chosen field. And many of the skills needed to successfully direct the HR function are the same as those that make for an effective consultant.

That's not to suggest it's always a seamless transition. While the two career tracks have a number of skills in common, there are facets of both vocations that are unique and that may or may not be pleasing to someone accustomed to the other. Likewise, there are trade-offs to be made that impact not only job satisfaction, but lifestyle as well.

Natural Progression

Making the switch from corporate to consulting makes sense when you consider that the HR profession is, by definition, largely consultative. After all, what is an HR professional but an internal consultant charged with coming up with solutions to problems across the entire organization?

"When you've been in-house and you've been working with line organizations, helping them with specific problems, you develop a very deep and real understanding for the problems and issues that organizations face," says Nancy Mobley, president and CEO of Insight Performance Inc., a Dedham, Mass.-based HR consulting firm specializing in emerging companies.

She came to consulting after 20-plus years working in corporate HR, including a stint at Natick, Mass.-based Prime Computer Inc. "You are right in there with them, getting your hands dirty and solving the problem. To be a really good consultant, you have to be the same way."

David Pace knows this well. A long-time HR executive who has served in the highest ranks of both PepsiCo and Starbucks, Pace left the latter in December 2007 to spend two and a half years working as an HR consultant before assuming his current position as executive vice president and chief resource officer for OSI Restaurant Partners in Tampa, Fla. After years of serving CEOs in an advisory role, Pace says, he found it easy to advise corporate clients.

"It is in your DNA as an HR professional to be a consultant in an advisory role," says Pace. "It doesn't feel like you are making a huge leap from your developed skill set."

The simple fact that HR executives are masters of people skills gives them a tremendous advantage in the consulting world. Specifically, they bring an understanding of how important relationships and political networks are to the success of talent-management practices, says Marc Effron, president of New York-based The Talent Strategy Group and former vice president of talent management at Avon Products Inc.

Likewise, the ability to listen to what an individual needs, figure out a solution, and then communicate it effectively to senior management is key to both vocations, says Tracy Keogh, senior vice president of human resources at Aon Hewitt, based in Lincolnshire, Ill.

She began her career in general management consulting at Boston-based Arthur D. Little before segueing through a series of HR positions with such companies as Sapien, Analog Devices and Bloomberg.

Keogh credits the fast pace of consulting for giving her the ability to tackle the constant string of challenges inherent in running the HR function for an organization such as Aon Hewitt. Consulting also gave Keogh a solid grounding in data analysis -- another skill set that's key to both disciplines.

"The ability to break down a problem and do an analysis to understand what the issues are, what the root causes are, then prioritize interventions to address that, has been extremely useful," says Keogh.

Not all HR professionals immediately recognize that their skills are so transferable. When Moira Donoghue was first toying with the idea of leaving her post as corporate secretary and ethics officer at Newark, Del.-based Conectiv Energy to go into mergers-and-acquisitions consulting, she wasn't sure she had what it took to succeed as a consultant.

So she began exploring consulting opportunities with New York-based Mercer, where a wide range of consultants and business leaders helped her determine, through a series of interviews, that she had what it took to be a successful consultant. They convinced her of the value that her HR experience brought to the table, not only in sheer subject-matter expertise, but also in the form of communication skills and creativity.

Their support gave Donoghue the confidence to accept a position there as partner and senior M&A consultant.

"I was aware that I was taking a huge risk and could have fallen flat on my face," says Donoghue. "I ultimately took the leap because the people here helped me determine what competencies I had or could develop pretty quickly that would make me effective as a consultant."

Missing Links

While Keogh enjoyed the "intellectual challenges" posed by a consulting career, she was often disappointed because her role at a given client would be over before the solution she had worked so hard to devise had even been implemented.

Keogh is not alone, as many HR executives-turned-consultants find their newfound careers unsatisfying for that very reason. Accustomed to assessing a situation, developing a solution, implementing it and then measuring the results, they now must assume an advisory role, which often entails moving on without witnessing the fruits of their labor.

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For someone like Pace, who spent more than two decades heading up HR for organizations renowned for their HR practices, that "lack of control" proved particularly bothersome.

"You can provide advice and counsel, but at the end of the day, you leave implementation to someone else," says Pace. "You only get to take it so far, and then someone else gets to own it and make it real in the organization."

While they may have what it takes to effectively diagnose problems and prescribe the right solution, many HR executives who have ventured into consulting encounter other facets of the consulting business they hadn't expected. Travel, for example, can be extensive.

While some consultants thrive on jetting across the globe, Jeremy Eskenazi, managing partner of Riviera Advisors Inc., a Long Beach, Calif.-based HR consulting firm and the former head of staffing and recruiting for Universal Studios and Universal Music Group, admits he wasn't prepared for just how much he would have to travel.

In 2010, 60 percent of Eskenazi's work was outside of the United States. That led to months like this past September, when he was home for just six days. Referring to that amount of travel as "extraordinary" and "a burden," Eskenazi admits he doesn't like the travel aspect of consulting, but has come to accept it as "just part of the game."

And travel isn't the only unforeseen challenge encountered by HR executives looking to make the leap into consulting. They typically underestimate the amount of business development they are going to have to engage in, says Joanne Kruse, co-founder of HCpartners, a Chester, N.J.-based HR consulting firm, and former executive vice president of human resources for Parsippany, N.J.-based Travelport Ltd.

"They think they are going to go in and have a conversation or they're going to call a couple people and land some assignments and make all this money," says Kruse. "It's not like that."

Mobley can attest to that. With no prior selling experience, she had to hire a sales coach to teach her how to drum up business beyond her initial first few clients, which were essentially given to her by former employer, Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Arlington, Va. (now New York-based Towers Watson after the merger with Towers Perrin).

That lack of sales and marketing acumen is often a stumbling block for HR professionals-turned-consultants, says James Berkeley, director of Berkeley Burke International, a global HR consulting firm based in London. Berkeley's concerns don't end there. He is highly critical of HR executives who attempt to make the transition into consulting, believing that displaced HR professionals often look upon consulting as a part-time or temporary gig, rather than a career.

With no barriers to entry, the consulting industry has become a "popular haven" for unemployed HR professionals who are "bridging the gap" until someone hires them, says David Lewis, president and founder of OperationsInc., a Stamford, Conn.-based HR outsourcing and consulting firm, and former senior vice president of HR at both World Merchandise Exchange and Teltrust.

While that may be true, Pace bristles at the suggestion that HR professionals who go back and forth between the corporate and consulting realms are any less effective. On the contrary, he believes such varied experiences can only serve to bolster their skill sets. Time spent in consulting makes for a better corporate HR executive and vice versa. It's all in how you approach it.

"There's something to take out of all these experiences, on both sides," says Pace. "You have to look at it as a learning cycle and recognize that in the end, you'll be better at whatever you choose to do."

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