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October 20, 2015

What Makes A Great Consultant?

4 mins read

Say you’re at a cocktail party making small talk. What’s the most likely question you’ll ask someone? “What do you do for a living?” If you’re seeking interesting conversation, you’re hoping for a concrete and compelling response, like golf pro, marine biologist, or latex salesman. Until you stumbled on this article, the answer you don’t want to hear (or give) is consultant. Snoozer. It’s second only to lawyers as the occupation most mocked. “A consultant borrows your watch and tells you what time it is.” “Those who can’t do or teach, consult.” And these gems are from the G-rated joke section.

The reputation of consultants suffers because of the mystery surrounding what exactly they do. In contrast, people are much clearer about what lawyers do than what consultants do. And yet, corporate consulting is a thriving, growing, billion-dollar industry, and that’s without extending the definition to wardrobe consultants, personal brand consultants, or closet consultants.

The world evidently values consultants, but why? What characteristics do great consultants share?

At our core, we consultants are problem-solvers (…but so is everyone else, right?) The difference is that consultants are given the luxury (or curse) of detachment. I’ve always called it “isolation of task.” If you’re facing a challenge, a consultant is NOT your employee (nor is it YOU), and that means you can demand very clear results from them. You can push them around, suspend their payment until they produce, and threaten them with immediate dismissal for any (or no) reason. Their career path and personal preferences aren’t relevant. While all that makes consulting sound like a terrible occupation, it’s actually quite liberating. Consultants are focused on a singular purpose, and they must deliver. Few occupations are distilled to that elegant simplicity.

Defining Trait #1: Eagerness to Pursue Another’s Mission

So the first trait of a great consultant is an eagerness to pursue another’s mission. In fact, it may go past “eagerness” all the way to “hunger.” All the great consultants I know have their identity wrapped up in becoming obsessed with “the cause,” especially if the cause is someone else’s. It’s almost as if their self-worth gets a vital rush when feasting on a client challenge. They have a habit of subjugating the rest of their life in pursuit of mission success. (Note that defining the mission isn’t the highlighted skill here – that’s not necessarily a skill that correlates with great consultants.) Great consultants thrive when they know that success has eluded the mission thus far, and it now falls to them to turn defeat or delay into victory. They see every project as a “bottom of the ninth, bases are loaded, and Casey’s at bat” moment.

Defining Trait #2: Initiative

An equally common trait among great consultants is initiative, fueled by impatience. This doesn’t just mean doing something without being asked. Great consultants take the concept of initiative way beyond that. True initiative is a shift in mentality from hesitation to action at every turn. Great consultants ask this simple question thousands of times per day: “What’s preventing us from crossing the finish line right now?” When they find any obstacle, they seek to eliminate it by any means necessary. If there’s a test to be run, a form to be signed, or a decision to be made, they take the initiative to advance those steps. You might notice success in initiative is dependent on that other 10-letter I-word, impatience. Together, initiative and impatience form the two halves of the sharknado you need to accomplish anything: initiative is the lofty tornado optimistically driving skyward, and impatience is the swarm of biting sharks that relentlessly creates the change.

Defining Trait #3: Flexibility

Now that we’ve gotten “sharknado” into this article, we’re onto the third thing that makes a great consultant: flexibility. This goes back to the mystery surrounding what consultants actually do. They improve their client’s world by solving problems. Great consultants are equipped at solving all types of problems, ranging from technology, political, financial, and organizational. The obstacles described in the initiative paragraph above come in all forms, and there’s no way of knowing which type of challenge lies on the path ahead. It is here where specialization AND generalization must co-exist in the consultant’s toolkit. You must feel comfortable debugging an amortization spreadsheet, drafting an ad hoc work plan, AND charming a hostile stakeholder, all before lunchtime. Coming into work not knowing what obstacles lay in wait calls for an incredibly flexible and adaptive outlook AND skill set.

So next time you’re at that cocktail party making small talk, and someone says they’re a consultant, hopefully you won’t roll your eyes so quickly. Because if you’re talking to a great consultant, they’re extraordinarily flexible, they show great initiative, and they can’t wait for the next critical mission. Let’s just hope they’re patient enough to keep the conversation going…

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