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On Being a Consultant

being a consultantMany people have chosen the path of being a consultant. Businesses hire internal or external consultants to help them achieve their goals. But sometimes it’s not clear if being a consultant is “a good thing or a bad thing.” Not unlike many professions, there seems to be a cycle of acceptance and rejection of consultants and their value to business in particular. As a consultant, I’ve seen this happen many times. For example, a global bank client did an audit and found they had more than 1,500 consultants engaged globally. They decided not all of them were necessary, and a big purge followed. I survived because I delivered “value” and “understood the business.” This is not to self-congratulate, but to point out that understanding the value you bring as a consultant can sometimes be misunderstood, by clients as well as consultants themselves. Here are my thoughts for adding value and being consultative, regardless of role:

Focus

First, be clear about your expertise. What is the quality or qualities that you can bring to the business? The “Jack of all Trades” is a common story, but in my experience being clear about your target market and specific competitive advantage is critical to keeping a clear head about your work/job/business. It helps differentiate your value [1] and explain your value to a client, boss, or team, for example.

When approaching a client, or a job, what do you bring to the solution? What ideas, tools, and experience? Use your experience and education as part of the foundation of your approach and credibility, but don’t brag about what school you attended, your grades, for example, just use what you learned/experienced effectively.

Show your knowledge by the questions you ask

This really covers experience, expertise, consistency and value.

Consulting isn’t always “big picture” although it helps to see both the large and the small. Ultimately, it’s the small that makes the difference: quality of work, lack of errors, setting and meeting deadlines, and fitting small pieces of the puzzle into the bigger picture. Being clear about expectations on both sides. Using you work experience and knowledge in ways that demonstrate value, address an issue, strategic, tactical or detail, but don’t just reflect a past job or client, for example.

Detail helps here. Use your project management skills to provide work breakdown structures, how numbers were calculated, why a deadline is critical, and how you and the client can reach a critical milestone or completion date.

Be a trusted partner

If you think about those time management classes at all, now is the time to put them into practice. I don’t tout any specific tools, just the basics. Have a calendar and keep it up to date. Be clear about times, dates and what’s expected and when. For example, a project that may require 10 hours of work can all be done at home or in your office. How has this been explained to your client? What are their expectations for “face time” in their offices? A major complaint is always the cost versus time, delivery and expectations. Each of these needs to be clearly articulated and agreed at the start. This shows strong communication, no hidden agendas and a willingness to collaborate.

Use checklists where necessary. Use tools that help everyone, a modified RACI Chart [2] is a good example (where everyone knows who has responsibility and authority is consulted or informed).

It may be a big job, but the attention to detail builds trust and helps ensure a successful outcome for everyone involved.

Listen, don’t tell

This is a fine balance and ties into showing your knowledge by the questions you ask. There is an appropriate time to tell, but being able to understand information, concerns or fears, communicate ideas, respect other ideas and approaches requires more active listening than telling.

Being a consultant doesn’t mean being an extrovert. Introversion [3] is also a key leadership quality. As a consultant, you’ll need both “introvert” and “extrovert” skills.  For example, a “cost reduction” strategy might mean implementing continuous improvement, renegotiating supply or other contracts, communicating changes, and doing an analysis of staff requirements.

Don’t just focus on the task. Think of ways to challenge an approach, apply examples to ideas, ask what’s been tried and succeeded or failed. One effective tool is a form of storyboarding (like they do for advertisements) to help participants reach an agreed approach and outcome that differentiates your ideas, demonstrates value and cements a trusted relationship.

I worked with a client who was looking for a senior regional manager from within their own ranks and was asked to advise, as I had worked with all the candidates. My recommendation was someone whom the CEO called “taciturn.” I knew this person as technically capable, already successful in other roles and who would be ideal for the job. Long story short: this “taciturn” person had everyone’s trust and knew more by what was happening in the organization because he listened first, asked pertinent questions, then made decisions/choices and consequently led his team to success.

Build a relationship

If you are internal or external, building relationships [4] is equally important. It’s more than being a trusted partner. It encompasses networking, being available in a practical way, “wearing out your shoe leather” in making strong connections within an organization, especially with line managers, but also with external resources, suppliers, trusted confidantes, and others in your network who can support you.

Be someone people want to talk to about “things” that need to be changed, be fixed, improved, built up, made aware, assessed, implemented and more.