Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.


Best advice for new consultants

In this economy, our firm is often introduced to professionals who are making the switch to consulting, those who wonder “What is ‘consulting’ all about? Is it for me?”

In the interest of collaboration, we posted the following question on LinkedIn’s “Consultants Network” Group:  “What’s the best advice you ever got or never got?”  (Discussion ran in Aug 2009)

We agreed to publish the comments with credit to the author. To start it off, I volunteered:

I always recommend that serious professionals join the Canadian Association of Management Consultants (or similar for your geography). Why? There are hundreds of contractors who call themselves consultants – I believe there is a difference. For one thing professional consultants are committed to the profession of consulting, to higher standards of professional conduct, and are prepared to be held to those standards.

James Reyes-Picknell, CMC, President and CEO, Conscious Group Inc.

Never work harder than your client!  If they don’t want it, it won’t happen. No need to stress over their choices.

Duke Butler, Strategy and Corporate Development at Duke Butler

I agree Gail – consulting is not contracting – it is a profession. I also recommend the CMC designation and, while I also worked in big companies (Deloite, Microsoft and Amex) there will be times when you will have to survive on your own – famines will typically last over a year so store some acorns for the winter! I always have worked hard (maybe harder than some clients) – I also turned down some big strategy firms which I don’t know was wise – work for the top firms you can and learn as much as you can if you plan at all on an independent consulting career!

George Barnhart, Executive consultant at TiCE

From my experience, a challenge faced by new professionals entering the management consulting ranks (particularly as an individual or with a smaller firm) is that of landing client engagements. Closing the deal and getting a contract is difficult in the best of times and even more of a challenge in this economy. I’d recommend a visit to Cal Harrison’s Beyond Referrals web site – http://www.beyondreferrals.com . Cal’s e-newletter is worth subscribing to and attending one of Cal’s presentations should be high on the professional development list.

Christopher Harper, Diversified consultant with experience in human resources, IT, and strategic planning

My advice would be to know what you don’t know and be comfortable admitting it. Clients don’t expect consultants to have all the answers, but they do expect you to understand their problems and find the best options for them.

Chris Jones MBA FCMC, Associate Faculty at Royal Roads University

I second George’s comments re Cal Harrison. He has made presentations to Victoria CMCs twice – one an evening session and the other a full day at RRU. I understand he has done presentations in Vancouver too. We are hoping to arrange a webinar for him next fall in Victoria. If we do I wonder whether we might link up with Vancouver and Kelowna at the same time?  I would also suggest a visit to ConFab USA 2009 in Reno. They usually have a whole stream (i.e. 1/3 of the sessions) dedicated to new consultants.

Mike Frenette, SNR PM focused on PMOs & virtual teams. MS Project PRO & Server 2007, SharePoint, DotNetNuke.

Loves bleeding edge!

Always put the client first, but that doesn’t mean you just do what your client tells you to do. Consultants, not contractors, help the client understand what is best for their business and are not afraid to take risks in recommending what they know is a better approach, process or tool – even if it is contrary to their client’s current line of thinking. But… as Christopher Harper points out – be certain you know what you don’t know. Give advice ONLY in your area of expertise and only when you feel certain it will work in your client’s environment.

Tony Wanless, Creative Management Consultant

  1. Always remember that, as a consultant, your job is to analyze, recommend, and guide. It is not to merely be an implementer. If that’s what you do, you are a contractor not a consultant. Unfortunately, many clients and prospective clients don’t understand this and so have to be firmly guided.
  2. Consulting is a profession, with its own processes. Take CMC-Canada’s Essentials of Consulting course.
  3. Value yourself. Prospects will often treat you like a tradesman because they don’t know any better, and so will do all the things they do with trades people such as try to negotiate the price, change what they want in the middle of the assignment, and, occasionally, try to establish that they are “the boss” because they have “hired” you. In each case they must gently be reminded that you were hired for your expertise, not for your time.
  4. Remember that consulting is a collaboration between client and consultant, so while it may seem opposed to #3, there has to be much discussion, communication, and general give and take. The objective should always be to achieve the desired goal.
  5. Bone up on the business of consulting, which includes knowledge of general business management. Don’t sit on your high horse and think you’re too good to be involved in the minutiae of business, such as marketing, administration, etc.

Couple of closing thoughts:

Consulting is not for everyone – even experts, specialists and Subject Matter Experts (or perhaps especially these) should think twice. 

Quick notes about joining a firm vs working as an independent:

  • We are knowledge workers and must face the brutal fact that our value to the client, therefore to the firm, has the shelf life of our knowledge.  Large firms will claim to invest in your knowledge, and some actually do, but do not rely on this – if work dries up, as it has in the recession, they will have to layoff. At the end of the day you must undertake Tom Peters’ concept of “Brand You!”.
  • Working as an independent, or in a small firm, raises a host of other issues.  The feast / famine cycle is well covered but every consultant I know lives in denial of it on a day-to-day basis – make accruing for the famine a non-negotiable discipline. 
  • Building a client base, marketing yourself is key.  Build skills in this area and create and disciplined process for this.

To thrive and enjoy consulting, in my humble opinion, you must:

  • LOVE to learn – have relevant and current knowledge or skills that the market wants on an on-going basis – and be prepared to invest your own time and your own money in staying the expert.  Set an annual target, say: $2500/year on training, read 5 relevant books, publish on your expertise, etc.  Professional associations require this as a condition of accreditation for a reason.
  • Enjoy producing independently but working collaboratively – you must have an aptitude for selling, not just yourself to get work but, once inside, your recommendations.  This is relentless – do not fake yourself out on this.
  • Be a GREAT communicator – this is non-negotiable
  • LOVE the hunt, love sales – it is not enough to be altruistic and want to ‘make a difference’ for clients, to be great at the work.  No matter whether you are an employee or an independent you are expected to identify and develop leads.
  • Have an aptitude for the “simplex”:
    • Understand the complex but bring clarity and communicate it clearly and concisely
    • Be able to understand and negotiate apparently opposing points of view – bring diplomacy

1 Comment so far
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Engaging with the field of consulting specially in business is quite difficult but an exciting task to learn. A good business consultant is also ready to face consequences in order to learn something new.

Comment by business management consultan




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