Consulting Skills as a Competitive Advantage
Developing strong consulting skills such as the ability to communicate in a way that holds the attention of the room, the ability to solve complex problems in a structured and effective way, and the ability to build a peer-level relationship with the most senior executives of major companies. Developing strong consulting skills can be the competitive advantage that will allow you rise above the average and gain the momentum, respect, and opportunities you want.
Not everyone working for major consulting firms have strong consulting skills. Similarly, you can develop strong consulting skills without ever working for a major consulting firm.
In this post we are going to explore how to achieve career advancement from manager and above, and how to use consulting skills to help you achieve career growth.
What is Career Advancement?
Career advancement refers to the upward trajectory of someone’s career. Top professionals know the importance of professional and personal development. For anyone in the corporate world having a secure job to go to each week is important, but it is not enough. Humans crave progress.
If we do not grow, we degrade. We do not stay still. Our skills deteriorate.
So the opportunity for career advancement is one of the most essential elements for people to feel a sense of well-being and job satisfaction. Opportunities for career growth are a powerful employee motivator. That’s why it makes good business sense for companies to ensure their employees are clear on their career growth plans and career growth opportunities.
Differences Between Advancing as a Junior Employee vs. Manager and Above. How Developing Consulting Skills Can Help
When someone is a junior employee, career advancement is usually more straightforward. Do a great job for your superiors, make them look good, and develop a strong technical skill-set, and you will have growth in your career.
As you continue advancing in your career and moving to more senior levels, however, you will notice that your technical skills are becoming less and less critical to get the next promotion. What becomes essential are your soft skills.
- Can you convince and motivate people to do the work they do not want to do?
- Can you effectively lead people?
- Are you able to get people together that do not want to work together?
- What is your level of influence within your organization?
Developing strong consulting skills means developing strong soft skills. You can’t be a successful consultant without the ability to communicate well, without the ability to have a lot of executive presence during your meetings with clients, and without the ability to build a long-term relationship with your clients.
Qualities of an Exceptional Leader
There are many qualities that exceptional leaders need to possess. If you look back at the best boss you ever had, what qualities immediately come to mind? Generally, the qualities of exceptional leaders include the following:
Integrity – Great leaders have integrity. If they promised you something, they keep their word. If you told them something in confidence, they keep it confidential. They do not go and cut corners to get some quick revenue or earn a favor. An exceptional leader would also not do unethical and illegal things for clients to keep big clients happy. They understand they set an example, and they take their role very seriously.
Gratitude – You feel that your input is meaningful and sincerely appreciated. When you go above and beyond, it is noticed and acknowledged and ultimately rewarded.
Growth mindset – exceptional leaders have a growth mindset. They believe that you can improve if you put enough work into it. They give you opportunities to grow instead of locking you into a dead-end job. They create growth opportunities for their team because they believe that humans can grow and develop powerful skills.
Influence – Great leaders are able to connect with others. They can be a connecting tissue that brings together stakeholders who are not interested in speaking to each other. They have a high level of influence within the organization and with clients.
Empathy – Great leaders have empathy. They understand that their team members are only human and can make mistakes. As long as they see the mistake was made not out of malicious intent, they help their team members recover from mistakes. They empower instead of push down. They support instead of humiliating.
Self-Awareness – Great leaders also have a high level of self-awareness. You do not find them losing it and screaming at a client or their team members. They are calm, collected, professional, and focused a lot of the time. They are, of course, only human and, at times, may become anxious or angry, but because of their high level of self-awareness, they remain very professional at all times.
Excellent communication – As we have mentioned earlier, excellent communication is one of the key consulting skills that can help you transform your career. Exceptional leaders are great communicators. They are able to hold the attention of the room. They are able to connect with their audience, be it one person or 100 people. They speak from their heart and are able to move people to action.
Great at delegation – Great leaders understand that they can’t do everything on their own. They are great at delegation. They grow and develop strong teams under them. They do not hesitate to train people under them because they understand that it is best for the organization, the best for clients, and it is the only way that they can ever be promoted. They start succession planning early.
