What makes a good consultant?


Trevor Locke thinks about what a good consultant is all about

Skills

Having the right skills for the consultancy task is obviously critical. It is also
important to have good organisational and communications skills: they do not always come with the rest.

Consultants who deal with particularly complex problems need to have the right aptitude for analysis – being able to break down complex processes and
problems into parts, steps and elements.

Those who are good at this kind of work will have an eye for detail. They will be particularly finicky about details and will spot things that others will easily miss.

Partly that comes from experience but it also comes from having the mind-set
that is attuned to disassembling very complex things into smaller, manageable things and having a feel for what small bits can easily break the whole ‘engine.’

Background

Do consultants have to haved worked in an industry, profession or line of activity for many years to become a useful consultant? Well yes, if what is required is industry knowledge. Bear in mind, however, that outsiders can be incredibly useful simply because they are outsiders.

I have, on many occasions, taken on a piece of work that is to do with something I have never encountered before. I found I would soak up knowledge and see things very quickly and my “outsider” status allowed me to see things that those on the inside were not seeing. I could also come up with solutions that were, to me, obvious but far from obvious to the insiders simply they couldn’t think outside of their industry box.

Consultants often have to deal with unfamiliar issues, systems or challenges and, to get a grasp, they need a broad range of flexible and adaptable skills. I call these core skills – a toolset of practical abilities and competencies that can be applied to almost anything, within reason.

One of these is information handling. Complex problems or large-scale
development tasks require someone to gather, process, store and analyse large amounts of information, of all kinds. Storing that information requires specific skills in information handling. There are a lot of powerful software packages that make this task easier and faster but the competent consultant should be able to work with information manually. The software is a bonus that saves a lot of time and increases productivity.

Knowledge

There are two kinds of consultant: one who knows a great deal about a
specialised area and is a well-experienced and widely read expert in his field. The other is someone who is an all-rounder, who knows about problem-solving, analysis, management and organisational processes, can work fluently with large-scale strategic pictures, as well as minute components and who has a definite aptitude for soaking up, acquiring and using large amounts of new knowledge in a short space of time ( i.e. the amount of time available for the consultancy.)

Communicator

Consultants have to have great writing skills. Sadly, too many of them do not. It’s very frequent for consultants to have to present written reports. I have read quite a few of them. Not good, or fit for purpose. Laden with impenetrable jargon that even the client would struggle with, bulked out with useless generalisations and culminating in conclusions and recommendations for which there is scant or no evidence or justification in the body of the report.

Consultants should also be able to talk freely with people of all kinds. They
should be the kind of person who can be chatting amiably with an estate resident one minute and then able to talk policy with a Minister of State the next. And be convincing at both levels.

Consultants need good presentation skills because so often we get asked to
present our findings to a group of people. I’ve seen this happen a few times. Oh dear, not good. When the main findings and conclusions should be beamed out loud and clear, we get drowned in a sea of statistics. Writing and talking in plain English: so important for consultants.

Honesty

A good consultant will be honest about what they can and can’t do. If they can’t deal with a brief they should say so and call “next”. There will be borderline situations where a brief looks ‘do-able’ with a couple of ifs and buts. What the client presents (as a brief) isn’t always the real problem; it’s sometimes what the client sees the problem as being. The consultant might see through that and want to turn the whole thing around and stand it on its head.

We all present ourselves in the best light: setting out CVs that make us look
really good. But there is a boundary between stating demonstrable facts and
being economical with the truth. If someone believes him/her self to be
competent, they should say so but should still be able to justify that. Saying you have a competency in something (e.g. strategic planning) just because you think you can do it, is not enough.

Capacity

Consultants are hard working people whose life-work balance is often in see-saw mode. If someone waves a nice fat cheque in front of their faces they are inclined to say yes. They say “yes” before they have sat down and calculated how many hours of work this project will require and where they think they are going to fit it all into their current workload. It’s never wise to prioritise your wallet over your diary, however tempting it might be to do that.

Commitment

I spoke earlier about having being thrown into unfamiliar tasks. If I were to be
offered a brief to work on something that I know would bore the pants off me, I
would turn it down. I say this because excellence requires vision and passion. It is hard to work up either for these for something you don’t relate to and just can’t stand. I would never accept a commission from a horse racing society or do anything related to the racing of four-legged animals because I could not get excited about it. I would not feel likely to generate visions of what could be
achieved and get passionate about the subject matter. I know not all consultants will agree with me on this. But this is how I see it.

Understanding

Do consultants always understand the brief they are given? No. When negotiating a client’s brief, the consultant should be able to be

* Analytical about it (what’s this really about?)
* Penetrating (see beneath the surface to the underlying problem)
* Diagnostic (what made this situation come about?)
* Challenging (don’t just accept what the client says as being gospel truth)
* Clear about the end-results of the consultancy

Conclusion

If you plan to spend a lot of money on a consultant: get a good one. Even if your budget is modest, get a good one, if the outcome is mission critical. Consultants have been known to do more damage than good to an organisation. Don’t take the first one that comes along. Place emphasis on references and recommendations. Be prepared to have them pull your carefully worded brief to bits.

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