What it takes to be a Great Consultant … The Top 10 List

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Many of you know I was a Worldwide Partner with Andersen and also worked for Accenture.  As a result, I stay in touch with my former partners and business associates.

Gabrielle Wallace, Consultant with St. Charles Consulting Group and former Director of Andersen’s Education for Financial Assurance Services, recently published her Top 10 list of Great Consultant Attributes.  The following is based on her list – but updated and expanded for consultants that work in the IT and Telecom Industries.

Note that the attributes are listed in no particular order.  Why?  Because, as Gabrielle points out, to be a Great Consultant you need them all!

  1. Opinionated – The first and foremost thing a consultant needs to have is an informed opinion or, in more “consultantese,” a point of view (POV).  What is your take on the situation given your experience and expertise?  Or, as many clients wonder, what can you tell me that I don’t already know? After all, that’s why you’ve been hired – to provide a unique look at the situation that takes into account your knowledge of how this problem has been approached by others, what’s worked or hasn’t worked in similar situations, and what critical things may not have been considered yet.  Your POV is something you develop over many years and is a combination of your expertise and your experience.  Be confident in sharing your POV with clients, but be careful to temper it with some of the other tips below.  (You really want your client to believe that you are “knowledgeable,” not “opinionated.”)  Most importantly, if you have a carefully considered POV, you won’t ever need to steal someone’s watch to tell them what time it is.

My Comment:  The key for any major consulting project is to quickly develop a draft of the core recommendations for the client, i.e. within the first 2-3 weeks.   These ‘founding principles’ should be based on your POV combined with your initial perspectives of the client’s business problem.  It’s okay to ‘tweak’ them but I have found that this iterative process (with client participation) has been most effective. 

  1. Pragmatic– One of the biggest faults Gabrielle sees with consultants is taking a purist view of their field of expertise and, when she has the chance, she tells them that what works in textbooks doesn’t usually work in the real world.  Models and frameworks are great, but you need to bring things down to a practical level and consider how to actually design and implement solutions for your clients.  To do this, it’s important to look at things from all angles and play out the possible solutions from the top down and the bottom up.  How does this impact Sue the accountant and Bob in HR?  Consider the unintended effects it will have on work, morale, and any other important aspects of the work environment. A practical approach, informed by appropriate theories, will help ensure the best outcome for your client and will often set you apart from others.

My Comment:  I actually would rate this as one of the top 3 of the top 10.  Recommendations that cannot be implemented are of no use to clients and diminish the reputation of the consultant.

  1. Passionate – No faking here, you’ve got to really care about helping your clients.  It’s obvious when someone is doing a job just for the money or takes a passive, careless approach to the work.  A Great Consultant gets invested in the client’s issues and gets excited at the prospect of making a difference.  Finding passion in your work is something you can’t force, and you may need to turn things around – find out first what you’re passionate about and then make that your professional focus.

My Comment: There will be times in the latter stages of a multi-phase, multi-year project where it will become stressful to come to work.   Remember, you became a consultant to make a difference for your clients and they expect you to deliver!

  1. Resilient – We all have bad days.  We all hit brick walls.  What distinguishes Great Consultants, however, is the ability to pick themselves up by the bootstraps when things aren’t going well, motivate the team, and keep helping the client to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Some problems are easily solved, and others take some time.  The right solution may come after long days, much rework, and much iteration.  If you get some tough feedback or experience a setback along the way, you’ve got to be resilient and bounce back.  Don’t let them get you down!

My Comment: We all learn by experience and setbacks are learning opportunities.  Remember to conduct a ‘lessons-learned’ debrief (including clients) at the conclusion of all projects.  I’d also add “Accountable.”  Be accountable for your and your team’s actions and performance.  Take responsibility.  If you receive tough feedback, commit to the client to develop a “get well” plan … then follow through!

  1. Business-minded – An area that many consultants in the Talent Development arena lack is business acumen.  Understanding how a business operates, what drives decisions, and what makes the industry unique really sets consultants apart.  If you don’t know the basics of the balance sheet or P&L statement, it will be next to impossible for you to connect the dots on how your work will impact the client’s bottom line.  Even a simple appreciation for key business drivers, risks, and the financial aspects of your client’s business will suggest that you “get it” and that you bring a seasoned business perspective to the work.

My Comment: As an IT leader and executive, you must be able to translate business issues into actionable IT solutions AND translate ‘IT-speak’ into understandable business language.  The ability to bridge and communicate these two worlds helps make you a Great Consultant. In addition, when I interview prospective consulting hires, I pay close attention to ‘how’ a candidate describes his or her experience.  Candidates that speak about ‘process solutions’ and ‘solving business issues’ get higher marks than those who discuss ‘implementation of release 10.4 of software package X’.  I will also attempt to hire resources as subcontractors first – to see them in action.  This ‘try-before-you-buy’ approach assists in selecting high quality consultants. 

