The secret weapon of a successful consultant is not to behave like one
Building a sustainable career in consulting
The popular character forged by movies and TV series for a successful consultant often involves a pompous extrovert, mostly male, sweeping the clients off their feet with his pretentious know-it-all jargon. In reality, successful women and men leaders in consulting from whom I have learned the most have been introverts. They are great at direct concise communication when needed and always effortlessly step out of the celebratory limelight to let their clients and their teams shine in the success.
Aldous Huxley, an English writer and philosopher, once said, “All science is the reduction of multiplicities to unities”.If I were to attempt to reduce the science of consulting that I have learnt from these leaders into a few unities, then I would distill the secret sauce of building a sustainable career in consulting into the following three observations.
1. Clients don’t work with consultants, people work with people
The brand on your visiting card can only take you so far in building relationships with your clients. When a client inks their signature on a contract, it is, in fact, a testimonial of the trust between the people sitting across the table. The most rewarding client service experiences I have had are the ones where over time the client team almost forgot that we weren’t part of their organization.
2. Most clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care
As a consultant, I would be the first one to admit that the tribe gets a bad rap due to our inability to say, “I don’t know, but I am willing to roll-up my sleeves, and let’s figure it out” to a client question. If your audience is not smart enough to figure out that there is not much of value in your 50-slide deck, then you have got two problems. Your ability to set aside what you think you know will help this client, actively listen, and truly empathize with their situation is what will help you build upon the trust for long-term success.
3. You are in the business of making your clients successful and helping your people grow
In the long run, it doesn’t matter what you are selling using the fancy pitch decks. Whatever that is, it is a means to an end. The only constant in consulting is change — your clients will change, their needs will evolve, the technology will flip before you blink, and the market will sway unpredictably in directions no one forecasted at a pace that no one can match. Leaders who have built a sustainable career over the years know that a rewarding journey is the one that is rooted in the investment of the people closest to you — your clients and your team.
While still in graduate school, I once asked a partner of a consulting firm on what is the number one thing he looks out for in a potential hire out of campus. His response was candid and it stuck with me. He said that he just thinks of all the different types of projects he has done. He tries to remember all the different kinds of clients he had to deal with. And then he tries to evaluate across how many of these teams would he be comfortable staffing this candidate. The answer for someone to get hired by him has to be, almost all of them.