The 10 Attributes of a Successful Consultant

What is the DNA of a successful, independent consultant; the personal building blocks of a rewarding, lucrative career leading a practice with roughly 1-100 employees?

This is not an idle thought-exercise. I frequently field questions about the consulting profession from mid-career executives “in transition.”** Even professionals who have already hung up a shingle or accepted a senior position at a small firm wonder whether they are well suited for independent consulting. Particularly if their performance has been flagging as of late.

Rather than offering an off-the cuff answer, I set out to make a list of important attributes. Five minutes and 46 attributes later, I realized the brainstorming approach would not yield a satisfying answer. Therefore, I made a list of the most successful independent consultants I personally know. (Fortunately, the nature of my practice enabled me to draw from a large pool.) Then I cataloged my impression of what has allowed each of them to flourish.

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There’s no uniform profile or precise mold every outstanding consultant conforms to. My list included individuals who ranged from nerdy to suave, inspiringly humble to shockingly arrogant, and consensus-builders to autocrats. However, there are definite commonalities among those who have ascended to the top of our profession.

Below are the attributes I saw most frequently in my analysis; the characteristics that describe you now or could in the future if you commit to embracing them:

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Please join in the conversation by adding your thoughts in the comment section. What attributes would you add to the list?


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Text and images are © 2015 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.

By | 2017-08-07T12:42:39+00:00 June 24th, 2015|39 Comments

39 Comments

  1. luda fedoruk June 24, 2015 at 7:15 am - Reply

    This is a fun article.

  2. Maggie Watson June 24, 2015 at 8:12 am - Reply

    Superior listening and observation skills. Taking the time to determine what the actual issues are before devising/offering solutions. Have to pick up on on the subtle and not subtle cues.

    • David A. Fields June 25, 2015 at 7:05 am - Reply

      Great additions, Maggie. Listening and not jumping to conclusions are two difficult skills for many consultants to master. They make all the difference in the world, though, to winning clients and delivering extraordinary value. Thanks for contributing.

  3. R Mallory Starr June 24, 2015 at 8:40 am - Reply

    Re other qualities – Adaptation. This means is flexible enough, observant enough, and sensitive enough to be observant enough, to understand and adapt to the culture of colleagues and prospective and actuall clients. The prospective clients, actual clients, and colleagues are more and more becoming representative of varied social classes and cultures in the US and internationally.

    • David A. Fields June 25, 2015 at 7:07 am - Reply

      You are SO right, Mallory. We have to meet our clients and prospects where they are, and that means adapting to their situation, their style, their culture. Thank you for the terrific addition to the list.

  4. Kevin Martin June 24, 2015 at 9:06 am - Reply

    Good article. I agree with Maggie that listening skills (and expert questioning skills) are paramount for the best consultants allowing them to frame solutions their clients really need. I also liked your “drawing from a large pool” sketch.

    • David A. Fields June 25, 2015 at 7:10 am - Reply

      Yes, Maggie was dead on. As you said, the listening and observation skills combined with communication skills allow us to frame and reframe ideas for our clients, which is critical to success. Glad you liked the drawing… you get extra points for appreciating puns.

  5. David Shaw June 24, 2015 at 11:03 am - Reply

    Persistence because work can be feast or famine. Courage to confront resistance and client nonsense. Thought-provoking article – thank you. I like your choices.

    • David A. Fields June 25, 2015 at 7:13 am - Reply

      Thanks, David. I like your choices too! Indeed, we must harbor the ability to stay the course through lean times and inexplicable client behavior. Thank you for injecting those idea into the discussion.

  6. Marcy McDonald June 24, 2015 at 11:59 am - Reply

    All good points from everyone, and David’s list is terrific. I would add to listening skills the ability to restate what you’ve heard the client saying. This shows that you’ve listened, but it gives you a chance to put together for the client what they’re saying are the key challenges. If you can organize their thoughts for them in a recap, it gives value in the very first conversation and every conversation thereafter.

    • David A. Fields June 25, 2015 at 7:17 am - Reply

      Exactly! You combined Maggie and Kevin’s ideas more eloquently than I did. Our facility to receive, process and impart information with speed and clarity governs our success. I appreciate you sparking that connection, Marcy.

  7. Tom Borg June 24, 2015 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    Constantly Staying Current
    The best consultants are constantly looking to build on their expertise. They look for better ways to service their clients. They learn from the best to stay ahead of the rest.

    • David A. Fields June 25, 2015 at 7:20 am - Reply

      Ooooh good one, Tom. Sometimes the work of finding and delivering work is so exhausting that we don’t want to stretch ourselves further. Learning and changing our approaches takes effort. Yet, as you point out, it is an activity we all need to make a habit.

