5 Traits of a Good Consultant in Financial Accounting Advisory Services
Consulting isn't Wonka's chocolate factory. Nor is it an exclusive club with secret handshakes and elaborate rituals. Put another way, you don't need a golden ticket or password to step inside. However, there's a difference between just being a consultant and becoming a truly effective one, particularly in the crowded and complex management, accounting, and finance corners of the consulting industry.
That's why we're giving you a peek behind Embark's consulting curtain and discussing the five traits we've identified that, if taken to heart, can set you apart in this dynamic and challenging profession. So, take these traits, combine them with our previous insights on what makes a great consultant, and give yourself a massive advantage in building the type of career you've always dreamed of.
1. An Ownership Mentality
You can't fake genuine care and empathy. And if you try to, a client will see right through it. But that shouldn't be an issue if you take ownership of every consulting job and engagement, no matter how big or small.
Ultimately, the most successful consultants truly care about their clients and seeing them succeed. It's not lip service, but the real deal. And it all starts with understanding and appreciating the value you provide to them, operating like you have real skin in the game, and getting to know them and the issues keeping them from reaching their objectives.
At the risk of sounding a bit corny, an effective consultant loses sleep when a client struggles, whether personally or as an organization. Conversely, that same consultant feels a sense of pride and accomplishment when a client flourishes, further driving the self-confidence and positive attitude that only feeds an ownership mentality.
Expanding on that notion, a relational mindset will serve everyone better than a transactional one. Because as soon as a client senses they're just simply another number to you or your firm, that relationship is already starting to sink like a ship, whether you're aware of it or not.
So, as someone that's trying to leave their mark in financial accounting advisory services, our advice is to establish trust as early in the engagement as possible, and use that trust as a building block for mutual growth and success, helping everyone involved – yourself, the client, and your teammates – succeed.
Let's start this one off with an example. A client recently lost a key employee and hires your firm for a new project – to help with a month-end close process that already moved at glacial speeds. And as you know, this is a standard, repetitive process that typically isn't a heavy lift for anyone who knows their way around the financial close.
However, rather than just going through the motions, closing the books, and bidding the client adieu, you let your natural curiosity out of its cage, roll up your sleeves, and try to get to the bottom of the client's issues. Why did the close process live and die by a single employee? And why was it so slow in the first place?
You start to ask more questions, examine the various inputs, and put yourself in the CFO's shoes. And after some fact-finding, you discover the company uses manual processes to record its journal entries. And that's on top of several other issues impacting the month-end close indirectly.
In the end, all of those factors – both direct and indirect – accumulate, dragging down the month-end close and, in the big picture, draining the finance organization of time, effort, and resources it could use to start generating genuine, forward-looking business intelligence to help steer the enterprise forward.
Granted, your curiosity might push you outside the initial scope of services the client hired you for, but that's how you bring greater value to the engagement and, ultimately, the client relationship. Long story short – the best consultants are master detectives, identifying issues that many times the client isn't even aware of. At least yet.
Besides just getting the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts of the job done, a good consultant peels back layers of the onion and continues to ask questions to reveal the underlying currents resulting in the problem at hand.
In this example, that problem was the month-end close. But curiosity allows you, as an effective consultant, to isolate certain manual processes slowing numbers from the sales department. Or whatever else is keeping the accounting and finance teams from being as efficient and innovative as they should be. And that's the type of thing clients will love you for – breaking out of the status quo and executing excellently by examining the how, discovering the why, and looking for areas to improve.
As we've said before, world-class problem-solving requires a balancing act between creative and analytical skills. Sure, accounting and finance are inherently quantitative and analytical. But finding solutions to complex problems plaguing those analytical functions usually requires a creative mindset, thinking in ways that others do not.
Revisiting the previous example, suppose the CFO wants to accelerate the 12-day close. In this case, you must look for ways to either shorten the process or start it earlier, while still ensuring the books, in fact, close. Yes, your firm can throw more consultants and hours at the problem, but that's pretty inefficient for everyone involved, right?
Instead, you can think innovatively and look for a more creative solution. Perhaps that's modifying specific processes, or maybe installing software that brings automation into the fold. The point is, although this is a very simplistic example, effective problem-solvers demonstrate a combination of analytical know-how and creativity to find better solutions.
As a result, you've greatly improved the client experience by streamlining workflows and maximizing long-term ROI, all while still delivering an accelerated 12-day close. But now, automation tools and modified processes propel the whole thing forward. Once again, it's a matter of executing excellently, this time-solving problems through both creative and analytical lenses to drive impactful, tangible results.
4. Attention to Detail
Attention to detail is an area where a slight slip-up can have enormous repercussions for a client. Imagine a scenario where you're guiding a client through the pre-IPO process and, while helping prepare management disclosure statements, you inadvertently flip the sign on a number.
Obviously, the cost of this oversight isn't just the published error but, instead, what can come from it – a plummeting stock price upon going public, lack of trust from investors and analysts, and a reputation that will be difficult to rebuild. And it's all because of a single, innocuous-looking mistake.
Of course, in everyday practice, consulting firms have fail-safes in place to ensure such things don't happen. However, do you really want to tempt fate? In that sense, a certain degree of finickiness can do a consultant good, helping ensure they pay proper attention to detail and, thus, avoid potential calamities that destroy trust and ruin relationships with clients, fellow team members, and your firm.
At an individual level, you always want to establish your own personal set of checks and balances to ensure every deliverable is accurate and reliable. Likewise, work as a team whenever possible and have multiple people look over each other's work. Even if you don't have a natural attention to detail, instilling the right processes will still help you cut mistakes off at the pass.
Last but certainly not least is communication. There's simply no substitute for efficient, effective, consistent communication between yourself and the client, across your team, and with your seniors.
But what does such communication look like? Well, it depends. Sometimes written communication will be most effective. Other times, verbal communication or a group meeting will work best. Whatever the situation calls for, our advice is to focus on the why driving what you're communicating about, and then using your people skills to deliver the information effectively.
Again using our month-end close example, simply recommending management begins the close process earlier doesn't explain your thought process or touch on the various dynamics negatively impacting the close. In other words, simply moving the process up in the month doesn't tell leadership that the numbers from the sales department are too slow. And that they’re slow because they’re manually recording journal entries.
In this case, executing excellently requires clarity and sufficient depth to explain the how and why factors involved. And to be honest, there’s no single right way of going about it. Therefore, your communication style must be flexible enough to pivot to differing needs, people, and objectives. And along the way, you also need to find the right communication cadence which, again, could very well change.
You want to communicate frequently enough to avoid having to convey two months' worth of work in a single two-hour meeting. Instead, you can break it up into a half-hour conversation every Friday afternoon, touching base for a few minutes every morning, or whatever fits the circumstances and objectives best.
If you want to take a deeper dive into these five essential traits, you can always check out our recorded webinar on the subject, where we discussed additional real-world examples and best practices. And if we struck a nerve today and you want to take a tangible step in progressing along the consulting career path, Embark's careers page is an excellent place to start. Because we're always looking for bright, motivated team players such as yourself to help our clients thrive.