Having a fresh college degree means one thing:
You know enough to get started in a profession, but not yet 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, while what you need to know to thrive is learned on the job (and yes, internships help).
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 or analyst that you can’t afford to miss out on. Over the course of more than two decades, I have trained, mentored, and managed thousands of consultants and seen how these foundational skills make or break their prospects to succeed.
If you jump into your career without a firm grasp of these four skills, you have little chance to succeed in consulting – at least, not without a lot of pain in the process.
1. Frameworks and estimation
Remember that as a consultant, you solve the problems that your clients cannot solve themselves, did not have sufficient resources to solve, or felt they needed an independent objective perspective.
You do not need to be a subject matter expert, but you need to understand how to think in a practical, fact-based manner and quickly convert to action.
Often, this means using 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 skills—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 initiative.
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 additional iterations. By eliminating poor solutions early, you focus attention on promising alternatives, conduct more productive analysis and go deeper to unearth the real insights.
Where you find these frameworks? All around. Your firm, industry and tech associations, leading academics, prominent publications – it is well worth your while to build your library of relevant frameworks. A simple search on “business frameworks” will provide more than you can ever use, but be careful to match a framework to your specific need. Some of the more useful frameworks show composition, like for an industry or technology architecture. Others aid in decisions – the three of the most popular ones are the decision matrix, driver tree, and hypothesis approach. I recommend you find these and incorporate them into your toolkit. They are covered in my book Consulting Essentials, and will be freely available in video format in the near future.
2. Data visualization
“In God we trust; all others, bring data.”
The Information Age is certainly upon us, and the zealous pursuit of ” perfect” fact-based 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 evolved as an important complement to data science, enabling insights from all that abundance of information.
We live in a world of data, and the ability to visualize this data and develop insights is critical to make 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, or better yet, the new silicon. 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 drive 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 published work 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 no doubt have already taken an introductory course on the topic (if not, do so now). If you are out of college, there are plenty of relevant courses and guides you can use to sharpen your data skills, including respected certifications from massive open online course (MOOC), like Coursera, Udemy, or Udacity – or even online programs from traditional universities.
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 content-based relationships with clients, you will increase your impact and create similar or even more value than more senior consultants. This meritocracy is what attracts young professionals to the best consulting firms.
What does this look like in real life? Back in 2005 a small group of us at Infosys decided to create a manifesto for how a consulting firm should behave, with client service as the cornerstone. Much like Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry McGuire, “Consulting the Infosys Way” became a manifesto that still resonates to this day. It is taught to new consultants today, and is currently available in the appendix of Consulting Essentials.
4. Project-based thinking
While relationships are the client-centric path to create connections and develop business, projects (or engagements) actually create revenue for your firm. If you are an analyst or internal consultant, engagements create growth opportunities or reduce costs as well.
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 — the ultimate virtuous cycle. 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” organizational and operating model. 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.
The world of projects has evolved from linear, so-called waterfall thinking to an agile, iterative model. This is similar to the process of developing insights themselves, as the research-analyze-interpret cycle is seldom one-and-done. Each of the four skills above complement and fortify an agile approach, and this has become the dominant business mindset.
While mastery takes time, consultants will accelerate their professional development and increase sense of fulfillment by adopting these four skills as soon as possible. While it is easy to focus on the outcome, the very process of developing these skills is rewarding in itself, and a way to get going in the world of consulting with a strong foundation.
For more details on the skills above, see Consulting Essentials (Lioncrest, 2018).