So, you want to be a consultant. Or you already are one and want to elevate your game.
In consulting, things are constantly changing, so remaining flexible and adaptable cannot be understated. You could be on a project that is politically charged, highly complex, or worse — downright boring. You may need to pivot to an entirely new role or industry and hit the ground running. Or perhaps, you get notified of an assignment with short notice and need to book a flight for the following day. Whatever the situation, get accustomed to constant change, uncertainty, and tremendous growth. Consulting is not for the faint of heart. The critical skills you gain as a consultant will empower you throughout your career and life.
How to Be a Great Consultant
Consulting firms often use the “airport test” during interviews. They imagine what it might be like if a flight is delayed and they are stuck with you at the airport (which could happen). If you are likeable, adaptable, and can function well under pressure, you are probably a decent travel companion and well-suited for a career in consulting.
How resilient are you, and how well do you adapt to change? If you can learn how to deal with a myriad of situations, you can become a nimble and sought-after consultant.
When I first started my consulting career, I did everything from polishing PowerPoint files ad nauseum to leading immersive global workshops. It was an exciting time where I could expense my meals, collect travel points (which I never used), and build an incredible network and portfolio. Across each project, we met aggressive timelines with long hours and late-night conference calls, demonstrating our unwavering commitment. Over the course of three years on a particularly challenging project, there was one stroke and several divorces. Lesson learned: keep things in perspective when you are in consulting. Think about your longevity and what you want to get out of each opportunity, whether you make it to Partner or decide to venture elsewhere. There is no right or wrong, good or bad. There are only experiences and what we make of them.
There is no right or wrong, good or bad. There are only experiences and what we make of them.
Below I share additional tips and strategies on how to be a great consultant, based on over two decades of consulting experience.
To Be a Great Consultant, Be Steps Ahead
Think how you might be able to add value quickly and be a culture-add, not just a culture-fit. What will you bring to the table and how will you add value to a project team?
- Always be a few steps ahead of the client. That includes a step up in dress code (at least initially), and a few steps ahead in problem-solving. Anticipate what questions might come up and be prepared. Do your research and learn more about the client, industry, history, etc.
- Ask thoughtful questions and also have a point of view — but don’t be a know-it-all. Remain curious and humble. Do not be afraid to admit if you do not know something
- Be adaptable, as things can change and you may need to pivot direction. Handle change in stride and explore why the change is being implemented. Think like a detective; your role is to be curious, open, connect abstract dots, and share a perspective that is well thought-out
- Deliver great work. Always. Roll up your sleeves and do not shy away from hard work. Don’t just be a consultant that can talk and give advice — execute and do the work
- Take notes and stay organized
- Listen. A lot
Be Resourceful and Empathetic
- Be creative and resourceful. Know where to go to for help
- Develop emotional and social intelligence, starting with self-awareness. Understand your triggers and how to manage your own emotions, then you can learn to recognize emotions in others
- Work on your communication, presentation, and critical thinking skills
- Empathize with the client and their pain points. Learn about their perspectives, what they care about, and why
Be Collaborative and Relationship-Oriented
- Build genuine relationships and trust by showing up authentically. Relationships are invaluable and will outlast any project. Therefore, pick and choose your battles and always take the high road
- Be a team player. Collaboration is key, including learning how to work with different personalities
- Integrate into the client’s culture while respecting boundaries
- Communicate consistently and clearly. Determine the appropriate communication method and cadence. Email can be great; jumping on a quick call might be more effective in certain situations. When in doubt, overcommunicate
- Network. Even after landing a project, keep networking and cultivating relationships. You never know where your next project will come from. Through networking you can meet friends and mentors, become a mentor, and find new opportunities
Be Reliable and Memorable
- Follow up and follow through. Your reliability, consistency, and integrity will take you far and become part of your professional brand
- Check your work. Quality of work is a reflection of your work ethic and attention to detail
- Be known for something. What is your thought leadership? What problems do you solve? This will evolve as you evolve
If you can think like a consultant and elevate your human-centric skills, you can create lasting impact and become a valuable asset to any organization. Carve out time for self-care, maintain a sense of humor, and remember the bigger picture. It is perfectly fine if after a few years you decide consulting is not for you. Make the most of the experience while you are in it, and use it as a launchpad for your next endeavor. The consulting lifestyle can be challenging at times, so lean into relationships, take learnings with you, and enjoy the journey.
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Copyright © Manisha Dhawan. All rights reserved.
Manisha Dhawan, Founder and CEO of MPath Coaching, is a certified professional coach (CPC), MBA and management consultant with 2 decades of experience leading digital innovation and change management initiatives across multiple industries. As a design thinking specialist and lifelong learner, Manisha is passionate about empowering executives to advance leadership skills, maximize team potential, and drive innovation forward. In addition to corporate coaching, Manisha works with professionals on career strategy and human skills development.