I was involved in a conversation the other day about what differentiates a consultant from a non-consultant.
If you asked a non-consultant, perhaps the first answer you’d get is that there must be a prerequisite for arrogance in order to be a consultant. I’ve met my share of consultants who are condescending to their clients and think that they know so much more than their clients. These are not what the consulting industry considers good consultants.
Some people, both on the client and consulting sides might say that consultants are smarter. It’s true that consulting firms recruit MBAs from top universities and often select only the top levels of GPAs. But a high GPA from a top school doesn’t always translate into smarter. I know some people with no more than a high school education who are much more intelligent and interesting than some MBAs that I know.
The difference between consultants and employees
So what sets a consultant apart from a non-consultant? What makes a firm select one person over another when they have similar education and experience levels?
If a non-consulting company is interviewing candidates for a programmer, they may look for someone who has extensive experience programming in a specific language. They may want some experience in their industry as well. Other traits they might look for are the candidate’s ability to work with a team and have knowledge of databases and other environmental aspects.
The consulting firm is likely to look for the same things. But there is an additional set of skills they will be watching for in the interview. While a non-consulting firm wants people who can work as a team, that team is probably internal employees. The consulting firm will have this programmer working at a client site among the client’s employees.
As a result, the consulting firm wants to be sure that this person has the people skills to put this person in front of the client. A programmer isn’t a sales person and may not have any responsibilities for sales quotas. But in consulting, you’re always selling. You may not be hawking a new service or presenting a proposal for a project, but everything you do and say represents the firm. If you’re abrasive, opinionated or unpleasant in any way, being the best programmer on the planet won’t help you obtain a consulting position.
The firm will look for the candidate’s awareness of client perception. A good consultant has skills that are part PR and part diplomat. When the client is upset, the consultant knows how to talk the client off the ledge and resolve the issue satisfactorily. When the client interrupts the consultant for a question, she will patiently listen to the question and do what she can to answer his question.
Consulting firms also look for a certain passion and intensity. Consultants are hired because they solve problems for the client and they get the job done. A consultant sitting side-by-side with a client employee may be just as smart and just as skilled. But when the client employee goes home at 5:00, the consultant is expected to stay until job gets done and the problem is resolved.
I was once working at a client site where the partner’s son visited. He walked down the hall where he was directed and walked into our room. He said he knew when he had gotten to the right room because we were working with more intensity than any other team.
Consulting firms recruit workers from the same pool of candidates that all other employers recruit. They look for many of the same skills in their candidates. But they also want a certain level of soft skills that aren’t always necessary for a job in other industries. Consultants are held accountable for more responsibilities. They’re expected to think on their feet and not get flustered in difficult conversations with clients.
One caveat here – these are strictly generalizations. I’ve met client employees that would make excellent consultants. I’ve also met consultants that are plenty good at what they do, but don’t have the soft skills required to be a good consultant. Sometimes those client employees move into consulting positions. Other times they don’t have any interest and become very successful in their own industry.
The consultants without the soft skills rarely last long in consulting. They made it past the interviewing process, but just didn’t have what it takes to do all aspects of the job.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.