  8. Daniel Pereira June 25, 2015 at 9:06 am - Reply

    Many thanks for sharing your valuable knowledge, and please avoid local colloquialisms in your articles!

    Regards

    • David A. Fields June 25, 2015 at 3:58 pm - Reply

      You’re welcome, Daniel. I hope the colloquialisms didn’t get your knickers in a twist!

  9. Gordon Bell June 26, 2015 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    Alacrity is vital, I believe. Because, the loss of alacrity forced me to retire, I set out to find the solution and make a comeback. I am also influenced by an interview of Donald Trump by Oprah Winfrey over 20 years ago, during which she asked Donald what one factor was responsible for his success. He said, it is …he had extraordinary energy. At first I asked everyone I could if they could help me identify and resolve the issue and everyone said, ” I don’t know, you either have it or you don’t.” After 30 years of searching, I believe I have found the solution to the ability to enhance and if necessary restore one’s essence, the kind of extraordinary energy that can provide the alacrity we have seen in Mr. Trump. Because, I believe it is an essential to being a successful consultant.

    • David A. Fields June 29, 2015 at 8:23 am - Reply

      We are in a service business and, while we should not take on the servant characteristics of obsequiousness or kowtowing, you’re absolutely right that a responsive, can-do attitude stands out to prospects and clients. Loehr and Shwartz nailed it when they said, “Managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal.” I highly recommend their book, The Power of Full Engagement.

  10. Michelle Tenzyk June 29, 2015 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Terrific list of attributes. I do not think I am adding anything new, but emphasizing responsiveness. In our 24/7 age and deluge of data, responding promptly has taken a back seat. Client’s want to know they are “your only client” and you are in it for them. Being a stakeholder in their outcome is a key differentiator today. And actually putting the time and energy in to realize the outcomes with the client while responding quickly and capably is critical.

    • David A. Fields June 30, 2015 at 11:03 pm - Reply

      Michelle, years ago Domino’s Pizza found that the #1 contributor to consumer satisfaction is… temperature! People love a hot pizza, even if the sauce and other ingredients are mediocre. Responsiveness is the consulting analog to hot pizza. A consultant doesn’t have to be a breakthrough thinker–simply being highly responsive creates happy clients.

  11. S N Raina June 30, 2015 at 4:42 am - Reply

    It is not uncommon for clients to ask about a consultant’s capabilities or comfort level in handling areas contiguous to his/her area of specialization. Tempting as the opportunities may be, one has to resist it to maintain integrity of one’s expertise and the interest of the client. Prospect of short-term gains should not be allowed to trump the long-term objectives. Clients value an honest admission.

    • David A. Fields June 30, 2015 at 11:04 pm - Reply

      I totally agree. Your credibility with clients skyrockets when you’re willing to say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not the right person for that project, but I can point you to someone who is terrific at that.”

  12. Regenia Bailey July 1, 2015 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    To build on comments from Maggie and Kevin regarding listening and questioning–I would add “reading the group” and asking tough and/or provocative questions to draw out issues that a group hasn’t yet articulated.are useful skills for a consultant to really add value to the work of the group.

    • David A. Fields July 3, 2015 at 8:37 am - Reply

      That’s an terrific nuance, Regenia. Independent consultants are especially prone to working alone and can forget how important it is to excel at group dynamics. Reading the group, provoking the group and even guiding a group to read/provoke itself better are all important components in many projects. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  13. Marvin Cruz July 1, 2015 at 10:10 pm - Reply

    I learned a lot from your views and comments. Perhaps I could also say that having a good sense of humor is a positive attribute of a successful consultant. Dousing a little bit of humor at the right timing eases up very tense situations. One with a very good sense of humor will most likely be able to establish and maintain rapport with most people.

    • David A. Fields July 3, 2015 at 8:47 am - Reply

      Love that, Marvin! We definitely need to remember to enjoy ourselves. As you wisely pointed out, a bit of levity can defuse tensions. Plus, (most) of us like being around people who are in good spirits, and since “Like” is one of the six pillars of consulting success, a good sense of humor can have a direct impact on your bottom line.

  14. bill corley July 7, 2015 at 10:11 am - Reply

    Listening and observing would be my choice to add, great article. As Yogi Berra said you can observe a lot by watching (or something like that )

    • David A. Fields July 8, 2015 at 9:19 pm - Reply

      Listening and observing are, indeed, important attributes. I’m pretty sure Yogi Berra also quipped, “I didn’t say half the things I’ve said.” Thanks for your comment, Bill.

  15. Laura Zoerner July 7, 2015 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    I really liked this! We can create a huge list but, I think you have boiled this down nicely to key areas. A truly good consultant needs to demonstrate empathy and pragmatism!!

