Star Training

Secrets of Star Training Consultants

How do successful training consultants achieve and maintain their “stardom?” What broader lessons do their career paths offer to the rest of the industry? Training magazine and Concordia University launched a study to find out.

Like most fields, training has its stars. Within the professional community, these typically are people who make high-profile presentations at major conferences, write best-selling books, and are the role models who influence perceptions of what authors James C. and Dana Gaines Robinson call “the performance consultant”: someone who is responsible for building relationships with internal and external clients, assessing their needs, and determining how to address those needs through training, other interventions, or some combination of the two.

But who are these star consultants? How did they achieve and maintain their “stardom?” What broader lessons do their career paths offer to the rest of the industry? Training magazine and Concordia University launched a study to find out.

Defining a Star

We recognize that the definition of a “star” varies among people. So we devised a concrete, observable definition for the purpose of this study—a high-profile contractor or consultant who meets at least two of the following criteria:

  • Self-employed or employed by an agency that provides training and development services to clients
  • Has presented at least two featured sessions or workshops at international conferences on training in the last 12 months
  • Has published at least one book or authored one major research report on training and development
  • Is quoted at least two times in editor-controlled media for the training industry
  • Has a regular column in an editor controlled publication for the training industry

To conduct the study, we first contacted several consultants who met our definition of a “star.” We scheduled a main interview with each star who responded. We recorded and transcribed the interviews, then followed up with requests for clarification and elaboration.

To provide the stars with a high degree of comfort sharing their experiences with us, we promised each one confidentiality. That means that when reporting the research, we do not identify them nor share descriptive in formation that would allow readers to identify individual participants.

Although the study is still in progress, here are initial results from interviews with six participants.

About the Participants

To ensure a variety of perspectives, we sought participants who have extensive independent consulting experience. Two have more than 20 years’ independent consulting experience; three have a moderate amount of experience (10 to 20 years); and one is newer to independent consulting (less than 10 years). Some general characteristics of the participants include:

  • All have advanced degrees in an education-related field. All of the participants completed a Master’s degree in an education related discipline, such as adult education and educational technology. Three of the six participants have Ph.D.s.

One participant who has a Ph.D. noted that, before completing a Master’s or doctoral degree, consultants should pursue “reality education” or work in the “real” workplace because it informs their learning.

  • They have lots— and varied— prior work experience. Five of the six participants worked in larger organizations before launching their independent practices. Two of the six started as full-time university professors, but both quickly moved into jobs in training and development. Three of the six held management or leadership positions. The fourth worked as a project manager, and the fifth worked as an individual contributor. All positions were held in a training and development context.

In addition to working inside a training and development group, five of the six had prior experience as a service provider: two as consultants working for larger consulting firms, and the other three either as employees working for service providers or as independent contractors.

So what about the sixth? That person started working as an independent consultant early in his career because he wanted a flexible work schedule and remained as a consultant ever since.

How They Became Consultants

Some “force” pushed each of the participants into starting their private consulting practices. For two, those forces were external, such as a job coming to an end, a downsizing, and a cross-country move. Both went into independent work as a result and never left.

For the majority, however, the forces pushing the participants into private consulting were internal. Some expressed a desire to move beyond a certain work environment. One expressed an interest in earning more money. And the most experienced of the participants expressed a desire to improve the effectiveness of learning experiences.

About Their Work

The six participants generally work in two types of work situations: their medium-sized organizations (50 or more employees) that provide training and development-related services to organizations, or their one-person outfits. But what about the actual work they do? Here are some insights:

They prefer to consult. Although all work in our field, only two of the participants directly work on training projects. The participants prefer “big strategic projects,” with several mentioning enterprise systems implementations and major change initiatives. These assignments typically involve either research-related tasks or interacting with people, such as coaching individuals and working with teams to prepare a project plan. In fact, even the two who work directly on training projects prefer a consulting role. The primary reason participants do not work on training projects is that “they need a lot of resources.”

Although one participant specifically focuses on short term consulting engagements, the majority of participants prefer long-term assignments. Two especially like large-scale change initiatives and “messy” human behavior projects. “If complicated and difficult and complex, I typically like those—provided, of course, that at least has some sense of reality about what it takes to do that stuff,” one participant said.

Ultimately, the participants hope to have an impact on their clients’ organizations. As one noted, “I only want to work on programs and projects that are going to have a longrange impact on people and the organization and where the leadership or somebody who’s influential also is taking on the challenge and will die for it to be successful.”

