Misrepresentations and unfortunate stereotypes about consultants are plenty. You must have heard the oft-quoted one attributed to Carl Ally that goes like this: “a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time and then keeps the watch” or “consultants are hired to deliver bad news”. And the Dilbert comic strip that has Dogbert thinking about conning and insulting people and then combining “con” and “insult” to produce “consult”. Even as these unfortunate and less-than-complimentary terms about consultants abound and consultants continue to take flak from non-consultants who perceive them to be less than hard working but raking in the bucks nonetheless, the consulting industry has flourished and experienced consultants continue to be in high demand across the business landscape. What consultants actually do seems foggy to many (read cynics). The above mentioned quotes seem to insinuate that companies often hire consultants – at great cost – to tell them what they already know but have trouble accepting. It would appear that having the news delivered by outside consultants would bring greater validation to the conclusion already drawn by executives.
Among the many misconceptions prevalent about consultants –they tell companies what they want to hear, they are not team players, they are too expensive – is one that is especially difficult to ignore: that consulting is just about giving advice. So what do consultants bring to the table other than doling out advice?
Well, for starters, good consultants operate from a position of empathy for the client. They display a genuine concern and desire to help their client – whether it is to solve a problem, avoid a conflict, or bolster a strategy. This sense of empathy humanizes a consultant as a real person with a keen desire to assist his or her client and help them overcome a challenge. Best-selling author Pat Lencioni says that consultants need to be transparent and humble in order to establish a connection with the client. This does not mean that these attributes should come at the expense of confidence and competence, rather they should complement the required fundamental skills. If a consultant lacks humility and empathy, the client will likely be less disposed to accepting the consultant’s advice.
Another quality of the above-average consultant is the ability to listen. Listening carefully to employees who are the primary stakeholders and being eager to implement change and solve a problem or a set of problems is imperative to a consultant’s job. In all likelihood these employees have worked for several years in the industry and are well-informed and tuned in to the company’s problems. A great consultant engages with employees and builds relationships with them to gain their trust and confidence.
Gone are the days when consultants could meet clients’ expectations by simply delivering a Power Point presentation. To defeat long-held stereotypes, elite consultants nowadays not only deliver ideas and solutions that can be implemented but also communicate their ideas to a wider audience. “Thought leadership” has now become a buzzword for experienced strategy consultants who deliver novel solutions and are willing to share their ideas with the world. They write papers, books, contribute to journals and attend conferences to promote their ideas. This kind of activity increases their street cred and establishes them as solution-focused thinkers who deliver great value to clients.
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Today, consulting is more than just about strategy. Consulting has widened its reach to include such topics as implementation, people (HR) and internal processes. Consultants bring a ton of expertise to these subjects through their long association with and gathering intelligence from corporations and businesses, they have advised long term. So if you thought consultants are minting money with “one size fits all” approaches towards their clients, nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that consultants like to go for quick and effective wins in an effort to gain credibility with company stakeholders but their long-term solutions are based on a thorough evaluation of the client’s problems, not just the symptoms.
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