4 Mission-Critical Skills For Any Consultant

01/03/2017 02:10 pm ET

Having a degree means one thing:

You know enough to get started in a profession, but not enough to really thrive.

That’s not a knock against education or you, it’s just a reality. Your education covers the basics of what you need to know to function, what you need to know to thrive is learned on the job.

As a consultant, however, that doesn’t always work out very well. There is a range of skills you need to know right out of the gate as a consultant that you can’t afford to miss out on.

If you jump into your career without a firm grasp of these four skills, you have no chance of succeeding in consulting..

1. Frameworks and Estimation

Remember that as a consultant, you are solving the problems that your clients could not solve themselves, did not have the specific resources to solve, or felt they needed an independent objective perspective.

You may not need to think on a deeply philosophical level, but you need to understand how to think in a practical, fact-based manner and quickly convert to action.

Often, this means thinking in frameworks. These mental models help you quickly frame the problem and estimate an answer without getting hung up on all the details.

The temptation for many people—especially those with strong analytical skill—is to approach problems with a linear progression of deductive logic. This approach will take longer to form an answer, and more importantly, to test that answer..

Imagine that your client wants to know whether to proceed with a potential project.

You could tell the client that you will go away for several weeks and then get back to them after cranking through a long series of calculations—by which time important assumptions may have changed, rendering your decision meaningless or even dangerous.

Or, you could use a simplifying framework to identify the most important considerations, eliminate unlikely answers, and quickly establish feasible approximations.

Using an approach like this, you can develop quick preliminary answers to arrive at an order of magnitude answer that provides insight while working through further. By eliminating poor solutions early, you can conduct more analysis and go deep to unearth the real nuggets of wisdom.

2. Data Analysis and Visualization

“In God we trust; all others, bring data.”

The Information Age is certainly upon us, and the zealous pursuit of fact-based perfect answers is tempting. However, the very sea of data which provides the ability to analyze our world also obscures our ability to discern the signal from the noise, and to make accurate decisions.

Fortunately, data visualization has emerged as an important element of data science, enabling insights from all the abundance of information.

We live in a world of data, and the ability to visualize this data and develop insights is critical to making improvements. The ability to visually represent your ideas with sound thinking and a compelling story will increase the impact of recommendations and make them more accessible and convincing.

You can think of data as the new oil of commerce. We are transitioning to a world full of data and analysis, and every professional, especially consultants, needs to be proficient in data analysis. This need for data expertise is not limited to traditionally professional fields—it is truly everywhere.

As a part-time farmer, I am amazed at the degree to which technology and data are driving the economics and outcomes of perhaps the oldest industry on our planet. From genetics to GPS, from seeds to statistics, farming is just as dependent on insights from data as other industry sectors.

Fortunately, there has been an explosion of writing and educational resources on data science, making it more accessible to a much broader group than the traditional academic and actuarial crowd.

If you are still in university, you can take an introductory course on the topic. If you are out of college, the internet has plenty of relevant courses and guides you can use to sharpen your data skills.

3. Relationship Management

Consultants sell a service, not a tangible product, and it is not a stretch to say that consultants sell themselves. This means their relationship with their client is everything. You must become customer centric, or in consulting parlance, ‘client-centric.’

Clients understand your value, at least in part, by both what you deliver and how you communicate that delivery. In other words, the experience. You want to make their experience a good one – empathetic, differentiated, and clearly valuable.

As a young consultant, your ability to develop strong client relationships is one of the best ways to accelerate your career and outshine others with more experience than you.

Even if you’re extremely gifted, there will always be colleagues with more talent and experience. However, if you can build strong relationships with clients, you can increase your impact and establish similar or even more value than more senior consultants. This meritocracy is what attracts young professionals to the best consulting firms.

4. Project Management

While relationships are client-centric ways to create connections and develop business, engagements actually create revenue for your firm.

The more projects you complete successfully, the more experience you gain, the more money and margin your firm makes, and the more valuable you are to the firm. Shakespeare said that “the play’s the thing” – for consultants, the project is the thing, the center of the consultant’s day-to-day world.

Project-based thinking is an effective way to conduct any initiative, instead of having a level of effort support structure. Project-based thinking means that there is a beginning and end, that there is clear scope and deliverables (how we know we are done), and that you can bring in team members with the strength and diversity needed to accomplish the task.

Other aspects of project management are time and money -- you have to consider a budget, a time frame, and the fact that every week, more information will come in and you will have to adjust your work plan. Projects require you to work with a sense of urgency. You must therefore know how to adopt a good plan, implement it, and execute quickly without any drop in quality.

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