If you google, “skills every consultant should have,” you’ll get pages and pages of articles online listing out key skills for consultants. Communication! Leadership! Problem-solving! It’s a dizzying array of attributes and skills. As a hiring manager for InterWorks, I’ve talked to a lot of people who want to become consultants. Here’s my slightly different take on consulting skills that make a consultant stand out above the rest:
Connect the Dots
In simple terms, I think about the ability to connect the dots as an inherent understanding of how one step impacts the next. But in reality, the ability to connect the dots really means you should be able to answer the following questions as you work on a project or set of decisions with a client:
- What are the next steps? What are the repercussions of a particular decision?
- Who are the parties impacted? How does this change over time?
- What are the tradeoffs of one choice versus another? What are the compromises?
- Is there a short term versus long term implication?
- What should be prioritized?
If you’re able to think through the above, you’ll be able to flag critical decision points, tradeoffs and impacts to the client that shows you’re always thinking a step ahead. This is what turns you into a trusted business advisor and partner to the client.
A classic example of connecting the dots in the Analytics and Tableau space is thinking through how dashboards go to production and who will maintain them. I’m working with a client who is new to Tableau and excited to get started, but they don’t have folks on their team who know Tableau. So, well before the project is over, I’ve raised the point that they need to plan who on their team will receive Tableau training so I can hand dashboards off to that person for long-term maintenance.
The Oxford’s English Dictionary defines “manage expectations” as, “seek to prevent disappointment by establishing in advance what can realistically be achieved or delivered by a project, undertaking, course of action, etc.” Great consultants are experts at managing expectations. In practice this means:
- Tell people what to expect.
- Tell people what you’re going to do.
- Do what you say you’re going to do, when you said you were going to do it.
This is surprisingly much easier said than done. Earlier in my career, I struggled with managing expectations because I would make assumptions about what other people heard or thought in a conversation. To further complicate things, my own impostor syndrome was afraid of looking stupid for “stating the obvious”, or what I thought was obvious or expected. I’ve since learned not to make assumptions about what people may or may not know and follow through on the above bullets for discussions and projects. That being said, I would add a few caveats to the above:
- Tell people what to expect – even if it seems obvious.
- Tell people what you’re going to do – preferably more than once and in 2 mediums (E.g. written and verbal).
- Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it – don’t underestimate how much this builds trust and reliability
Have Self Awareness (and be Willing to Grow)
Self-awareness, the ability to see and understand ourselves clearly, can serve us very well professionally, but exceptionally so in roles like consulting where you’re always meeting and working with new people. This HBR article states:
“Research suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively … We are better workers who get more promotions. And we’re more effective leaders with more satisfied employees and more profitable companies.”
-Tasha Eurich, Harvard Business Review
Knowing yourself better can drive you to perform higher and improve upon your ability to reflect on your performance and dynamics with others. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania tweeted:
“To become more self-aware, don’t ask why you’re the way you are – that often leads to rumination. Instead, ask what situations bring out the best and worst in you, and what you can do to improve.”
I’ve asked some coworkers how self-awareness has helped them in their consulting journey and this is what they’ve shared:
“Better understanding my own triggers for stress and recognizing what type of communication/preparation/understanding I need to be successful has helped me become more confident in asking for what I need in the workplace. By spending time reflecting on past experiences where I felt I could have done better, I can pinpoint the moment in the project where I thought of speaking up and asking for what I needed, but instead chose not to for whatever reason (fear of appearing out of the loop, being too needy, etc.). Now when I have those moments, I recall the previous times I chose to not say something, and instead I state my needs clearly in order to avoid stress down the line.”
“Understanding my strengths helps me make confident recommendations to clients. Conversely, it also helps me recognize when I’m operating outside my realm of expertise. I can admit to clients when I don’t have relevant experience or a particularly strong perspective, offering to research options or defer to someone else.”
Be a Keen Observer
Building on the theme of working with lots of different people, it’s important to observe and acknowledge different communication and working styles. The faster you can recognize those differences, the faster you can adapt to them and establish credibility in new settings.
Use your powers of observation to identify key dynamics. Who are the decision makers? Who are less obvious people that have influence? How do you ensure you’re communicating in an approachable way? Who do you need to build rapport with to gain support for the project?
It’s very important to monitor the client’s confidence in the direction of the project. Notice key moments to check in and ask them directly. Cautiously dig in when there’s hesitation, “I sense you’re not completely convinced about X. Am I reading that right? And if so, what’s the source of your doubts?” Calling out what you’ve observed helps the client know that you’re paying attention and picking up important details.
If any of this feels like a challenge for you, lean on a mentor to get tips and feedback. Don’t be shy about debriefing with others to get additional perspectives. I won’t hesitate to reach out to a coworker to discuss my observations and to get their feedback on a path forward.
I hope this has given you some food for thought in terms of how well you’re able to connect the dots, manage expectations, or check in with yourself as an aspiring or experienced consultant!