Nancy Kehmeier was recruited by what was then Arthur Andersen Consulting when she was just four years out of college. "I really loved the style there, but I hit the glass ceiling. I went on to Ernst and Young. My first true independent consulting was at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and then I became a full-time employee." After a few years, Kehmeier decided, "I didn't want to have any more bosses. That's what really leapfrogged me into consulting."

In more than 20 years of consulting, Kehmeier has worked almost exclusively with Eagan-based Hollstadt and Associates to find new projects. "They could place me very quickly and knew how to target me. Very few of my placements took more than one interview — they found good choices, and I matched. I would be the first to say that I've enjoyed positive experiences."

With one three-month exception during the 2008-09 recession, Kehmeier said, she has never gone more than three weeks between consulting contracts.

For almost 10 years, Kehmeier worked with a single account executive at Hollstadt. "He used to joke that he put his son through college on my commissions," she said. "I've always been happy for them to do the invoicing, the marketing and admin work, following up if things aren't paid."

Kehmeier and company founder Rachel Hollstadt were initially networked by a common friend. "She was looking for someone to do a project. It worked out well. Then I took a full time job at Blue Cross/Blue Shield and became her client for four years. That was a very good experience — I saw her ethics excelling, advising me who to hire and who not to hire. I saw the company from both sides. I respect their very high ethics and the way they develop the long-term relationship."

How has consulting changed since you began?

The picture of the industry has changed. I feel that a lot of consultants are really employees — some of them understand how to be consultants and some just know how to do the job their employer places them in.

What's the difference between being a consultant and being an employee?

Typically clients look more to having you tell them what to do vs. "developing" you. At my level, I have had much less oversight. Because I'm hired as a consultant, I'm focused on one thing — even if you manage two or three projects, you have a very clear focus. You're not working on developing people. You do politics, but it's not long-term politics. Consultants are expected to get results. That's different from process, just surviving or going through the steps of getting to success. The other thing that is very different about a consultant is the need to get in and establish yourself as an expert very fast. Part of that is the drug of having to learn so fast. I hate school, but learning everything about a culture and business and the tasks at hand — I love that.

What makes you successful as a consultant?

I'm a very strong second in command. That is not a place that many people aspire to. When I have the right client, we'll get on the same page, and whether or not it would be my natural style, I can translate and execute what that client wants. If I make a judgment call, it's the same one they would make. □