As a profession, consulting tends to be 90% cerebral and 10% affective. If you are not primarily cerebral, consulting will be difficult. In today’s world of overrated entertainment, cerebral still opens doors. At least, that was how I began lecturing as a guest in two world renowned Business Schools.
Knowledge may not always have a fat purse but it has its glory. It bestows a kind of satisfaction that food and sex can’t.
However, as a practice, that ratio is reversed. When you come face-to-face with a client, or a potential one, consulting becomes 90% affective and 10% cognitive.
Why is that? Because consulting, like medicine, engineering or law, can also suffer from déformation professionelle. You can only secure a deal when you normalize your world view to your client’s.
The more I listen to the McKinsey case interviews the more this observation appears justified.
In the client’s presence, you don’t want to sound as aloof as a Quantum Physics professor addressing a hall-full of local market women. While it is important to demonstrate your wide and deep knowledge, you much more want to be trusted as a helper and solution provider.
As expected, communication and interpersonal skills rank high in the consulting toolkit but they are too broad. I will break them down into specific skills that put food on your table as a management consultant.
Here they are, in no particular order of importance.
1. Rapport Building and Networking Skills
When you were young, your parents told you, “Do not talk to strangers.” If you still live by that rule as a consultant, you will, in no distant time, appreciate how easily hunger can rewire the human brain.
One of my longest business flights was from Zurich to Los Angeles. Imagine sitting beside a stranger for 12 long hours without engaging meaningfully!
The ability to strike a value adding conversation from thin air, and to meaningfully sustain the same is key. Many consulting deals begin as an innocuous banter with a CEO on the same flight or during a community event of sorts.
Building rapport, smiling, observing basic etiquette, remembering people’s names make a world of difference between mere transactional consulting versus world class relational consulting.
2. Active Listening
The late Stephen R. Covey observed: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
You would imagine that the veteran consultant is a talker. Wrong! If you talk more than you listen, you’ll come home with an empty bag.
Listening without filters is hard but essential. As water bends light rays, so our cognitive biases refractively bend what we hear. A good listener might not be a successful consultant but a successful consultant will always be a good listener.
My top recommended resource for consultants on listening skill is Mark Goulston’s book Just Listen. I have listened to the audio version from Audible several times.
3. Speed Reading, Voluminous Assimilation, Rapid Comprehension
In the past, lawyers were referred to as “learned colleagues.” Today, the real learned colleagues are management consultants. A consultant must read or perish. I literally fall sick any day I do not read a minimum of two hours; I dread intellectual apocalypse.
You want to keep up with the developments in the management sciences. You want to be familiar with the changing paradigms in the management sciences; new breakthroughs in organizational dynamics, human resources and psychology.
Personally, becoming familiar with the works of past and present thought leaders such as Peter Drucker, Edward do Bono, Michael Porter, David Aaker, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Jim Collins, James Womack, Daniel Goleman, John Maxwell, Robert Cialdini, Muhammad Yunus, Seth Godin, Dan Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Greene, Jay Abraham, David Ogilvy, Dan Kennedy, Harvard Business Review, Stanford Business School … has helped me a lot. There are certainly others I don’t yet know.
Getting yourself acquainted with the works, tools and techniques of consulting greats such as McKinsey and BCG has been helpful too. They have very useful time-tested tools for consulting. For example, Mckinsey’s 7S framework is an all time favorite in management consulting.
In addition, CEO biographies also make a great resource for consultants. I gained a lot more about innovation, strategy, courageous visioning, fund raising, strategic recruiting and partnerships, marketing, and execution from Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk than I might ever have learned in a formal business class.
Moreover, keeping abreast of important business news cannot be over emphasized. I scan the following sites often – CNN Money, Forbes, Inc, WSJ and Entrepreneur – to feel the pulse of the corporate world.
There’s too much to read and absorb, sometimes in a very short time. Sometimes, the client’s brief might involve hundreds of pages of documents you have to assimilate overnight in your hotel room before the decisive meeting the next day. Speed reading, as you can see, can save your life.