On the Road Again
Expense accounts? Nights at the Hilton? Dinner at Stars' restaurant? Free airline tickets to Hawaii? Sure. The perks of business travel are well known. But everyone knows they also come with a price.
Ask a management consultant to name his or her biggest professional challenge, and you'll probably get an answer along the lines of "lifestyle maintenance." For traveling consultants, being in two places at once often seems critical to getting the job done. But until human cloning becomes a reality, the best a consultant can do is to learn to travel efficiently. Here are some things you can do to improve your on-the-road performance and maintain your sanity:
Know Your Rights
Consulting firms often have set limits on travel that are meant to help consultants maintain a reasonable work-life balance. For instance, Deloitte Consulting's "3-4-5 program" mandates that consultants spend "only" three nights and four days of the week at the client site and the fifth day in their own home office. Other firms might call for a five-days-a-week travel schedule, but allow one week out of every four to be spent working at the consultant's home office. Some firms offer "comp time" or extra days off when project work requires unusually long hours.
As well-intentioned as these policies may be, insiders tell us that they're not always enforced. If you don't already know what your firm's policy on client travel is, find out. And if you think you may be logging more off-site hours than the firm mandates, tell your manager. You might be due for a break-or maybe a bonus.
Sure, New York is home to many corporate headquarters, but as often as not, your client may be situated in a more remote location such as Omaha, Nebraska (no offense, folks). Be aware that staffing decisions are often based on consultant availability, not on individual choice of location. (Otherwise, wouldn't all projects take place in Hawaii?) It's important to keep yourself mentally prepared to travel on short notice-and it wouldn't hurt to keep a suitcase packed just in case.
Being on a regular travel schedule-say Monday through Thursday at the client's site, Friday through Sunday at home-eliminates the surprise factor, but it also means you'll have to carefully budget your time on weekends. Keep in mind that you'll probably need Saturday afternoons to do laundry and run errands that aren't easily done from three states away, and part of Sunday to repack your suitcase.
Call the Concierge
If you are on the road frequently, you might be able to take advantage of the complimentary services that many consulting firms are offering to help ease travel strain. Accenture, for instance, offers perks such as concierge services for its traveling consultants, including help with such tasks as dry cleaning and dog walking.
The expense account is probably the most tangible perk of the traveling consultant. The Gold Card gives you access to many a business lunch, fine dinners with clients, and great bottles of wine. But remember that with all this may come the consultant equivalent of the "freshman 15."
Keeping your body moving may be just what you need to keep fit and fight fatigue while on the road. Most hotels have adequate gym facilities, and there is always the option of donning running shoes and hitting the pavement. On longer-term engagements, some consultants may even join local gyms or participate in client companies' weekly softball or basketball games. There are plenty of opportunities to stay active-be creative.
Master the Airport
Running to the plane with your suitcase and computer bag in tow can be a real drag. First, buy stock in your favorite airline. Then, take steps to make your journey easier. Request e-ticketing to eliminate the extra stop at the check-in counter. Pack lightly and carry bags onto the plane with you to avoid the crowd at baggage claim. Sign up for frequent-flier programs; after several months of weekly travel, you might earn a free ticket to Hawaii (subject to ticketing restrictions, of course). Sneak catnaps when you can, especially before popping open your laptop to polish up that PowerPoint presentation.
Keep in Touch
The unspoken rule in this business is that consultants are accessible anywhere in the world, day or night. That means when you're on the road, your voice mail, e-mail, or cell phone is your lifeline. Return messages within 12 hours if possible, and step on the gas if the boss marks the message "priority." (Who invented that feature, anyway?) The sooner you can clear your plate, the less you have hanging over your head.
If you're on a long assignment away from home, staying in touch with friends and family may be just as vital to your sanity as communicating with the home office. Consultants can easily fall off the face of the earth unless they make a serious effort to see friends and loved ones. Friendly e-mail sent on your personal (as opposed to your corporate) account can be a savior in this department, especially if you are crossing time zones to travel to your client's site. Before you run up your long-distance bill at the hotel, find out what your firm's policy is on reimbursement.
Save Time for Downtime
Above all, make your needs be known. It's okay to bow out of a client dinner every once in awhile, especially if dinner in the hotel room with a good book or the television sounds more appetizing. More often than not, the client would rather see you well rested and productive during the workday than out schmoozing after-hours. Make sure you get your downtime-no one else will schedule relaxation for you.
Management consulting can be a very rewarding career. But today's fast-paced workplace often requires your job to become your lifestyle, and consulting's no exception. As with any lifestyle change, consider the entire package before accepting a firm's offer. Make sure consulting isn't just a way to bide your time until (or after) business school, but fits with your personal goals as well. Four days a week with a client in Omaha would be a lot sweeter if you knew the assignment was getting you that much closer to starting your own Fortune 500 company or retiring early in Maui. But no matter what future you envision for yourself, if you're as strategic about managing your time on the road as you are about solving clients' problems, you're bound to get there faster.