Turn your “bench” into super subs: A model to gain mutual value from consultants’ non-billable time

written by
Fraser Moore
Aug 22, 2023
minutes read

Personally, I’m not really a fan of referring to consultants’ non-billable time as “bench”. This implies that consultants have little to do that is of value to the firm when they aren’t working on a chargeable project for a client.

Of course, the survival of a consulting business relies on a sustainable level of utilization and aiming for 100% utilization may, on the face of it, seem like a good thing to aim for.

However, there’s so much value that your consulting team can contribute to the development and growth of your own business if their non-billable time is planned and managed effectively, not to mention the obvious impact of consultant burn-out.

It helps prevent the unnecessary stress consultants often experience when they are on the “bench”, feeling vulnerable and worrying that they aren’t contributing to the greater good.  

It’s important to make them feel part of the fabric of the business while satisfying their broader needs that underpin their own purpose and personal progression.

Consulting firms have some of the brightest and highly motivated individuals working for them who want to be able to contribute to the evolution of their own business as well as delivering outstanding results for their clients.

Being smart about how you leverage non-billable time helps deepen the relationship between employee and employer by allowing them to play a crucial and meaningful role in developing the essence of the firm.

In the current competitive consulting landscape, this will help to enhance the Employee Value Proposition and provide an edge in the battle for attracting and retaining the best talent.

So how does this all translate into what consultants can and want to get involved in, and how does this create value for a consulting business?

Mutual benefits of leveraging your consultants to work on their own business

Aside from maintaining a sustainable level of chargeable utilization, there are a number of ongoing activities that are crucial to the growth and evolution of a consulting business.  

While bringing in specialist capability for certain initiatives can be required, external resources are expensive and ultimately erode profit margins. Leveraging your highly capable, in-house resources instead drives high levels of engagement, fosters a thriving culture, and provides a platform for consultants to practice, hone, and demonstrate their consulting skills and competencies in a safe space.

Developing and innovating products and services

In order to be able to respond to changing market requirements and meet evolving client needs, consulting firms can ensure they maximize client value and create broader appeal by continuously innovating their products and services.

This provides an opportunity for consultants to leverage emerging trends and technologies to drive continuous improvement in the services they provide while simultaneously fostering a growth culture within the business.

Codification of intellectual property (IP)

Codifying your IP helps to safeguard your firm’s unique value proposition, methodologies and tools. This prevents loss of key knowledge through employee attrition and ensures consistent, high-quality, and repeatable delivery to your clients.

This also enhances knowledge sharing across the business,  providing an opportunity for less senior consultants to gain essential experience delivering safely in a real client environment, alongside the training of new consultants.

Being part of business development

In the most successful consulting firms, everyone plays a role in sales. Building a sales culture will provide the firm with an entire company sales engine to drive growth as well as enabling consultants to enhance their own development very early on in their consulting career.

By showcasing their communication and problem-solving skills by having insightful conversations, they can better establish trust, understand the needs of the client, and increase the likelihood of generating new and exciting opportunities in which they can be involved.

Building personal brand

As consultants become more experienced, they typically start to focus on specific industries, client problems, or solution domains—developing their niche.  Building out your own personal brand by writing articles, blogs, or whitepapers and posting them on a business social platform such LinkedIn is a really great way to develop research, analysis and writing skills while gaining exposure through sharing high value thought leadership with peers, clients, and prospects.

This supports the broader brand amplification and marketing for the firm and helps demonstrate the quality of consultant and depth of insight that makes them stand out from the competition.

Building and maturing consulting operations

As a consulting firm grows, it will face new and different operational challenges.  Getting consultants involved in internal operational projects gives them an opportunity to get an understanding of the inner workings of the business. It also enables them to leverage their consulting skills to identify and deliver on opportunities to drive efficiency and productivity. The less time consultants spend on “administrative” tasks is a bonus for themselves and the firm.

Development of company culture

Company culture doesn’t just happen by itself—and if it does, it’s rarely what everyone wants it to be! Instead, it needs to be intentionally and continuously nurtured.  Getting consultants involved in actively building, promoting and living the firm’s culture is an essential component of what makes a consulting firm unique and a place where people want to work.  

Having consultants involved in the organization and preparation of company, community, or social events leverages company-wide contribution to “what really matters” and helps drive employee engagement.

Develop new skills and competencies

Great consultants proactively invest in their own development, taking the time to learn new skills, gain deeper subject knowledge, research emerging topics, and ultimately develop new opportunities.  Taking the time to focus on personal growth and development that’s aligned with the type of work the consulting firm undertakes has a clear mutual benefit: increasing adaptability and driving future productivity.

Coaching and mentoring

Coaching and mentoring is an essential element of developing consultants. Nurturing skills, sharing and transferring knowledge, creating a learning culture, and building up confidence is both powerful and rewarding for both parties. Collective involvement in coaching and mentoring practices makes individuals feel more involved and connected, and this makes for happier, more productive consultants.

It also boosts employee retention, encourages innovation, facilitates employee growth, and adds significant positivity to the overall culture and success of the firm.

Working together on the business as well as on chargeable projects brings a different dynamic that is increasingly important in today’s hybrid working environment.  

Quality interactions with colleagues are increasingly becoming a premium, and without them there can be a detrimental effect on the cultural bedrock of the firm.

According to research from HBR, meaningful work only has upsides: “Employees work harder and quit less, and they gravitate to supportive work cultures that help them grow. The value of meaning to both individual employees, and to organizations, stands waiting, ready to be captured by organizations prepared to act.”

Having the opportunity to be part of determining and improving the core elements of the business—how it functions, what products and services it delivers, how it delivers them, how it goes about winning its clients—helps develop consulting capabilities that will provide huge benefits to the individual in their consulting career.

These benefits include deepening their engagement with the business by doing meaningful and interesting work (outside of chargeable work with clients) and providing the business with the capacity to work on itself in order support its own growth, development, and maturity.

Additional thoughts

If you’re trying to strike a balance between doing what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and getting paid to do it, then a really great model I’ve been using for several years now is the Japanese concept of Ikigai.  

Ikigai (ee-key-guy) combines the terms iki-, meaning “alive” or “life,” and -gai, meaning “benefit” or “worth.” When combined, these terms mean that which gives your life worth, meaning, or purpose.  

While initially employed from a personal perspective, it’s increasingly being used when considering how to build and grow a business that has true purpose while simultaneously delivering good financial returns.  

Overlaying an individual’s ikigai on the company’s ikigai can highlight areas of mutual interest and benefit in evolving and progressing both personal and business objectives.

About the author

Fraser Moore, Head of Consulting at CMap, has over 30 years' experience as a business leader in the consulting sector and is passionate about building successful, sustainable, and caring consulting organizations. Having implemented CMap at several businesses in the past 15 years, Fraser strives to help businesses achieve operational success and achieve strategic ambitions. Read more about Fraser's journey here.

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