Tips for Career Advancement
Career advancement within the same organization may be the result of gaining work experience and potentially completing additional advanced training. There are some things to keep in mind as you are planning out your career advancement plan.
Start from maintaining very good health. Health is the most important asset you have. Without it, you do not have anything. So always pay attention to your health. As driven professionals, we often do not take sufficient care of our health early in our career, only to pay for it a way too big of a price later on. It is essential to pay attention to protecting your health from the start or as soon as you can.
Build your skillset. Many business professionals stop developing their skills beyond what they learn on the job. Years go by, and they start to wonder what happened. Why has their career stalled? We live in a very competitive world, especially if you look at countries like the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. While in some developing countries, you can get away with being average and still have a great career because there is such a massive lack of skills, in developed countries, you compete with the best people from all over the world. If you do not invest in your skills beyond what average performers do, then you will likely have average results.
Work on your confidence. If you do not come across as someone who believes in their abilities, other people will also not believe you have what it takes to be a leader. So it is crucial to work on your confidence. When it comes to confidence, what you need to remember is what matters is your belief in your ability to figure things out. It is as simple as that. As long as you believe that you will find the way to make things work, that you will figure things out, that is what is required to have a sufficient level of confidence. So, as you can see, it is quite simple and manageable.
Work on your communication skills. Another essential and powerful way to build confidence is by working on your communication and executive presence skills. We have a powerful program for our clients on developing executive presence and communication skills and a number of resources, including a video below.
The Benefits of a Career Advancement
Organizations shouldn’t minimize the importance of supporting their employees’ career advancement. When companies do not pay attention to career growth opportunities for their employees, they undermine morale and productivity and end up with a high turnover. This is how companies or specific divisions within companies end up having to deal with a problem of a revolving door, where most employees leave as soon as they can, taking all the knowledge and experience with them, sometimes taking it to competitors.
Here are some benefits of career advancement and career progression:
- It results in lower turnover
- It results in higher job satisfaction
- It reduces stress and missed work days due to illness
- It boosts productivity
- It increases engagement within the team
- It creates a positive work environment versus a toxic work environment
- It gives employees a sense of well-being and a sense of purpose
Improving Career Growth
Gaining experience and receiving additional training help you advance up the corporate ladder within the same industry. The career advancement process is divided into two phases, career growth planning, and career management. Career growth planning requires you to map out your career. You, of course, can’t map out your career with 100% certainty, but it allows you to understand where you are going and what is required to achieve your goals.
When we work with our clients, we help them develop what we call The MasterPlan. We have a coaching program called The MasterPlan Acceleration Coaching program, as well as an online light version of the program on StrategyTraining.com, available to Insiders and Legacy members. And we also have The MasterPlan book. All those resources help our clients access a proven process to help them develop their career growth plan. You can download a template from The MasterPlan Acceleration Coaching program here.
Even if you do not use any of the resources above (the book, the coaching program, or the StrategyTraining.com advanced strategy and problem-solving training programs), you can still use the downloadable template to help you guide your thinking as you develop your career growth plan. This template was used by many clients who were able to transform their life. During our coaching programs, you also get to witness other clients complete this template and get coaching on various sections, which will give you ideas you may not have considered.
Now, as you are thinking about your career growth plan, consider what type of career growth is most important to you. The reason I ask you to think about this is because it is one of the saddest things to see when clients spend decades in a certain career, they put tremendous work into it, only to realize that they were pursuing the wrong career. So an essential element of thinking through your career growth plan is understanding what your life’s work is.
Gaining more clarity on what is your life’s work is one of the critical areas I help clients with. Because without it does it even make sense to work on your career growth plan? What is the point of investing above-average efforts into a plan that will not lead you to live a fulfilling life?
You might as well then enjoy your hobbies and have an average career, and be happy. I know so many people who lost their health, their spouses, and their children because they invested everything they had into a career that wasn’t even aligned with their life’s work or their competitive and comparative advantage, which is another area we speak a lot about as part of the MasterPlan program.
