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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Life in Consulting

On Friday I'm giving a guest lecture to a "Consultation Skills" class at Northeastern University. The communications and business students want to know what it takes to succeed in consulting, how they should get started, and some color commentary on my 25 year consulting career.

Here's what I plan to tell them.

First off, I never planned to be a consultant. I left a promising corporate communications position at AT&T's Western Electric division and headed up to Madison Ave. to work for a public affairs/crisis communications consulting firm on the advice of a respected -- and often feared -- executive who thought all ambitious people should be connected to revenue vs. overhead. And corporate communications to him was big time overhead.

I found that I thrived on working with demanding clients, being under the gun to deliver position papers, executive speeches and interviews with The New York Times, and being recognized and promoted for the value of my ideas vs. politics and time in position metrics.

Indeed, what makes consultants successful -- and different from their corporate brethren -- is that they are very good at quickly diagnosing problems and providing ways to solve them. Chaos, complexity, urgency, uncertainty doesn't phase a good consultant. But routine, process management, and operational minutiae certainly does.

There's a difference: contractors vs. trainers vs. consultants
Trainers teach skills. Contractors are extra hands to get work done. Consultants help cut through the organizational clutter and quickly frame problems and provide ideas on how to effectively and quickly solve them. Or they have specialized expertise for especially thorny problems. Some thorny situations I've been asked to address recently:

  • We spend $15 million a year on sales materials but the sales reps don't use them. What's wrong and how do we solve it?
  • Investors don't understand how our strategy fits within the competitive landscape. How can we explain our growth strategy so they get it?
  • Employees are leaving since the merger because they have no confidence in the new management team. What should the CEO do?
  • We just spent a year and $350,000 on a new brand strategy but our sales reps don't know how to talk about it with customers.
  • We're starting to be attacked by community leaders, politicians and major funders. How can we diffuse the crisis and help them understand why we're doing what we're doing?
  • We spend $10 million on PR agencies but the performance is lacking. Is it us? Is the agencies? How do we know we're getting value?

The 13 most important traits for a consultant:

  1. Expertise that provides real business value
  2. Ability to cut to the core of an issue or situation and diagnose causes of the problem
  3. Creative thinking to develop pragmatic ways to solve the problem
  4. Outstanding oral and written communications skills
  5. Responsiveness
  6. Perspective
  7. Influence
  8. Confidence & self-esteem
  9. Intellectual curiosity
  10. Thick skin (clients pay you to be frank, but they'll often push back and challenge, as they should. You can't take it too personally.)
  11. Fearlessness
  12. Flexibility to create "work arounds" to deliver value within every client's realities
  13. Integrity. A consultant's only asset is her/his reputation.

How to succeed in consulting by really trying

  • When job hunting early in your career, look to work for the most demanding, smart, respected and disciplined manager. You don't need nice. You don't need a pal. You need someone from whom you'll learn.
  • For communications majors, consider starting out by working for a political campaign, a national political representative, or a crisis communications agency.
  • Do two career-related things every year that scare you. Give a speech. Write an article. Volunteer to help a highly visible NGO launch a campaign. You'll learn a lot and build your self-confidence.
  • Know your way around a 10K. If you can talk numbers, people listen to the other ideas you have. I was in a meeting recently where a CFO of a large publicly traded firm remarked that I was the smartest marketing person he had ever met. Interestingly, I don't think we ever had a conversation about marketing. We were just talking financials, but I earned my credibility from being number savvy.
  • Read. The Wall St. Journal. Harvard Business Review. Fortune. The Economist. Sports Illustrated (the best writing although I'm no sports fan) and Entertainment Weekly (because we all need a little fun)
  • Follow stories and trends from your consulting perspective. For example, there's no more fun for me as a communications consultant than the presidential elections. Aside from feeling for the shareholders who were hurt, I also really enjoyed following Tyco, Enron, MCI and AIG from crisis and executive communications perspectives. Harvard President Larry Summers is a fascinating leadership communications subject right now. (Plus I think he really understands how the power of influencers.)
  • If you want to become an expert in an area, sign up to teach a class. The needed research and preparation before you get up in front of a class will teach you things you never knew before.
  • Never stop challenging yourself. Clients have said I'm like a Navy Seal -- equipped to conduct intense, special assignments that are beyond the capabilities of the existing resources. So like a Navy Seal, I train constantly, learning about new ideas, staying up on trends, and caring for my mental and physical well being.

I have a passion for consulting. I dislike the occasional periods between assignments and some of the work it takes to develop new business. But, overall, a life in consulting is an ideal life for insatiable curious, problems solvers like me.


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