I never once uttered the phrase “I want to be a consultant when I grow up.” But over four years ago, I nervously tried to squeeze in everything I had learned in my life until that point into succinct interview answers for a job at a large consulting firm. I’ve been a consultant ever since.

Most children don’t think to themselves, “I really can’t wait to work for a Big Four accounting firm,” or “My dream is to work as a financial advisor for a midsized RIA.” A lot of us start thinking about careers in professional services in our later years of college or perhaps even after pursuing another career for a few years. And while there are specific skills we acquire from our degrees that aid us, classes rarely teach us how to practice as professionals. Before accepting a job at Accenture, I’d never taken courses in client service, business development or project management. However, these are all skills we are expected to acquire relatively quickly when progressing through our firms’ career tracks.

There are many external training programs, and advisory firms also try to offer mentoring and training to their new professionals. But if there is one thing I have learned in my young career it’s that the responsibility for learning really belongs to young professionals themselves. It’s incumbent on us to identify sources of information and knowledge, to absorb the lessons, to seek the teachers and ask the right questions. These things cannot and should not be delegated or abdicated.

Though my expertise is still evolving, I’ve learned a few lessons that have contributed to my growth and personal fulfillment while I work in professional services.  

Lesson 1: Learn proactively from those around you.

One of our main priorities as young professionals should be to seek out mentors and role models we respect and can learn from. The best way to learn how to service clients, develop business and manage competing priorities is to learn from later-stage professionals who have had time to home in on their craft. While larger firms such as Accenture typically have formalized programs where young professionals are assigned mentors, smaller firms may not have structures in place. However, that doesn’t mean mentorship at smaller firms is harder to come by. I’ve been able to learn from fantastic consultants at both the Ensemble Practice and Accenture. I simply had to ask. And research shows that only 25% of professional training relationships are initiated by the mentors—the majority either develop naturally or are initiated by the mentees.

Almost 50% of the conversations I have while facilitating strategic planning sessions for RIA owners are centered on how to recruit and develop advisory talent. This indicates to me that leaders at advisory firms want to help their young professionals on staff, but a lot of times don’t know how. As young professionals, we should ask to be pulled onto specific engagements that interest us or to shadow our firms’ best business developers at prospect meetings. The worst thing that can happen is that we’ll be told no. Either way, asking will show initiative, and I have a feeling most leaders try not to turn ambitious future firm leaders away from opportunities.

Lesson 2: Find the skill gaps that exist within your firm and fill them.

One of the best things we can do early on in our careers is figure out the areas in which our firms need improvement and build up our own skills to fill those gaps. If you work at a small enough firm, it’s generally pretty easy to get a sense of what your firm should be doing better. If your team has a marketing expert on board, for instance, the website shouldn’t have comic sans on the front page. It often feels tough to make an impact on your organization when you’re working with colleagues that have so much more experience than you. One of the best ways is to build a specialty in a space where knowledge is lacking.

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