Keys to Successful Career Advancement
Now, what are some of the keys to successful career advancement?
Make a positive impression – Here, you need to learn how to make a positive impression when dealing with your peers and superiors. You need to be likable.
Are you the kind of guy or lady they would enjoy having a beer with on Friday night?
Think of a person you know who makes you feel good about yourself because they never say anything negative. We live in a culture where many things that people find funny are at the expense of someone. Think of someone who is not “two-faced,” not belittling.
How do you feel when you are with those people?
You actually look forward to seeing them.
You may even marry a person like this.
If you are lucky, you know one person that makes you feel amazing. And the rest are on a sliding scale. Think about how you respond to someone who makes you feel good. You are drawn to them, you smile, you are happy, and you feel you can do anything around that person.
You want to be that person, you want to be a person to whom everyone is drawn to.
Seek opportunities where others are not looking – You also need to learn to seek opportunities where others are not looking. For example, there may be a rare skill that you have, such as knowing a specific language, which may make you uniquely positioned to work on a particular project. Other people may not be trying to get on that project because they don’t have any advantages related to that project.
Become a great communicator – Learn to communicate effectively. Again we are coming back to the importance of enhancing your executive presence and communication skills, as key consulting skills that can help you set yourself apart. Specifically, learn to communicate like a partner from a major consulting firm or a senior executive from a large company.
Here is a video on communication that may be very helpful for you. This video is focused on how to learn to speak as a management consultant. If you have ever spoken to management consultants, you know that consultants speak in a certain way. They tend to speak in a very logical and structured way. They tend to pause at the right places. Consultants speak in a very logical, structured, and professional manner. And this ability to hold a logical and structured conversation is an ability that is a great asset when it comes to career advancement.
You want to make sure you can communicate. If you can’t communicate well but have excellent technical skills, you will likely struggle to get promoted. Consultants are very good at using stories. They are also very good at telling what they read in a newspaper.
It’s, of course, not about being able to recite what someone read in a newspaper. It is about if you can tell the key message in the article, the assumptions underpinning that article, and your thoughts on those assumptions, and your views on what will happen.
Consultants speak in that way. They don’t just recite what they read. They give you their opinions because they are trained to give you their opinions.
Develop a strong business acumen – You also need to determine a strong business acumen, which we refer to as business judgment. Strong business acumen is, of course, one of the key consulting skills that are required for you to be an outstanding leader and to get promoted. Without strong business acumen, you will not be able to make good decisions. We cover how to build business judgment in detail in our programs. Business judgment becomes more critical as you are moving up to higher and higher levels within your organization.
Become a skillful critical thinker versus a critic – Critical thinking ability is vital for career advancement and one of the most important consulting skills. And one of the essential requirements to be a great critical thinker is business judgment. Everyone already has business judgment. You will do much better when it comes to problem-solving if you learn to apply your judgment instead of ignoring your life experiences when solving problems. You have the ability to interpret things that is unique in the world.
Now there is a big difference between a critical thinker and a critic. They are not the same.
The critical thinker is doing two things. They are learning as much as they can from what is in front of them, and they are trying to analyze it. There is a difference between analyzing something and finding flaws in it. You can analyze something completely wrong and find useful information within it.
Think of case studies of why things succeeded. If something we analyzed, and it failed, you can learn even more from it. If you follow Partnership. Memoir, an extensive program we have where one of our coaches discusses how he became a partner in his 20s. During the first three years of his career, he had a lot of failures, he got promoted once. During the next three years, he got promoted four times. Not because he was good at analyzing the successes but because he was open to analyzing the failures.
When you go into any discussion, if your default mode is to find the flaws with whatever the person is saying, then you are not a critical thinker, you are a critic. A critical thinker is not just there to find flaws. A critical thinker is there to understand, to be open to learning, to explore things.
We have a show called The Bill Matassoni Show. Bill was a prominent senior partner at McKinsey and BCG. He was the partner that, along with his colleagues, but he was the architect of this, who led McKinsey’s strategy in the 80s to reposition itself and leap ahead of BCG and Bain.
