Do you have the soft skills to make it in consultancy?
Working in consultancy is very different to working a conventional nine to five office job. Your office is wherever you and your laptop are. Consultants constantly have to adapt to change and be effective when their environment and co-workers are different every few days. Here are some of the following soft skills that will help develop a graduate/entry level consultant into a trusted adviser.
Getting the obvious one out of the way quickly! All consultants solve problems in one form or another. Clients would have no reason to bring in specialist skills if they didn’t have business problems they couldn’t solve themselves.
Being able to break down large problems into smaller chunks and decide how best to resolve them individually is essential. This can be extremely prevalent in change, process, transformation and systems consulting. Problems can range from increasing a company’s payroll efficiency to implementing bespoke HR applications in an already convoluted IT infrastructure.
Great consultants are constantly finding ways to creatively solve client problems. But excellent consultants identify problems and offer solutions to clients before they address it themselves. This kind of proactive problem solving is what makes the difference between a contractor and a trusted advisor.
Ability to say I don’t know (Intelligently)
Consultants are brought into a company for their wealth of knowledge in a particular subject. It’s very common for clients to fall into the habit of asking questions that are not about the consultants particular skill set, but instead ask highly contextual questions relating to the client business.
Saying “I don’t know” can be counterintuitive when starting out in consulting, especially in client meetings where you are a new face. The better way to address this is to turn client question back on them, gently reminding them of your understanding and leaving them open to fill in the gaps with business specific information.
For example: “I’m unaware of how that process works, but software x that I specialise in is designed to be fully customisable to a range of requirements. Can you tell me what your businesses needs are and I’d be happy how we could configure it”.
Many business stakeholder are pulled into meetings and workshops later into the process that they would have liked, or the work you are carrying out is likely to affect their jobs in one way or another. People generally do not like change. A lot of the time as a consultant you will represent the irritation they get from not being able to do things the way they used to.
One way to build trust is to reset their expectations of your knowledge (by saying I don’t know intelligently), invite them to contribute to your understanding and then reduce friction by showing them the benefits on their day to day that can be caused by the solution, methodology or process you are there to implement.
Not having a fixed place of work and set commute is not something everyone is built to handle. Knowing that you’re happy to be geographically flexible is a common requirement for consulting jobs.
Being able to manage your personal relationships and social life is a factor many do not consider before entering into a job. This can lead to individuals “churning out” of consulting with the first few years from burn out. With the advancement of technology it may be easier to simulate being with your loved ones whilst away from home, but manufacturing a good work life balance for yourself can still be a struggle.
Building good relationships with management can lead to preferential project placements and home working arrangements, but it is not always a given. A few times a year you may be subject to travel weeks from hell, required onsite for three different clients in varying locations. If you think you can hack a 6am red eye flight from Gatwick to Edinburgh, only to get on the return flight the same evening and train it to a business park hotel in Portsmouth for work the following day, you are probably made of the right stuff for a consulting career.
Understanding how money is made, and more specifically how the consultancy you work for makes money. It’s a pretty simple equation, the more goods and services your firm can offer to its clients the more money they make and the bigger your bonus is. The best consultants sell whilst they are onsite. They market the firm they work for through the quality of their work, their honesty with clients and by ensuring work is delivered on time.
By building these bridges on the ground and gaining a deep understanding of clients needs, consultants can address issues in the business and suggest solutions. This can be anything from an extension on a current piece or work, additional consulting days to fix software bugs, specialised staff training sessions or the purchase of a piece of Intellectual Property that the consultancy makes a good margin on.
By being aware of business needs consultants can increase their value to their clients and to the firm they work for.
Even if your job is specifically around delivering a technology into a business, chances are that no two clients are going to be running the exact same set of softwares for their employees to engage with. Being a specialist in one set of technologies is one thing, being able to remember how twelve different project management tools is another!
Being adaptable with technology is essential for success in the consulting world. More and more often the focus of consulting projects involves systematization in one form or another. Even non-technical staff such as project managers and business analysts are going to need some basic understanding of how business systems flow together.
Even the least technical consultants have to enter time sheets, book holidays and sign into client VPNs and share-points. At the very least being open to picking up new technologies and applications rapidly will help reduce wasted time.
Dealing with people is so essential to the consulting process. Being able to interact in a pleasant manner, especially when circumstances are not optimum is very important. If projects run late and deadlines are missed, the first people to receive the brunt are the consultants (even if they are not always to blame). Building good relationships with clients and integrating yourself with permanent staff doesn’t take a lot of effort, but can help the business relationship last through the rocky patches. Being personable is one of the fundamental soft skills in the job that requires face to face client time.
Consultants often work on complex concepts and have to find equally complex solutions to those problems. They are then thrust in front of business stakeholder (sometimes those who do not have a intimate understanding of the nuts and bolts of the issue). Being able to explain something complex in simple terms is essential when in a client facing role.
Generally the higher up the hierarchy business stakeholders are, the more high level a view of the solution they require. CEOs and CFOs don’t want to understand the code in an eCommerce platform, they just want to know if it works in time to impact the quarterly sales.
Knowing how to adapt the information to the requirements of the audience you are targeting is very useful in reducing friction and misunderstanding between clients and yourself.
Out of all the soft skills, this one is most commonly pasted across CVs. Being organised isn’t just about organizing your own time. It’s about organizing those around you to get the most out of your interactions.
Consultants generally work for three people. Their direct boss, their project manager and their client. Managing these relationships can be difficult especially when things are not going to plan. One way to ensure good relationships and accountability between all parties is to keep on top of your administrations.
Putting in place a process to keep the above mentioned parties in the loop about what you are working on can help you fight fires later down the line. Consider keeping an excel workbook of all your daily tasks included planned, in progress and completed status. Sending this off as a report on a daily basis to your superiors, gives them the opportunity to validate you are working on correct tasks. This also acts as a handy way to manage your own workload and keep track of what you said you are going to do, preventing scope creep. If a client turns around at the last minute and accuses you of not completing agreed upon work, you have down to the hour evidence of your actions.
It’s also recommendable to keep daily records of time-sheets, expenses and information requests made to clients. Delayed responses to information requests can block project progress significantly if not addresses swiftly.
Willing to Share Insight
Developing into a well rounded and informative consultant takes time. It takes a lot less time when surrounded by a supportive delivery team that are happy to share what they have learned over the years and help junior staff develop.
It can be counter-intuitive to share information when you’re working in a business that relies on the monetisation of knowledge. However the best consulting teams in the world harbor a culture of sharing. By distilling and distributing your knowledge with colleagues you can reinforce your own knowledge. It can also lead to a more effective and informed project delivery team. Blogging, How To Guides, Webinars and Internal training are all great ways to share your knowledge with team members.
Proactive consultants find ways to add value to those they interact with. Being able to function under pressure and remain professional is also very important. Consulting is a people business and as such it should be people centric. In conclusion the best consultants are the ones that actively work to better themselves in order to help others. If you’re reading this you’re probably halfway there already.
If you are a graduate looking to get into consulting?
You might find The UK Graduates Guide to Getting a Job in Consulting series helpful.
All the Best,