Really skilled management consultants typically have some common traits stemming from years of experience and hard-won lessons acquired from advising clients on a spectrum of unique issues and opportunities. The great ones stand out specifically because they create tangible results and nurture mutually beneficial (and ideally enjoyable) relationships that deliver value time and time again. From our collective 4 decades of experience working as, and working with a wide range of management consultants, these are the top 6 characteristics you should be looking for.
1.They make understanding their customer’s business and specific issues their first priority.
It's probably not a surprise to you that this is the first characteristic on our list. Clearly, understanding a customer's business and providing appropriate advice based on that understanding is the cornerstone of good management consulting.
How can you tell if a management consultant knows your business? The best gauge is the questions they ask during the sales process. While no one will know your business immediately, the questions the consultant asks will show you if they're on the right track. Industry specialists may be able to bring a higher level of understanding in the door with them, while generalists will have more homework to do, but may be more adept at seeing and solving problems and opportunities in new ways.
Beware of consultants who offer a diagnosis before performing an examination—they're not interested in knowing your business, they're interested in selling you something. A good management consultant also realizes that they will never know your business better than you do, but balances that reality with the fact that you need them to offer new perspectives and strong opinions to help you make meaningful, informed decisions that will move your business forward.
2. They offer a range of possible solutions rather than singular options or directions.
Everyone likes options. A good management consultant will help solve problems by providing a series of options and detailing the pros and cons of each. While your consultant may have a good insight into your business, they will never have the 360 degree view of your company that you do. A good consultant will provide options that:
have varying costs of implementation
have varying degrees of risk and reward
take into account your overall business strategy and tactics
integrate with other functions of your company (e.g. - marketing options that take into account your financial strategy)
Smart consultants understand that they are offering a unique perspective, but that they do not have to live with the long-term outcomes of their work like you do, and so offer a range of solutions that fit your personal and corporate risk profile and comfort level.
3. They see the world in greyscale
Businesses that are most successful are those that see the infinite shades of grey in the world and develop strategies to exploit them. The same should go for your consulting partners. The ability to see in greyscale means the ability to advise you in the nuances that might make the difference between good and great. And this ability is often a function of experience. In this way, working with seasoned consultants offers some significant benefits, and this is often a good reason to look for a small or mid-sized firm where you can work directly with a partner. Many larger consultancies send their experienced people out on sales calls and then turn around and send the younger, less-experienced consultants out to do the work. Hiring a management consultant is like hiring an employee—make sure you know who you'll be working with and what they can do.
Regardless of who you work with, avoid consultants who tell you that their recommendation worked for another customer and thus, it will work for you. Small and mid-market companies need to be agile, nimble and different than their larger competitors. If a consultant can't see how you’re different and present options that exploit that differentiation, he or she is useless to you.
4. They can translate theory into reality.
Management consults are somewhat renowned for being very good at billing time and creating reports, but not at really delivering measurable results. In all fairness, the good ones do both well. Theory and conceptual design is incredibly powerful, but only if you can actually execute on it.
A good management consulting partner will help you build innovative ideas into real-world outputs. Look for a firm that can move comfortably between the conceptual and the tactical and effectively evaluate your ability to execute on the strategies and innovations being recommended.
5. They look for opportunities to help your business beyond the engagement.
A good consultant will have a broad network or clients and partners and will use those relationships as a catalyst to help your business thrive. Whether it's introducing you to a potential customer, partner, or key hire, a good consultant understands your business and needs in a way that few others do and will help connect you with win-win relationships that can drive performance and growth.
While this isn’t a primary driver of value for a consulting relationship, it is another sign that the partner you are working with is serving others well and adding value to a wide range of people and relationships. That’s a strong proxy indicator of the kind of good work and positive relational skills that drive long-term mutual value between clients and consultants.
6. They care more about the outcomes than the process.
Management consulting excels at adding value when your consulting partner puts your interests ahead of their own and works toward performance outcomes rather than a time commitment. Look for consulting partners who share your values and business philosophy. What better professional situation can there be than working with a group of strategic partners who are aligned to your values and goals and who work hard to help you grow and outperform the competition?
A good way to determine this early on is by the relationship they are seeking to structure with you. Is it time-based or value-based? Look for partners who are willing to structure a relationship so that neither of you feels like you’re “on the clock”, but instead are working to solve problems and leverage opportunities collaboratively toward a shared end-goal.
A good management consultant is worth her weight in gold. Look for consultants that seek to learn your business and provide options in the way you want to see them. The best consultants know their business. But more importantly they know how to help you develop strategies and tactics that further the achievement of your business goals.
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