  1. Professional – Consultants should hold themselves to the highest standards of ethics, confidentiality, and integrity.  By virtue of your role, you will likely see and hear a lot, and it’s imperative for your clients to trust you.  Also, just because something is within the letter of the law doesn’t make it right…  Hold yourself to standards beyond what’s expected.  In addition, always present a professional demeanor.  Don’t get your feathers ruffled.  Look calm even if below the water your feet are paddling like mad!

My Comment: A Great Consultant needs to be comfortable with chaos.  We aren’t hired because the picture is pretty; we are hired because we are capable of working through the chaotic swirl of complexities that our clients cannot effectively handleThe highest compliment I was ever paid was, “you have been extraordinarily calm and unflustered throughout this project.” By methodically solving the client’s issues in what seems to be a hurricane of incredible chaos, you will by default calm the waters.

  1. Curious (but skeptical) – Ask questions, listen, and be professionally skeptical.  As a consultant, your value comes in asking the tough questions, culling out the inconsistencies, and driving to the root causes.  Realize that being inquisitive may sometimes be annoying but it gets results.  Keep in mind that your client may not be able to see the issues as you see them.  As more of an independent party, you can be objective and avoid being clouded by politics and other confounding factors that may surround a problem.

My Comment:  One of the more difficult challenges is to work with clients to see the root cause of business issues.  Be prepared with Case Studies from other clients to support your hypothesis and findings.

  1. Resourceful – Know when to enlist help. None of us is an expert in everything, and you should always know: 1) when it’s time to bring in reinforcements, and 2) where to go to find them.  Actively maintain a network of talented people in your area of expertise and in other, related areas where you might need help.  Use the abundance mentality – there’s plenty of work out there.  So, if you share your opportunity with others, not only will the client benefit from the combination of strong minds at work on their project, but reciprocal opportunities may come to you.

My Comment:   The corollary of this attribute – is to Know When A Project is in Trouble and you need help.  Bad news does not age well, and if a project is starting to have issues – it is important to act fast!

  1. Influential– Your ability to influence may be as important as your expertise (if not more so).  If you can’t get your client or other stakeholders to buy into the plan, idea, or strategy, then the forward movement stops there.  Great Consultants know how to be savvy and navigate situations with dexterity.  Some tips on influence: Read between the lines, and know who your allies and potential adversaries are. Enlist the allies, and work on softening the adversaries…  Never go into a meeting or presentation without pre-meeting with key stakeholders to socialize the topic…  You know you’ve been successful when you make your client look good.  So, let your idea be theirs.  The important thing, above all, is that you get to the right solution.

My Comment: Socializing your recommendations and plans with the key stakeholders is an absolute must!  In many cases, I have found that while I may make the final presentation to senior management, it is really the key stakeholders who help ‘sell’ and/or ‘support’ the call to action… which is the best way a consulting project should play outWith your key stakeholders, prepare the top three most demanding questions that could come up in the executive meeting – and then practice your answers.

  1. Strategic (and tactical) – Seeing the big picture and connecting dots may be some of the most important value you bring to your clients.  They are in the thick of things and being pulled in various directions.  You are in the unique position of being able to step back and look at the whole system or situation. Some tips along this line:  If your client’s organization is silo’d and you have line of sight into multiple areas, you can help them by seeing across organizational lines.  You can also help them look ahead and think beyond the here and now.  Their immediate objective may be to fix today, but they’ll thank you if you’re also thinking about tomorrow. Lastly, being strategic is great, but you also need to be tactical – to focus on effective organization and successful execution.

My Comment:  I know you are asking, “How can you be Strategic and Tactical at the same time?”  In IT consulting projects, first develop a future-state architecture based on a POV (see above).  Then, provide PRAGMATIC and BUSINESS-MINDED stepping stones and phases (complete with P&L impact plus business benefits) outlining the roadmap to get there. 

Special thanks go to Ryan Barnes and Josh Zelenka, business associates at EMC, for adding some great insights to the above list.

Next Up, “2013 Technology Trends That Will Make A Difference.”  Plus, an in depth look at the Expanding Digital Universe and what it means to Telecom Service Providers.  I hope you will join me and will pass on this link to your friends and networks.  Subscribe, send me feedback, and check back soon for another installment.

About the Author: Laddie Suk

Laddie leads a cross-functional Dell Technologies Consulting team focused on digital transformation and industry solutions. He is a seasoned industry veteran with deep experience across multiple industries, solutions, and technologies. As a former Verizon Network CIO and Network Executive at AT&T and Bell Labs, he has extensive hands-on experience in leading strategic network and IT development projects and managing communication service provider environments. He has also led strategic and tactical engagements in network transformation, IT transformation, and business process and performance improvement for clients throughout the Americas.
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