Kinds of Intelligence

So what qualities make for an ideal management consultant?  Well, expertise is good, intelligence is great, and experience is wonderful, but these qualities alone will not be enough.  A client wants and needs someone to understand them and their position not only in terms of bare statistics and objective data, but also emotionally and intuitively.  So once we accept that our client is not simply looking for a troubleshooter, but a trusted and dependable advisor – someone that is on their side, helping them to achieve their potential – we can understand that exceptional interpersonal skills are an essential requirement for any management consultant worth their salt.

Consider Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory: intellectually formidable and coolly analytical, yet entirely incapable of emotional understanding; this is not the man you’d want to be leading you through a process of personal discovery and self-improvement.  Sheldon, as fascinating and informative as he may be, does not facilitate the kind of self-awareness and critical thinking necessary for an entrepreneur or executive, say, to develop the capabilities and talents that will form the fundamental tools of his or her trade.

The way in which we impart our knowledge, then, is as important as the knowledge itself.  But knowledge, of course, does remain important.  It must, however, be the right kind of knowledge.  A great depth of expertise in a narrow field can be found anywhere – the hard part is finding people with the breadth of knowledge that allows them to understand how what you do in one area of a company dramatically affects an entirely different area of that company.  We might call this ‘cross-enterprise breadth,’ which is to say, understanding the impact across an organization.

One fine example of this is when Rogers Wireless was taking over Fido.  The changeover of systems was thoroughly considered, planned, and project managed, but everything was on the technical side.  So it came to 6am on a Sunday morning, the switch was flicked, and the one group they had failed to communicate with was the customer service agents.  Usage was grossly underestimated, the calls started rolling in, and there wasn’t enough staff available to pick up.  While a cross-enterprise breadth of understanding might have foreseen this, to someone with a deep but narrow expertise, it probably didn’t even occur.

For this reason, a certain intellectual curiosity is a prerequisite for being a successful management consultant.  Are you the kind of person whose very nature might at any moment take you off on a chain of miscellaneous fact-finding?  Are you the kind of person who, as you’re driving down the Gardiner Expressway, and while traffic is slow, decides to check out on Wikipedia what’s going on down at the Rogers Center tonight, sees that the Toronto Blue Jays are playing, and ends up finding out about the small, pretty passerine birds native to the coniferous forests of North America?  If so, your naturally inquisitive nature might be what leads you to having the kind of broad knowledge base that will allow you to take into consideration what others don’t, predict what others won’t, and adapt to the various kinds of challenges that management consulting will present you with.

Independence and Objectivity

Once you find yourself in that arena of management consulting, you will see that a broad knowledge base is not sufficient in itself in an environment of so many potentially conflicting forces and personalities, many of which may have their own interests at heart, their own agendas and insecurities, and their own private concerns.  What you see, then, is not always what you get.

Organizations are, by definition, complex entities. Buried within them are often a host of individuals and pressure groups that may wish to present you with their most charming, but not necessarily most honest, face.  People will occasionally wish to protect or strengthen their positions, make political gain, and attempt to use you to their advantage.  As you might expect, such behavior is not always in the best interests of your client or the company.  Part of your challenge, therefore, will be to maintain independence and objectivity in your analysis.  You will need to have the strength and confidence to say what needs to be said, and not what perhaps the CEO or sales manager is telling you to say.

One example of many examples of this is with computer manufacturers, of which many have their own consulting teams.  Are they independent and objective?  If one such consulting team recommends you a new server, chances are they’ll be recommending one from the very same company whose logo they have printed on their business card.  How much value can you place on their recommendations, then?  And to what extent do you take what they say with a grain of salt?

It takes no small amount of courage to preserve one’s independence and objectivity in the face of external pressure, but such resistance is an absolute necessity if you are to properly preserve your honesty and integrity, which are so essential to your long-term security, not to mention that of your client.  By focusing on the needs of the company when it sometimes seems most difficult to do so, and by having the strength to say what people don’t always want to hear, you can in the long run earn respect, trust, and results.  And that, after all, is why you were hired in the first place.

Flexibility in an Environment of Risk

While those steadfast elements of strength and resistance are essential, they must be counterbalanced with flexibility and adaptability.  Change occurs in every corner of our industry, and nothing but nothing is set in stone.

You might hit 4pm on a Friday afternoon, your weekend ahead all planned out, and then your boss walks in with a new engagement and wants to see a preliminary report on Monday morning – are you comfortable with that unforeseen workload?  Or perhaps it’s 8am on a Tuesday morning and you’re driving down the Gardiner Expressway again.  Your schedule for the day is fully organized and you know exactly what you’re going to accomplish, but then your client calls and says he needs to see you immediately – can you deal with the sudden shift in plans?  Can you drop everything, reorganize, and pick it all up again?

Or sometimes, of course, our meetings just don’t go as hoped, and what we had on the table wasn’t to somebody’s liking.  Are you prepared to change tack and re-evaluate the task in hand, or even go back to the drawing board and start over?  Furthermore, are you in those moments of high pressure able to keep your cool and listen to the alternatives, prepared to take on board the new ideas of others?

As a management consultant you can’t simply work 9 to 5; sometimes you have to work round the clock.  You have to adapt to time zones – you might be in Toronto one day, and Vancouver the next – you have to adapt to your clients’ needs, and you have to adapt to the unpredictable.

Consultants of small and medium-sized firms all understand that they operate in a competitive environment, which demands a special kind of individual, a special set of skills, and a special level of energy and commitment.  Occasionally however, consultants working for the major firms don’t recognize that they are faced with that same degree of competition.  Well, no matter your position or where you work, every consultant must draw on his or her finest qualities in order to get the job done.  This is not always an easy task, but nor should it be.  The best management consultants look for the best challenges; they are tested thoroughly and come out shining, having learned about, and having improved themselves.

Such is the life of those in our business.  We learn to embrace and relish risk, change, and unpredictability.  By doing so, we grow as professionals and as people; it’s one of the wonderful characteristics of the job and makes you proud to be a consultant, the rewards of which ensure that when you eat, you eat well.

Making Sacrifices

Management consultants are not normal people.  Where normal people look for comfort – like that of a living room, a sofa and a good book – consultants look for challenges – like understanding the nature of a client’s situation, discovering and analyzing all the related information, and creatively arriving at a solution.

As a result, being an independently working management consultant means going to where your client is, letting go of a few creature comforts, and getting down to the business of making things better.  Not everyone is cut out for the demands of this, and lacks the commitment to spend a few nights in a hotel, suitcase in hand, when the circumstances require it.  But if your client is in Alberta, that’s where you need to go, and if they want you there at 8am on a Monday morning, you’ll have to be there by Sunday night.  But management consultants are special, and their levels of dedication make light work of what would be an upheaval for others.

But that willingness to do without such creature comforts once in a while is not the only thing that separates us management consultants from your ordinary Joe.  One of the many qualities required of a successful consultant is that ability to exist independently of ego.  What compels a consultant to achieve is not the prospect of standing on the podium with a medal on his chest; our job is about being concerned with our clients, and providing them with the help they need to step up so that they can look good and be better.  Public acknowledgment for all your hard and excellent work may or may not arrive, but as with a firefighter or doctor, flattery is small motivation for success – you’ll take plenty of satisfaction in seeing a trusted and valued client receive the plaudits.

These are some of the very things that make management consulting such a distinct and special industry to work in.  It is full of variety and challenges, intellectual stimulation, and tremendous gratification in the achievement of hard-won goals; to the individual suited to its demands, it offers a great career.