What is Bench Time to You?
I recently had coffee with a friend of mine that had quit consulting for an industry job. “I loved the work, the people, and my firm,” he said. “But sitting on the bench for weeks between projects was tough. I wanted the security of stable work.”
I’ve sat on the bench several times. Sometimes for a few days. Sometimes for weeks. I can relate to how he felt.
Being on the bench can be an emotional time. These emotions reflect on how we see ourselves as consultants.
Employees tend to focus on stability. They want to know exactly how much they will be paid before they perform any work. Employees don’t want any risk to their paychecks. They expect regular, pre-defined deposits in their checking account every month.
Entrepreneurs tend to focus on opportunity. They will work long hours for the hope of a payday that may never come. Entrepreneurs embrace risk, since it means more reward. They don’t know when, or if, the payoff will ever come.
Consulting ends up being a hybrid of the two mindsets. We are employees, in that we expect to be regularly paid a pre-set amount for our services. But unlike other occupations, we are also the product. This makes every successful consultant a bit of an entrepreneur. We are all subject to the whims of the marketplace. We are all product and brand managers for ourselves. We all accept the risk inherit in this highly rewarding occupation. That risk includes the bench.
I’m not suggesting that consultants face the same level of risk as actual entrepreneurs. According to the Small Business Administration, less than 50% of new businesses survive after five years. In contrast, my career utilization rate as a consultant is 95%. In other words, I’ve spent only eight weeks of the past three years on the bench.
I’m also not suggesting that there is anything wrong with leaving consulting. Everyone makes their own decision on what is best for themselves and their personal situation. My friend that left for an industry role is an intelligent, motivated, and talented person. I have no doubt he will go on to a rich and rewarding career in his chosen industry. But that industry will not be consulting.
What I am suggesting is that every successful consultant I know embraces risk. And with that risk comes opportunity.
Managing your Product (You!)
As product managers, we need to stay at the forefront of changing trends that affect our clients. Continuous learning becomes especially important in consulting. The bench provides an ideal opportunity to enhance our product and brand.
I once sat on the bench for over a month. My goal for the bench time was to obtain my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. Every day, I sat at my desk and studied. When I finally passed the exam, the hourly rate on my next project increased 15%. Over the course of my career, I estimate this will improve my income potential by hundreds of thousands of dollars. (According to the Project Management Institute, those with a PMP certification earn 20% more on average than those without a PMP certification.)
Was it a risk to be on the bench for a month? Of course. But it was also an opportunity to increase my brand value in ways that just weren’t feasible when working full-time. And with the rise of online learning, there is no shortage of career advancing opportunities.
What is bench time to you? When you are on the bench, and you will be, what is your plan to improve your brand value? What opportunity could you pursue that will raise your compensation by 15-20%?