A consultant’s secret sauce
What makes a consultant an actual consultant? Believe me when I say consultancy doesn’t suit everybody. It’s not something you can just learn in school or at university. Sure, you can follow some courses on analytical thinking, problem solving or communicating excellently but there’s no course like ‘consultancy’. As such there is no ‘recipe’ for brewing a successful consultant and so there must be a secret sauce to develop one 🙂 Throughout the years working as a consultant myself I’ve encountered a lot of them, some perfect for the job, some not at all, some who have potential for becoming a good consultant and of those a few still fail, but in the end, most succeed. In my role as people manager in a consultancy firm it’s key to understand what it takes to be a consultant and to guide our people in their consultancy growth path.
In this blog I’d like to focus on the competencies you can’t learn from a book. It’s the fine-grained skills that can often make a huge difference in the value and quality you generate when working with your customers and that also can have a significant impact in the success of your project assignment.
You didn’t think of this one, right? 🙂
Being a consultant means you ‘consult’ or provide advice to your customers. It means you think with them, provide input from whatever experience or competence you have and finally you give advice tailored to the customer’s need and situation. To be able to give that advice you need to spend sufficient time listening to your customer so that you thoroughly understand what they are saying. The listening part will show the customer that you respect them and appreciate the situation or challenge they’re facing. This all may sound very ‘straightforward’ but I too often notice that people forget this first part, the ‘listening’ phase, and too often think that they comprehend the situation fully. There is a reason why we spend ample time in our company analyzing the situation before we propose something, often before we even embark on the project. And why not. You don’t want to offer something that you do not fully comprehend yourself. It leaves fewer surprises in the end. It’s not easy, believe me. And often asking a question in a different way might result in a different answer, one that you didn’t expect and could be contradictory to what you understood from the previous answer. This is key in a consultant’s job. Check and then double check to make sure you understood the customer correctly.
Listening can also help you gain more insight into new opportunities of business. As you get into ‘the kitchen of the customer’ you can find yourself in an excellent position to talk to other stakeholders at the customer and create new relationships that could be of benefit to the company.
This skill is part of the very foundation of a consultant, so it may be the most important one yet – not an easy one for sure. Being a consultant motivates/allows you to work and organize yourself independently. It’s about proactive vs reactive, waiting for someone to tell you what to do or to come up with ideas on what the next step is in the process or project and then going for it. Applying good self-management will let you grow and mature faster as a consultant and as a person. It will trigger you to think about other things in your job and life and ultimately will help you to understand and define your path forward. You actually ‘take control’ of your own career and by spotting and creating internal opportunities for yourself you can step up, sometimes even quicker than others.
Don’t misunderstand the ‘independent’ part. It’s not that you need to work in an isolated box, it’s about finding the right balance in when and how often to ask questions and when to think of answers yourself … and then potentially asking questions. Some find it difficult to grow this skill but searching for, finding and applying the right resources is also a form of self-management that can help you grow as a consultant.
In our company, apart from project work, we set personal goals for each individual in the beginning of the year which are often not related to a project. Together with that project work it defines the complete assignment for that year. It’s then up to the consultant to deliver that plan. To be successful, a good personal structure is needed. This does not mean that everybody needs to be a project manager of his or her own. No, it means that the structure needs to be clear for you, be it solely in your head or put on (virtual) paper like a real PM.
Another aspect to this is the working regime. Sure, we can foresee flexible working hours and they often do work but when it comes down to getting things done … a consultant gets it done, no matter what. Please realize that consultancy is just not a ‘nine to five’ job, there are other jobs and companies where you can do that but for consultancy it may only fit for part of the time and can vary a lot depending on the customer. The customer does come first always and we adapt ourselves to them. And when we apply this principle, the customer may also do the same for you. They will respect you as well and allow you to work in a flexible way. But the effort has to come from the consultant first in gaining that trust and earning that flexibility.
This is the competence you can develop when communicating and collaborating on the same ‘level’ with a customer. Same level is not meant here to be at the same hierarchical step in the company chain. It’s about talking the same language, creating a bit of a personal bond and with that, a feeling of mutual respect. You don’t need to become friends, even if only on whatever social media but trying to get to a certain personal level with your customer is key here. Talk about what this person is passionate about, what is important in his life at this moment, be interested in getting to know the person as a whole without going too far since some people don’t like and don’t want that. You need to set your feelers sharp and sense how you can do that. How do you do this you ask? One of the tips to ‘break the ice’ is to try and find mutual interests. Maybe you share the same hobby or know someone that shares it, maybe you went on the same vacation or are at the same stage in life when it comes to family and kids…. But it could also easily be elaborating on your previous project experiences that are related to what this customer is currently looking at. With a little bit of empathy you can relate quite quickly to the other person. Nevertheless, as said before, not everybody is made for this. This is not a skill you can just ‘learn’. You need to be born with it somehow.
It’s a very important skill to always be attentive to and especially in the beginning of the assignment, that’s when it needs to happen. If you can achieve a sense of trust with your customer, it can make the rest of the assignment so much easier. It may open doors for you that you don’t need to even knock on. You will get involved in the proper meetings and topics more easily as the customer trusts you and will recognize the value you bring to the project. It can make your consultant life easier to manage because when you ‘need’ something from the customer it can be achieved quicker and without much discussion- be it something simple like having to leave early or working from home one day, or something more crucial like there’s an important workshop that starts on the very last day of your holiday and you’re trying to move it by 1 day.
Related to the previous skill is another important one. It’s the ability to be very open and honest with your customer when things aren’t going the right way or you see the project path divert from its original plan. Everybody knows that no message is worse than a bad message. Always keep that in mind during your consultancy career. Failing to communicate in a timely manner can negatively impact the trust relationship you built with your customer and can even end it completely. Tell it like it is but with respect and constructive feedback. And know when to communicate how: Communicating through non-verbal channels can often be good if you want to explain your point clearly but if that point is a heavy one to take for a customer, call him immediately after that message to explain again and to provide more context. Also, always explain these messages in the context of you doing this for the benefit of the customer and their project. This will often allow the customer to realize the value of your consultancy again and build upon the trust relationship once more. You often come out of such situations better than worse, at least that’s my experience if the message is executed properly. Additionally, remember that it’s not necessarily bad to acknowledge when part of the blame is on your side. Learning from mistakes shows that you are committed, want to take accountability in correcting the situations as well as want to improve yourself in becoming a better consultant.
Finally, you may think out of reading all of this that consultancy is not an easy job and demands you to invest a lot. And then you wonder ‘So what do I get in return?’. My answer: A lot! And I mean this seriously. To me consultancy is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. A chance to grow and develop fast, mature quickly on the job, be triggered in developing skills and competencies I initially thought I never had, get to know a lot of customers in different sectors and learn how they operate and finally, the ability to meet a lot of interesting and sometimes highly placed people that can inspire you and teach you how to inspire others. And that makes it all worth 🙂