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What Makes a Good Consultant: Industry Tips & Insights from Advisory Veterans

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Ask someone off the street about the traits of a good consultant and their eyes will probably glaze over. The truth is, "consulting" is a pretty nebulous term to most people, something that even bona fide consultants – at least by title – don't always have a good handle on.

But that's what separates the best consultants from everyone else, right? The cream of the crop are the ones dialed into the value they could be – nay, should be – delivering to their clients consistently, no matter the industry or area of expertise.

So, using our experience in advisory services, we're going to look at the characteristics of the best consultants, what separates them from the also-rans, and go through a few best practices we've culled from the consulting frontlines.

Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Let's start with a waist-high fastball to get the everything flowing. Naturally, whatever the profession, understanding your strengths and weaknesses is critical to success, serving as guide rails to drive and inform your professional improvement.

To use a common example, companies typically hire people with steep quantitative and analytical skills for their flair with data sets, not necessarily their world-class creativity. However, since so much of consulting requires innovative, sometimes nonlinear thought, it isn't always easy for people coming from an incredibly structured, analytical environment to start thinking outside of the proverbial box.

Of course, that doesn't mean such people are doomed to fail on the consulting front. Quite the opposite, in fact, since so much of consulting relies on finely tuned quantitative chops. However, the best in the trade can balance the creative and analytical sides of their mind.

In doing so, they provide clients with both the forward-looking perspective and role-up-your-sleeves skillsets needed to solve complex problems and strategize for a successful future.

Tip from the Pros - Honing Your Creativity

Creativity is such an essential part of a consultant's toolbox, we wanted to take a closer look at fostering creativity before moving on to the next point.

Mind you, when we say creativity, we don't mean it in the Rembrandt and Monet sense of the term. Instead, creativity in consulting is – once again – innovative thought that finds answers that aren't always obvious or even popular. But what happens if creativity is your professional pain point? It's not like you can watch a handful of YouTube videos on the subject and walk away a creative powerhouse.

If you recognize the creative side of consulting is your weakness, we suggest actively looking for engagements where you'll be working side-by-side with creative team members. Granted, that's not exactly earth-shattering advice, but you'd be surprised how many people stumble out of the gates simply by being too much of a lone wolf and not spending enough time in the sandbox with creative dynamos.

Long story short – if creativity is your weakness, keep an open mind, surround yourself with creativity, and absorb the creative juices from those around you. Don't underestimate the power of learning by team osmosis.

Adding to the Toolbox

While creativity and people skills are essential to becoming a great consultant, there are also plenty of day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground traits that can help drive value in engagements, foster strong relationships with clients, and allow the consultant to grow as both a professional and human being.

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Be Upfront and Ask Questions

Yes, hindsight is 20/20. But that doesn't mean you can't cut hindsight off at the pass and bypass entirely avoidable predicaments. To that point, even as we look back on our own consulting careers, we can think of several instances where, if we had just asked a particular question earlier in the engagement, it would have taken us down an entirely different, more efficient path.

In other words, don't be a wallflower during an engagement. A successful consultant asks important questions and isn't afraid to make the client aware of any given situation, even one that isn't necessarily comfortable to discuss.

Ultimately, you're the fixer. The problem solver. It's not your job not to sugarcoat things for the client. Taking such an upfront approach can save both you and your client work delays and mountains of frustration.

Learn from Experience

Sometimes people just have to learn by walking through the mud a little. If you're new to a consulting firm and still learning the ropes, a senior can walk you through a scenario, explain the issues, possible solutions, and do everything short of putting words in your mouth. And yet, you still don't come out of the engagement as a significantly better consultant.

Just like teaching a child to ride a bike or hit a curveball, there are some lessons you can only learn from experience, no matter how much a coworker or senior tries to "coach you up." The trick is, when you go through one of these uncomfortable but critical learning experiences, don't skimp on self-reflection. Otherwise, that metaphorical curveball will always confound you and, thus, impede your career growth as a consultant.

 

Meet Baseline Expectations

Your clients will have a minimum set of expectations they need to see from you to consider an engagement worthwhile. Obviously, becoming a truly effective consultant requires surpassing such baseline expectations, but you have to start somewhere. 

