Being a Better Consultant (Part 1)

I’ve been working as a consultant for almost 15 years now … Throughout these years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with the “BIG 4” as well as the mid-tier service / delivery providers and Indian outsourcing organisations.

What occurs to me is that very few people have mastered the art of consultancy. Employees of the consultancy firms are often so focussed on achieving Partner status that they forget their primary purpose – THE CUSTOMER.

While considering my own thoughts … I came across an article which I thought I’d share while I gather my own thoughts and describe my own observations, insights and recommendations.


Craig Curran-Morton

February 24, 2011

As 2010 came to an end, I began to reflect on the role that I am currently playing in my new company–and the role I have been playing for the last decade. I have been a supporter to others; most of the work I do is to design and build things that will assist others in their roles. I am–for lack of a better term–very much a consultant.

For the longest time, I played the role of external consultant and, recently in the last year, took on the role of internal consultant. I assist in helping solve other people’s problems. A company needs to better manage its projects. I help them build a project framework to identify, manage and implement their projects. An HR department needs a consistent hiring process. I coordinate the documentation of a hire-on process and a hire-on package. When the project and operations teams are at odds over perceived problems, I facilitate the conversations to create a shared understanding of the problem and the possible solutions. I help other people do their work more effectively and efficiently.

I love the role that I play. If you are reading this, you may also be a consultant. You may cringe at the term. So let’s not worry too much about the language. Call yourself a consultant, partner, facilitator, supporter, project manager or something else. You may do work for other companies or support others in your own company. You may be inter-departmental or intra. Regardless of the terms and your place, the role is the same or very similar. You are there to help others overcome challenges. Over the years, I have compiled a list of the key concepts that I feel have helped me immeasurably in helping my clients–and helping me cope with my clients. I would like to share them with you.

To be effective in my role, I need to respect my client. I need to respect the situation they are in. If they did not have a problem, I probably wouldn’t have a job and that would not benefit me at all. Moreover, they are turning to me to assist them in solving their problem. They are taking a big step in admitting they have a problem and that I can help them. That deserves my respect.

My client will often have ideas of their own as to what they think the solution could or should be. The ideas may be crazy–based on a utopian reality that will never exist–or the idea may be a train wreck waiting to be implemented. I need to respect their ideas and their thought process. Respecting an idea does not mean I have to like it or even support it. It means I can at least acknowledge it. Finally, regardless of all of the work I have done to create and build the world’s greatest solution, I need to respect their decision to implement it or not implement it. It is their decision to move forward with a solution and do something with it, not mine.

A good friend of my mine once told me, “Your client makes the decisions that they feel are the best decisions for them at that time.” If my client does not feel comfortable enough to implement or move forward with what I have developed, it’s very frustrating. I used to beat myself up over this, spending hours lamenting my existence (and the existence of my client). How could they be so stupid? Can’t they see the value in what I have produced? What should I do? Why doesn’t my client get it? How much louder or more slowly do I need to speak for them to get it? Aargh!

However, once I realized that I needed to respect my client’s decisions, it made my life a lot simpler. I respected their role in our relationship. This did not mean that I did nothing to better understand my client’s decision and to work to overcome their concerns; I did. However, I had to respect their decisions. At the end of the day, the client is the one who needs to take ownership of what has been created and implement it. If I don’t respect my client and the role they play in our relationship, my engagement is doomed.

To be good in my role, I need to listen to my client. Often, the most rewarding conversations I have occur when I simply shut up and listen to what they say. As a consultant, my key strength is my ability to listen and to truly hear what my client and others in the organization are saying–and what their words are telling me. I listen in order to better understand their hopes, desires and dreams, along with their frustrations, fears and conflicts. By listening, I help to create trust.

Often, my client is looking for a safe shelter to be able to express their real challenges. If I sit and listen to what they are telling me, I will gain better insight into what is driving them and what they want from the engagement. Unfortunately, in the past I have often viewed my consultant role as that of a talker. I felt I was hired to fill the void of knowledge. I would purport on all that I knew. I would fill any uncomfortable silences with my speech in an effort to fill the void. I would worry that the client would think that I was an idiot if I didn’t have something to say, or offer an instant solution to the problem. As I have grown in my role, I have become more confident in my ability to listen to my client and have realized that it is not about what I know or how I can solve their problems. At the end of the day, if I don’t listen to my client, how do I know what they are saying?

Ask Questions
I have been told in the past that the question is far more powerful than any answer. As I continue on my path as a consultant, I am continually reminded of how very true this statement is. In my eyes, the ability to ask questions is something that defines most successful consultants. Questions such as:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • Can you tell me more?
  • What does success look like to you?
  • Who needs to be involved in these discussions?

These simple questions have led me to some fascinating and fantastic conversations with clients. For me, a well-placed question has power for a number of reasons. First, it helps me clarify my understanding of what the client wants and needs. If I am painting a picture based on what someone is telling me, I am able to both dramatically alter what the painting should look like and then begin to fill in the black-and-white outline with color. Consider me a blank canvas. If by the end of a conversation (or series of conversations) I have painted a picture of what you want, it becomes a great starting point for real progress.

More importantly, however, a good question helps the client clarify what they want in their own heads. Clients will often come with complex problems woven together like a tangled web. Through questions, I can help them to simplify the complexity and allow them to see the problem more clearly. In the end, questions result in a world of possibilities as the door is opened a little (or a lot) with each question that is asked. I have come across a handful of people that are particularly adept at asking the right question at the right time and have seen the dynamics in the room change in an instant as a result. While this is not always the goal nor is it always possible, it reinforces the power of the question you need to ask.

In my next article, I will be examining the importance of setting and managing expectations with clients and other stakeholders, producing actual deliverables of substance and spending time in the trenches–not just sitting in your office.

Copyright © 2011 All rights reserved.

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