Now, how do you know Bill is a critical thinker? Because he doesn’t dismiss people.
We’ve done multiple video shoots with Bill for our StrategyTraining.com library of training, and we watched him talk to contractors on site and really have friendly discussions with them. He wanted to learn what they had to say. Think about it, many senior people look at videographers on set and think, “Well, you are not Steven Spielberg, I have nothing to learn from you,” and ignore them. The critical thinker is trying to understand. The critic is trying to find flaws.
The Western education system grooms critics because our basis of belief is that if we first find something to be erroneous or flawed, we got to discard it. So our first step is to be critical. Once it passes the critical checklist, we then say, “Okay, let’s learn from it.”
Here’s the thing. The act of being critical blinds you to learning things from essentially a flawed case study.
No one likes a critic. Critics are called jerks. If someone goes into a conversation and they are critical and find flaws in their argument, people are going to hate that person. Worse, if they are someone who finds flaws in another’s argument and who cannot control their facial expressions, we’ve all been in discussions with people where not only are they critical because they think they are being smart, but they have a smirk and condescending look on their face.
If you would like to develop strong consulting skills and other skills that can help you get promoted and gain massive momentum in your career, email [email protected] describing your objectives and goals, and we will be happy to help you design a training roadmap so you can make the next 12 months count.
Leadership Challenge on A Consulting Engagement
We will discuss a common leadership challenge consultants face on a consulting engagement. There are, of course, many challenges. But one central leadership challenge is how to balance needs for the success of a company/client and the personal happiness of the executive leading the company.
In many situations, the personal happiness of the CEO of a company is always subordinate to the success of the company. Even if the CEO is going through a bad personal situation, consultants tend to define success as whether the company is successful in the short-term. They do not define success through the metric of the executives’ happiness. The CEO may end up personally unhappy and burnt out from being forced to undertake the recommendations we put forward.
And that is a problem for the longer term, shareholder value creation, and succession planning. A company that is performing well but has an unhappy CEO is essentially going to lose that CEO soon.
Setting your consulting firm apart
The problem is that client is not the CEO. If you position your consulting firm so that your client is the primary shareholder, and this makes sense when you are serving a publicly listed company or a SOE (stated-owned-enterprise), the CEO is not your client. The shareholder is your client and you do what is necessary for the shareholder and the CEO gets dragged along to implement those things that are necessary to please the shareholder.
Consulting firms engage with CEOs, but they need to please shareholders.
As such, many consultants put the needs of shareholders first without paying too much attention to the needs of the CEO. The interest of the shareholder and the CEO are not the same. The company can be successful while the CEO may always be burnt out. And this is very common.
Positioning your client as the primary shareholder, and not the CEO, will also help you set your consulting firm apart. It will make you different from other firms like McKinsey and BCG, who would tell you that their primary client is the CEO. On a side note, we believe that serving CEO can be a good model in the private sector. But when you do work in the public sector or for a public company the CEO cannot be your primary client. It has to be the shareholder, which in case of a SOE will be the government and by default the people.
Leadership challenge analyzed: the career success and personal happiness matrix
And, as consultants, we don’t want our clients to burn out. That is something we have learned from many of our consulting engagements. You can implement the right strategy, everyone can be successful but you can end up with a CEO who is unhappy. CEOs who are unhappy leave and nobody benefits from that outcome. Not the shareholders, not the CEO, not his leadership team, not customers and certainly not employees.
That problem may be simplified in a two-by-two matrix.
One axis is made up of personal success, personal unhappiness/happiness and the other is made up of career success and career unhappiness/happiness. When management consultants come in, they focus on career success. They are not interested in personal success. They naturally assume that when the consulting engagement is successful and all the company’s problems are fixed, the CEO’s career would be secure as well.
But what we find with the studies is that executives often have a short shelf-life. They burn out fast. And this leadership challenge is especially noticeable if your client is a primary shareholder(s) and you are serving a state-owned enterprise or a public company.
