If you have had the opportunity to work with many consultants in your career you have most likely experienced a lot of mediocrity or perhaps worse. But if you’ve had the opportunity to work with a really skilled consultant, the contrast is remarkable. So what is it that defines the top 10% of consultants from the rest? What are the important traits that elevate basic competence to excellence? Having spent nearly 30 years of my professional life either consulting or managing consultants, I’ve seen a lot of the good, the bad and the ugly. In looking for the differentiating factors I have observed that the best consultants have some common traits that set them apart from the pack. For those lacking these, success will be marginal at best.
Great Communicator – The necessity of this trait should be obvious to all. However, a really great communicator is more than a good listener, speaker or writer. True masters of communication are able to convey ideas and information equally effectively in any situation. Good news, for example, is always easier to deliver than bad news. When the situation is challenging, how one communicates is as important as what is communicated. Great communicators can appropriately adapt or modulate style and delivery based on what the circumstance requires. This is the art of communication, but without the ability to accurately read the situations and the people involved, it’s a crap shoot.
Relationship Builder – Consultants are in the people business and therefore relationships drive everything. Relationships take many forms and great consultants have mastered the art of relationship building. The consultant’s goal in building strong relationships is not to be every client’s best friend. However, it would be pretty challenging to get great results with a client that really doesn’t like the consultant. The measure of quality in relationships depends on the type of relationship. For example what defines the quality of the relationship you have with your family doctor is probably different from that of the barista in your favorite coffee shop. Great consultants recognize that relationships with their clients depend mostly on trust. Quickly establishing trust is the first essential step in building relationships. Until this happens, the relationship cannot develop with any substantial depth.
Empathetic Objectivity – Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another and to imagine oneself in their situation. For consultants, the lack of empathy for the client is a problem. Without empathy the client will accurately perceive a lack of caring and this is an obvious obstacle for building a strong relationship. Great consultants have genuine empathy for their clients, but at the same time, they maintain objectivity. Feeling the client’s pain is of little consequence if the consultant cannot affect positive change and objectivity is essential for envisioning solutions.
Anticipator – A great consultant seems to have a “sixth sense” about what a client will need or will expect in any situation. This trait is visible in many ways. It means anticipating client questions before they are asked, or anticipating where the risks or roadblocks will likely appear in any given project. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what contributes to this sixth sense but it most certainly requires experience, intuition and a healthy measure of common sense. Whatever the source, it is a defining trait of great consultants.
Translator – Great consultants have the ability to bridge gaps in understanding by serving in the role of translator for disparate groups of individuals within organizations. A common example is with IT and Business professionals. Effective translators must understand the language and customs of both groups as to convey meaning and achieve understanding in either direction in the conversation. But to ensure that nothing gets lost in the translation one must understand more than the language. One must understand the broader context of the conversation from both perspectives. This allows the translator to actually enrich the exchange by filling in any missing elements of the discussion that might otherwise be left to implication. Great consultants understand the agendas, motivations, fears and aspiration of the people involved and thus can facilitate the interactions to achieve the desired outcomes.
In summary, there are many traits that define the top 10% of consultants. Individuals have unique styles and capabilities, but in my experience, the five traits defined here are essential for the best of the best. The challenge is determining upfront whether a consultant you are considering hiring has the important qualities. Consider asking the consultant you are considering hiring what are the most important traits of a great consultant and how he or she measures up in this regard.