I was in the reception area of the Melbourne, Australia office of a global strategy consulting firm, and it took me precisely two seconds to realize that the three well-pressed young professionals were from my alma mater, there for their second or third round of recruitment interviews (with those dreaded case studies).
This got me thinking… It’s been 100+ years since management consulting has come into being, and the profession remains as popular as ever. Each year, thousands of aspiring consultants apply for roles in the many firms, knowing that only a small percentage of the candidates will be accepted into the profession—especially into the most prestigious firms. Yet for most, the tenure in the profession is short-lived. Some candidates self-select out. For many, the decision is made for them. So, I couldn’t help but wonder: What makes a great consultant?
First—there are minimum qualifying attributes. Consultants need to be smart, well-educated, articulate, self-confident and ‘business ready.’ But those attributes are simply the ‘ticket to the dance’ when firms charge their Day 1 consultants out at per diems of $2,000 to $5,000. What else is required for long term success? As a consultant who has recruited and mentored many consultants, and more recently a corporate executive who has hired consultants, I believe 10 personal attributes matter:
Consulting is about problem-solving, and great consultants have insatiable curiosity in their DNA. They are constantly thinking about what the real problem is (“what is the question”), what’s causing it and how best to crack it. This is regardless as to type of issue —strategic, financial, people, program management or implementation. They are therefore unafraid to ask questions—typically high level to begin with, and progressively incisive. And clients love it when the deep curiosity extends to trying to solve their problems! One bit of 360 feedback I received years ago was that having dinner with me felt like being interviewed—both interesting and exhausting. I took it mainly as a compliment! I’ve tried to tone it down over the years, but it’s hard when the subject or topic is fascinating.
2. Structured Thinking and Communication
Prospective strategy consultants are tested for their structured thinking during recruitment via case studies, but ultimately all consultants must be strong on this attribute that is critical to problem-solving. It’s the ability to diagnose the issue, frame the question, form a hypothesis then structure an approach and work plan to solve it. This skill is also fundamental to recommending and implementing. Structured communication is also important—which is the ability to communicate succinctly and precisely. It’s a skill that is perhaps more important than ever, in the digital age of short attention spans. Thankfully it can be taught. The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto is a method.
3. Ability to Iteratively Deep Dive and Abstract
This attribute is key to both developing great insights (the key to much consulting) and communication. It incorporates the ability to dive into the detail (whether it’s data, regulation or a project plan) then constantly ask “so what” and use that to drive further analyses. This constant iteration hones application of the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 rule) that is applied to most consulting work. It’s an attribute that can thankfully be practised and is, when junior consultants are asked the “so what” question by their Case or Module Leader daily.
4. Tenacity and Stamina
Consulting is made for A-type people, who tend to have large doses of tenacity and stamina. But gosh does the profession force consultants to exercise these ‘muscles’! From their first day in consulting to their last, tenacity and resourcefulness is required in activities from data collection to business development, and consultants must have the mental and physical stamina to keep this going. Resilience is important too. Consultants get knocked-back constantly—by uncooperative subjects and even data, and they lose competitive bids more often than they’d like. To survive, they must pick themselves up and keep going. As the saying goes: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”
5. Continuous Self-Improvement
Skill and knowledge acquisition are important in the medium to long term. Consultants are paid for this, and they need to be half a step ahead if they are going to be advising their clients. Long-term consultants not only keep their learning, but also reinvent themselves periodically, in response to market conditions and trends. Reflecting on my own experience. I’ve moved from focusing on mining, to government and more recently telecommunications. And like most consultants now—I’m focusing on the rapidly evolving digital landscape and technologies. Being contemporary and on top of what’s happening is vital.
6. Emotional Intelligence, Empathy & Likeability
These attributes tend to be much stronger in change and people consultants than, say technology or strategy consultants—who tend to be valued for other attributes early in their career. But ultimately, a long career demands it of all consultants. There are several reasons for this. First—consultants are always dealing with clients and working in teams. “Could you survive three months in a coal mine with this candidate?” was actually a recruitment criteria we applied at one firm. Second—the biggest issues to successful implementation tend to be people-oriented. As the Head of DevOps at a large telecommunications company recently told me: “It amazes me how people still believe that successful technology implementation has to do with the technology itself”. Finally—account management and business development require building strong rapport and trust, only possible via strong EQ and empathy skills.
7. Team Playing
This is clearly associated with people skills but is important enough to call out separately. Consultants work in project teams, account teams, sales teams and later leadership teams, and often under tight deadlines and pressure. Non-team players cause friction and drag performance down. They tend to be culled quickly, or if they are senior—isolated; which is not a recipe for happiness or success.
8. Delivery Management
Ultimately, consultants are measured on their output and outcomes. This means delivering high quality work on time and budget. Things rarely go to plan on any project. The client changes his mind part-way through the project, team members fall ill and need to be substituted, the promised client resources and data aren’t delivered … or the duration could suddenly be shortened (“Can we bring the deadlines forward to accommodate the CEO’s holiday plans?” Answer, “Of course!”). Good consultants will have contingency plans, but will inevitably need to adapt mid-course and still deliver the expected goods.
9. Point of Difference
Each consultant needs to be famous for something, and this requirement increases with seniority. Clients want to be provided the best people, and the expertise of senior consultants must be demonstrable. This then translates to the requirement within firms. Client demand begets further opportunities as colleagues then want such individuals on their teams. Industry knowledge tends to be most valued by clients unless a competency is ‘hot’—block chain or RPA (robotic process automation) expertise.
Then, there’s judgement. It’s probably the hardest to test for until you observe it. Good judgement requires the attributes of 1-9 combined with good decision-making. Successful consultants have good judgement in abundance.
Finally, for the three aspiring consultants whom I saw at in that office, I hope you nailed the interviews and achieve your goal of being a strategy consultant. You’ll be in for one hell of a ride, but it will be fun. And maybe one day you can tell me if I’ve got these ten attributes right.
Mithran Doraisamy is a long-time consultant and a corporate executive. A co-founder and senior Partner of EY’s consulting practice in Australia and the Asia-Pacific, he is now an independent advisor.