    • David A. Fields July 8, 2015 at 9:21 pm - Reply

      You’re right, Laura. Empathy is a more important attribute than many consultants realize. Since the emotional pillars (Like, Trust and Want) drive the sale, we must know what’s in our prospects’ hearts as well as their minds. Thanks for pointing that out.

  16. Jon Matsuo July 7, 2015 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    David, I feel that these are the core, thank you.I like your inclusion of “model” under Curious, as I feel it is the tool that explains your approach, and helps the client “make sense of the world” (and to yourelf too!) and must be constantly challenged by the results we get. I would add Flexible, to add a client focus to your list, to add what R Mallory contributed. The ability to help a client depends on understanding where he/she is coming from, and tailoring your explanations and approach to their personal as well as their organization’s needs. Their personality style, situation, the company culture, and client comfort level may limit what solutions are realistic.

    • David A. Fields July 8, 2015 at 9:28 pm - Reply

      You’ve hit on a tension that trips up many practitioners, Jon. On the one hand, a model is an invaluable tool for fine-tuning and explaining our offering. On the other hand, paradigms that are too rigid adapt poorly to each prospect’s unique situation.

      Consultants who learn to develop models that communicate clearly while retaining flexibility are well received by clients. Keep in mind, though, this is not something you simply read about and master. From what I’ve seen, it takes guidance and practice. Thank you for bringing your insight to the conversation.

  17. Terry Flanagan July 8, 2015 at 9:24 am - Reply

    David, both a convergent and divergent thinker. I.E. the ability see opportunities accelerate in momentum as multiple forces converge to create change. Also the ability to see forces are moving away from your client. If you can’t help theme sense the formation of the vacuum they will not escape the gravitational pull of irrelevance.

    • David A. Fields July 8, 2015 at 9:32 pm - Reply

      Nice addition, Terry. As with Jon’s comment, you’re pointing out dialectical skills the best consultants master. One way to summarize this is simply the ability to push back, no matter which way the client is currently heading. Thank you for injecting this advanced concept into the dialogue.

  18. Tristram Coffin, CMC November 25, 2015 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Stick with me … this is not a short answer. Many years ago I read a trilogy by the French author Antoine St. Exupery titled “Wind, Sand and Stars.” The author was a French reconnaissance pilot during World War II and provided several of his thoughts while flying over enemy lines at night. One of his most significant gifts was his statement, “Love is a process of looking outward together.”

    The point: When you and your consulting prospect or Client can look outward together… both seeing and understanding a common agenda, needs and goals…. you will provide a better prescription and solution and the Client will be onboard with you! Ask… don’t tell… watch and listen. Remember… “Prescription without diagnosis is malpractice!” Listen and learn then LOOK OUTWARD TOGETHER! Your Clients will love you for it!

    • David A. Fields November 25, 2015 at 3:42 pm - Reply

      Look outward together, indeed! For most consultants the salient reminder is, “It’s about the clients, not you.” But your point, care of St. Exupery is well made. It’s actually about the partnership between them (clients) and us, and what we can achieve looking outward together. Thanks for the introduction to an author I didn’t know and for the wonderful contribution to the discussion.

  19. Jeff Evanson February 4, 2016 at 5:25 pm - Reply

    Hi David. I always enjoy these articles.. I would add an insistence and dedication to research oriented solutions. Sometimes the client comes via the CEO interaction which only provides surface info. Digging deeper into the organization, getting closer to core employees unearths the real origins to the challenges the CEO only now recognizes. I have had reason to alter and sometimes expand on many an offering because of my “bottom-up” research based approach.

    • David A. Fields February 4, 2016 at 5:45 pm - Reply

      That’s a good point, Jeff. I might shift it slightly to “insistence and dedication to solutions the client needs.” Your experience mirrors mine–folks are swift to draw conclusions on the flimsiest of evidence. A more robust investigation can solve persistent problems and save many missteps. That said, I’ve also run into organizations straight-jacketed by data and analysis. They didn’t need research; they needed freedom from research and “permission” to get in action.

      Exploring the roads less traveled by our clients is definitely one way we can add value. Thank you for adding such a valuable insight to the conversation.

  20. Susan Moore August 31, 2016 at 9:32 am - Reply

    I want to reinforce what Tom Borg said a few months ago about staying current, and perhaps this fits under “Curious.” When I’ve been very busy, I feel like I’m always giving to my clients and not replenishing my needs, causing a certain resentment (even though i’t’s paying the bills). One way of making this a win-win situation is that I now make sure that I allocate at least one hour a day reading about my industry through many different digests. In this way I replenish my brain and tool belt so that I’m not only keeping current for my clients, but rejuvenating myself and creating a win-win situation. Even when very busy, I try to use times such as breaks and meal times to read. It sparks creative juices and keeps my passion going when that residual energy gets close to being spent. Attending disparate conferences, even when not about my core business, helps me to think in different ways that regenerate me.

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