What are the key skills a consultant should have to succeed? When I thought about it in my early days as a consultant at BCG, I considered mainly quantitative ones, I thought that being strong with numbers would have ensured be success, at least for my first two years as an associate - my focus was then mainly learning how to build great, rock-solid Excel models.
However, I soon discovered that interpersonal/soft skills are instead the real challenge for each and any new consultant. Ultimately as a consultant, you deal with different stakeholders all the time: clients, team members, your project leader, the partners etc. You need to communicate well, and it involves more effort than you might anticipate.
When I joined BCG I thought I already nailed my interpersonal skills just for being empathetic and extroverted and I thought this would have sufficed to survive along my first months in BCG. I quickly learned that I was totally wrong and huge steps were still needed to master the key soft skills of strategic consultants.
Below are the 3 key interpersonal/soft skills that any good consultant possess:
1. Ask Questions and Think Critically
In a consultancy team, normally each person has a module he/she is following. A module is a piece of project that YOU are responsible for. The quality of a project depends on how well these modules are being executed.
Take responsibility of your module and think critically. Do not just passively do everything your boss asks you to do. Think critically about the main problem you need to solve in your module, the different approaches to solve it and discuss it with your project leader. Ask yourself, “How is my module going to help the project as a whole and the client? Why is this problem I am solving a priority? Or maybe we should prioritize other problems first?”
Your project leader is smart however he/she does not necessary have all the right answers and the right questions, so it is your responsibility to help him/her to think critically about the project and especially about your own module.
2. Ability to Set Expectations – Under Promise and Over Deliver
Sometimes your boss will give you a huge task with really tight deadline and you, driven by your good intention to show your competence, might just reply “Yes, sure! I can do that! You can count on me.” - before even thinking about the steps you need to take to delivery this task and how long it will really take. DO NOT DO THAT!!
It could happen that later on when your Project Leader will ask you about the deliverable you might reply, “Well, actually, you know… it was harder than I initially thought and I need a few more days to finish it.”
Now put yourself in your boss’ shoes. First, you screwed up his project planning (he probably counted on your expected deadline to start new interdependent activities); second he/she might now lose the trust in you and in your ability to set deadlines and start to micro-manage your piece of work. So try to follow the steps bellow:
Make sure you understand what is expected from you. Ask your boss to confirm what problem he/she wants you to solve. Make sure you understand the required deliverable. If necessary, discuss with him/her different approaches to do the task.
Plan in your head what steps you need to take to deliver the task and how long it will take to you to finish it.
Prefer to under promise and over deliver – we tend to be optimistic sometimes about deadlines. Try to be a bit conservative in order to avoid not meeting your deadlines regularly. If you believe it will take you 2 days to build some analyzes, say it will take you 2.5 days, so if things go wrong you still have 0.5 day of buffer to fix it. It’s better to spend time negotiating deadline at the beginning than justifying yourself later.
If necessary negotiate – if the deadline is not negotiable, negotiate the scope of deliverable or the approach to solve it. “Ok, so you want me to do Task A in 3 days. With the approach we discussed, it will actually take me 5 days to complete the task. However, I believe I can solve this problem by your deadline with a different and simpler approach. Would this be fine for you?”
If necessary, raise a yellow flag ASAP. If in the middle of the task you see you won’t be able to reach the deadline, let your boss know. Talk to him/her to renegotiate the deadline or the scope of deliverable.
By delivering what you promised on time you will gain trust from your bosses and co-workers.
3. Be Concise/Organize Your Thoughts Before Talking or Writing an E-Mail
Your project leader, team and client do not have all the time in the world. So when communicating with them, try to be concise, direct, and straight to the point. This way you'll help them save time and understand you better.
When you force yourself to be more concise you are also forcing yourself to organize your thoughts better before sharing them with the world. Believe me, nothing is more boring than listening to a person talking for minutes and realizing that he/she is completely lost in his/her ideas.
Try to organize your thoughts in your head before talking. If you need to write e-mail with a lot of different ideas, try using bullet points to make it easier to read. Being concise and straight to the point will also help you craft better presentations.
Besides honing your technical skills, don’t forget about your soft ones! Those interpersonal skills are the ones that will ultimately differentiate you from the others and help you advance in your career.
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