Attention to Detail

To use an example from the financial advisory side of the consulting business, an accounting consultant must be accurate and thorough with their work at all times. Even the slightest miscues will stick out like a sore thumb to an auditor and in-house accounting staff.

Therefore, in the case of FAAS, producing accurate and thorough deliverables is a bare minimum, not a differentiator. Of course, you can say the same for any type of consultant dealing with detailed work, whether it's accounting, IT, engineering, or management consulting, amongst others.

Organization and Communication

Clients don't want surprises out of engagements. Management wants you to keep them in the loop and continually communicate about the project status and anything you might need to meet objectives.

Active project management, particularly things like weekly status reports, can help ensure everything stays on track during a consulting job, identifying areas where you might be falling behind that require additional time and attention. Further, as we said before, effective communication skills include having difficult but productive conversations with leadership and other key stakeholders.

That said, uncomfortable discussions don't have to be combative. Just remember, the people you're having these conversations with not only hired your firm for the engagement, but are also extremely busy folks with an organization to run. From our experience, being direct yet empathetic with your soft skills will always serve you well during these sometimes dicey situations.

 

Day One Success: Hit the Ground Running

Lastly, becoming a good consultant doesn't happen with an overnight epiphany. Like it or not, it's a process, a slow awakening that requires a consistent commitment to excellence and working on getting better every day.

Still, there's something to be said for hitting the ground running, at least as best as you can if you're new to consulting. In those first engagements, the client relationships you build – both professionally and personally – will largely drive your success. And just like any relationship in your life, it takes time and work to develop strong, lasting bonds with your clients.

To quicken that development, doing your due diligence beforehand can provide a solid foundation for your professional relationship with a new client. If you're in financial advisory services, do some digging, find out what analysts ask of the company, read earnings releases, and spend some time with your good buddy EDGAR.

On the personal side, if you know who your contact is ahead of time, don't hesitate to look at their LinkedIn to better understand their experience and background. These types of exercises mean you're essentially walking into the engagement with the makings of a solid client–consultant relationship already in place.

From there, the relationship will strengthen naturally, helping you gradually get closer to the ultimate goal – becoming a trusted advisor for the client. Ideally, you want to be a person the client keeps in touch with even after the engagement ends, talks about their family and personal goals with, and wants to catch up on things over lunch every so often.

We'll admit these types of relationships are somewhat rare since many clients prefer to keep everything strictly professional and in a 9-to-5 capacity. However, always striving for trusted advisor status, even if it's not a realistic possibility with a given client, will make you a consulting force to be reckoned with. Just be sure your efforts are genuine and authentic, not a cheesy sales ploy that a client will sniff out from a mile away.

Care for What You Do and Who You Work With

Expanding on the concept of authenticity and building trust, too many firms and consultants discount the impact simple care and empathy play in their successes or failures. That goes for internal and external roles, where genuine care for what you do and who you work with will serve you well with both clients and coworkers.

That care and empathy go hand-in-hand with providing grace to the people you work with and for, understanding that they're all human, will make mistakes, and will hopefully grow from those mishaps. And as we said before, the same holds for you, particularly as you start on a consulting career path – be humble, learn from mistakes, and never stop improving. Yes, that sounds like something between Confucius and Knute Rockne, but you get our drift.

Traits of a Good Consultant

Finally, we want to leave you with a bit of Embark's secret sauce since, believe it or not, we genuinely want to see you succeed in your career. And if we hear these insights help you on that particular front, it will put the world's biggest smile across our collective face. So on that note, let's wrap up with what we deem critical traits of a good consultant.

  1. Creative thinking and analytical problem-solving abilities, remembering it's your brain that's providing value to the client
  2. Asking good questions and displaying endless curiosity to help understand the client and their issues better
  3. An unrelenting attention to detail, grasping the big picture, and that you must represent your firm well every day
  4. The ability to clearly articulate your thoughts in an organized manner
  5. A consistent client focus and sharpened sense of empathy, where a client's problems are your problems, and you feel like you have real skin in the game

Ultimately, if you’re diligent in your efforts, aren’t afraid to ask for guidance, and keep an open mind, you’re setting yourself up for consulting success. And if you're up for it, we can sit down over a cup of coffee and discuss a potential future with Embark. Because we're always looking for people like you.

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