They work virtually. Nearly all participants work in virtual situations, where they, their clients, and their colleagues (if any) are in different geographic locations. Although most are comfortable with virtual work, one openly detests it.

Most of the consultants receive help. Whether they work on their own or in an organization, most of the consultants rely on the assistance of others. Certainly, they receive project assistance. For example, when training is needed, the participants who have their own firms tu rn to their staffs, and the ones who operate as one-person operations invite in sub-contractors or refer the additional work to other consultants.

But most have someone who handles the business side of their work, such as bookkeeping and invoicing. The participants who have medium-size organizations have office managers on staff.

Three-quarters of the one-person operations have assistants to help them with these tasks, too. For example, three have part-time bookkeepers. In contrast, one of the one person consultants handles everything, including billing, to keep operations as simple as possible.

They have challenges with clients, too. Participants have had to address a variety of issues with clients. Some of the challenges emerge from the consultant-client relationship. Participants described issues such as clients’ lack of awareness of a consultant’s role, discourteous client behavior in meetings, and toxic cultures in client organizations. In two of the cases, the consultant was not afraid to end the client relationship even if it meant losing the work.

But most of the challenges are related to projects. For example, like most professionals in our field, participants have difficulty convincing clients to evaluate completed projects. One provides incentives for clients to do so.

Last-minute changes are a particular challenge to all of the participants. “All of the time,” commented two.

“When has this not happened?” added a third.

“It is so normal as to be laughable and considered to be the way it is,” agreed a fourth.

One of the central challenges of consulting is that the customer is always right, even when they’re not. In general, the participants who did not have a payroll to make seemed to feel more comfortable pushing back on clients than those who had a payroll to make.

Participants also indicated the types of assignment they feel are inappropriate for them. Most of the assignments refused could be characterized as “conventional.” Several participants specifically mentioned that they distance themselves from training about products and software to focus on more strategic projects.

One participant avoids “order-taker projects.” Another avoids awareness training because the clients for such projects typically do not know why they are requesting training in the first place. A third avoids compliance training, finding that such training has political rather than learning goals, and also avoids procedural and technical training unless the programs deal with the underlying technical concepts. Another avoids fixing the mistakes of prior project leaders. And one got bored with one particular type of project and won’t do it again, even though this type of assignment was that participant’s “bread-and-butter” assignment.

For the most part, their “desire is to do something even greater than the client wants,” even driving some participants to invest unbilled hours into a project to achieve a satisfactory outcome. And that type of outcome is important to the participants. Two described a feeling of being let down when success was only illusory at the end of a project.

How They Promote Themselves

Perhaps because the criteria for inclusion in this study included high-profile publications and presentations, all of the participants identified publishing and speaking as key to their promotional efforts.

All six participants maintain a Web presence, although each uses a different combination of Web and social media tools to promote their work. Each has a personal Website and a LinkedIn profile. Some blog; one creates videos.

Those who have their own medium-sized firms have a sales staff. The others primarily rely on visibility and word-of-mouth to promote their services. The participants stress the value of networking in receiving leads on projects. One independent consultant expressed a wish for a talent agent, much like the ones who find work for actors, but hasn’t found one yet.

All six have published books, but the six have differing views on the importance of books to their promotion. A few feel their books play a central role in getting contracts, while one focuses on articles, believing no one buys books any more, and another resisted publishing books entirely—a publisher had to convince them.

Landing work takes time. Although some said that the time between initial contact and signing of an agreement could occur in as few as three weeks, others required much longer time lines, with several reporting 10 to 12 months.

How They Achieve Balance

Work-life balance plays an important role for many consultants. One participant observed that consulting “can take all of your time and energy, so it is important to set boundaries.” Sometimes the source of work-life off-balance comes from clients, some of whom “could care less about your life, and you just have to tell them that this is either two-way or it’s neither way.”

Sometimes the source of work-life off-balance is internal within the consultant. As one participant noted: “I’ve made a decision not to go nuts with at the expense of my life. There are people who are on the road 300 days a year—I am not one of them. There are people who work all night—I am not one of them. And as I get older, I find I like that better than the other style.”

And sometimes the source of work-life off-balance is a lack of boundaries. As one participant observed: “As a self-employed consultant... it’s a little too easy to be at work too much of the time.”

Saul Carliner, Ph.D., CTDP, is Research director for Lakewood Media and an associate professor of Educational Technology at Concordia University in Montreal.

John Murray is an instructional designer with Toronto-based Benchmark Performance and completing his MA in Educational Technology at Concordia University.


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