Consulting Insights: Managing Expectations as a Staff Consultant

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The pressure-paced nature of consulting isn’t exactly portrayed accurately in TV shows like House of Lies. The constant planning and re-planning of delivery, the effects of jet life and time zone shifts, and the challenges of client interaction and relationship building are often overlooked by us newbies. The world of binary mathematics, custom development and […]

The pressure-paced nature of consulting isn’t exactly portrayed accurately in TV shows like House of Lies. The constant planning and re-planning of delivery, the effects of jet life and time zone shifts, and the challenges of client interaction and relationship building are often overlooked by us newbies. The world of binary mathematics, custom development and coding, and tech jargon is a load of uncharted territory for some of us “unshore” folks. Admittedly, not many careers can draw a moment’s comparison to the grind of IT consulting. Lots of these realities hit me when I began my first project, and I thought you might appreciate me sharing some insights I’ve gained over the last 8 weeks working at TOMS Shoes in LA. If nothing else, I hope I can provide some food for thought and help shape expectations for new hire staff consultants.
Be prepared to be treated like a staff consultant
For the really ambitious this may be bothersome, but when you think about it, all work requires some degree of grunt work and people at all levels are grunts to some extent. Everyone’s feeling the pressure: Staff consultants have senior consultants pushing them to analyze at a more “senior” level; senior consultants have managers pushing them to embrace manager roles; the managers face pressure from senior engagement mangers pressuring them to control the scope of delivery more tightly; senior managers are pressured to boost QUALS and close deals; the VPs and Principals are pressured to grow their practices and drive benefit from “Papa Paul”; and our CEO Paul Hermelin, of course, has shareholders to appease. So the idea is not to bulk when you’re asked to create status reports, go on coffee runs, or perform tedious PMO work. It comes with the territory of being a consultant: when one accepts the assignment, one also accepts the problem. Be upbeat, have a natural curiosity and an energetic attitude towards any sort of exposure, and make a positive contribution.
At the same time, prepare to receive responsibility above your pay grade
This is what we signed up for. As consultants, we don’t always have the luxury of going into something feeling 100% prepared for what might come our way. Upon my arrival at TOMS, I was immediately thrown to the wolves and into unfamiliar roles, tasked with leading client meetings and owning requirements end-to-end that entailed Salesforce configurations I was not entirely sure how to execute. While this may seem a bit scary at first, looking back, I attribute my sense of comfort with the client to this (which made my job easier). Embracing opportunities to perform outside of our comfort zone is how we make our case for promotion. A wise colleague once told me, “You don’t become a senior consultant until you are, indeed, a senior consultant.”
Three’s the magic number
I had the pleasure of talking with a Senior Manager over lunch, who has apparently managed to codify the secret to effective consulting as a single number: three. Evidently, you should always give clients 3 options: the “good,” the “better,” and the “best,” along with the “preferred/recommended” of those 3. You literally must shape the clients needs, because if you don’t and you allow them to come to you with a list of requirements, they almost always demand something either impossible or something “out of scope”—the dreaded consulting idiom that no client likes to hear. That might be, according to my friend, the single greatest piece of consulting wisdom ever realized, and it’s true. This says it best:

As long as you can remember the number 3, you’re golden.
If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t be corrected
Don’t always try to work mistake-free. You don’t always have to always be the expert in the room. I went into my first client meeting thinking I was expected to have an answer for everything—that we were expected to be servant genies, translating problems into solutions instantaneously. And because of that, I was afraid to speak up for fear of being wrong or over-committing. I suggest participating in the conversation. It not only helps you earn the trust and attention of your client, but it helps make you feel like an important part of the solution (and not just a rookie). Don’t be afraid to express your ideas once you understand the challenge, which brings me to my next point…
There’s a reason we have two ears & one mouth
If someone asked you to define what consulting is, you would probably say something like “hired advice” or “problem-solving.” However, most of our job is nothing more than just listening—getting the client to tell us more. That same senior manager I spoke of earlier also gave me some snippets of an executive presence training he attended. There it was emphasized that most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. People like to complain; it’s our job to dig through that and uncover the root cause of the problem. That could be as simple as asking open-ended questions—a mix of “what” and “why”—to rid the accusatory nature of the conversation, and do what we do best: consult.
Mastering the art of emailing
My last takeaway centers on emails. As a staff consultant, I started out preferring to “hide” behind the “anonymity” of my computer to communicate with the client. I realized that, chances are, executives will not read emails longer than a couple sentences/fragments. In addition, emails tend to come off as more assertive than intended, and people using it feel less empathy for others. The absence of non-verbal and visual cues lowers awareness of social norms which, in turn, can potentially result in enhanced aggression and conflict escalation. Back and forth email blasts do not foster the objective re-evaluation that is essential to effective communication. They also prevent genuine, real-time reactions and preclude trust and understanding. To solve complex disputes, the ease of email negotiations must inevitably give way to the discomfort of face-to-face conversation. Before sending that email for something that needs to be discussed, consider the interpersonal alternative…it’s usually more appreciated.
All things considered, as a consultant, it’s not enough to just be good at your job—that is, the business analysis, technical design, testing, or whatever you might specialize in. You also have to practice the “soft” skills. After all, people matter, results count. Our work is all about our people, so we have to have the people skills as well. 

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