One of the things that is very common is that while the consulting team is pushing through the project, no one is really helping the CEO and the management team to understand how they can leverage the changes taking place to set personal goals, achieve those goals and manage the uncertainty to balance their own success with the success of the business.
At the end of the day, what would be ideal for us is that we saved the company and developed the strategy that makes perfect sense but we do not alienate the CEO. To that end, we want to have someone who can ensure that there is a balance in the CEO’s life and that he/she is going through the process without burning out.
Who should care?
Sometimes CEOs suffer traumatic personal situations and there is no one looking after them. Consultants cannot do so given the way they have traditionally engaged clients and because we represent (or at least should represent) the shareholders. This comes back to what we call a ‘Jeanie Duck’ moment.
At FC, when dealing with this leadership challenge on consulting engagements we realized pretty quickly we needed someone who has the ability to work with the executive team, preferably one or two members, to ensure that while all the study changes are taking place, they are able to manage their personal development. So, that as a result of the consulting engagement, they are able to be fulfilled, happy and not burnt out.
We needed to find someone who would be a mentor to CEOs. A peer-counselor. When we first started doing this, all of the people misunderstood the role. We needed someone who is sincere and can gain the trust of the CEO and not breach that trust. That for us was the number one criterion.
Besides, we needed someone who was going to offer feedback to the engagement team without betraying the client’s confidence. We codified that into a set of rules to help with selecting the person.
When thinking about these rules, remember that the nature of the work we do in consulting is for male clients primarily. As a management consultant serving large organizations, you are not going to have many female clients. Unfortunately, this is still the case and going to be the case for quite a while. There are some positive changes occurring but they are happening very slowly.
The second criterion was that we did not want someone with big three (McKinsey, BCG and Bain / MBB) firm experience, but the person should have some exposure to management consulting. This was deliberate because, as an operating practice, we hire people with enormous potential and then train them in our way of thinking. We believe our value system is different and worth preserving.
Third, we felt that the person should be female because we are a bunch of alpha males and we needed a different viewpoint. Someone who is coming from a different background and who would challenge the things we are saying.
The other point is that we wanted someone who was young and accomplished because of all the changes taking place in management consulting with big data, restructuring and the new field of integrating psychiatry with leadership. Plus the person would have to deal with very senior executives. Moreover, if we just bring in a carbon copy like us we would never inject new ways of thinking into our firm.
Finally, we wanted someone who has done some thinking on issues facing big companies. It does not have to appear in any major journal but it has to do with practical leadership: motivating and getting the best out of them. That may be considered our Jeanie Duck moment.
Jeanie Duck was the first person appointed into BCG in 1988 directly into the partnership. She was an artist, a sculptor with a masters degree in arts education, and did not have an MBA background and she was brought in to lead the people development and change side.
So FC recruited a new partner initially dedicated to working with our executive clients. For every project, our objective was to make sure we engineer the delivery of shareholder value in a way that the CEO ends up having a fulfilling experience. We wanted to make sure we found a way to reinvent the CEO’s desires, passions, and enthusiasm for the business while we did the same for his/her company.
How to approach the CEO’s leadership challenge on any consulting engagement
The lesson here is that career success is not the same as career happiness. One can be very successful in their career but they may burn out quickly and therefore not grow. That would be unsustainable. We want to make sure that executives of our clients use our interventions as an opportunity to reinvent their careers in a way that enhances their happiness. Change is not meaningful if the consulting firm is only interested in shareholder value and the technical side of things. The people side of things is very important.
The CEO needs to feel personally motivated, invested and incentivized about what is happening. We believe if the CEO is happy through the process, his happiness would cascade across his leadership team. This is a new model but it has worked for us.
Fundamentally, we would like Firmsconsulting members to approach any consulting engagement from two sides. One side is from the pure and traditional consulting intervention where you have to fix the client problem. The other side is the human side where you have a team looking at how to grow with the leadership team and make sure that they see it as an opportunity to reinvent their careers.
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