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The Ladder You Must Climb to Grow Your Consulting Firm

Clients hire your consulting firm in part because you know more than they do. You’re an expert. Wise in the ways of management, marketing or the musk beetle (or whatever your area of expertise happens to be).

How expert are you, though, and what are you doing to continuously upgrade your knowledge?

Domain knowledge is one of the three ingredients you mix together to whip up a consultant. (The others are consulting skills and s’mores.) Examples of a domain include: an industry, function, methodology, technology platform, geography, or particular situation, problem or aspiration.

New consultants at your consulting firm often need to polish their consulting skills and supplement their domain knowledge. Plus, of course, newbies need to learn your consulting firm’s IP and family recipes inside and out.

Ideally, you’ve developed onboarding and training materials to fling newcomers up the capability curve.

After that initial bolus of learning, however, the vectors of learning in many small consulting firms narrow down to one: experience.

Similarly, as a consulting firm leader, you’ve gained the lion’s share of your valuable wisdom from experience on projects.

Experiential learning is huge. It’s real-world, and directly relates to your clients’ needs.

It’s also insufficient. And, by the time you accumulate a critical mass of experience, much of it may be obsolete.

You owe yourself, your consulting firm and your clients constant advances in the domain knowledge of your consulting firm. Advances above and beyond your takeaways from consulting engagements. Therefore…

Commit to accomplishing two tasks that will level up your consulting firm’s domain knowledge:

Task 1: Create a Domain Knowledge Ladder

Your consulting firm’s Domain Knowledge Ladder can roughly imitate the academic hierarchy:

Primary, secondary, bachelors, masters, doctorate, post-doctorate, legend, Nobel prize, Tony Stark.*

Specify the knowledge, concepts and domain details consultants at your firm must know and/or master to graduate to the next level.

Note that the upper rungs of your Domain Knowledge Ladder must absolutely transcend your own, personal, domain knowledge. What do you want to learn within your domain of expertise that you don’t know now?

Pulling together your curriculum delivers three benefits:

  1. You’ll own a comprehensive training program for your consulting firm;
  2. You’ll spotlight rust spots where your domain knowledge has become dated;
  3. You may identify areas you can outsource because they only require lower-level knowledge.

Task 2: Identify Sources of Knowledge

Specify the sources of knowledge for each step on your Domain Knowledge Ladder. This is particularly important at the upper levels, where you’re stretching the bounds of current knowledge in your area of specialty.

On the lower rungs of your Domain Knowledge Ladder you can leverage a full range of resources, including:

Books, published studies, peer groups, courses (from a variety of sources), primary research, podcasts, simulations, shadowing* and client advisory boards. Plus YouTube, mangas and the source of all knowledge: Wikipedia.

At the outer edges of domain expertise, learning can be harder because there’s no one to teach you. Experiment and conduct research with the expectation that not all of your consulting firm’s efforts will produce valuable, new understanding.

By the way, diverse, outside-your-domain learning you bring to bear on your specialty also matters. Broadening your thinking and connecting unrelated ideas can help your consulting firm develop thought leadership.

However, breadth of knowledge is not a substitute for depth if you want to command your field.

What are you doing to continuously improve your personal, and consulting firm’s domain knowledge?

  1. Robin Goldsmith
    April 14, 2021 at 7:30 am Reply

    I listen to free webinars and online conferences. I also frequently present webinars, usually on things I already know but also extensions of topics that push me to research. For instance, today I’m presenting on eXtreme Programming (XP), a topic I thought I knew pretty well; but it prompted me to reread Kent Beck’s original book after 20 years, and that totally changed my presentation’s content and thrust.

    In in-person times, I attend a lot of conferences to keep up my learning. Speaking and volunteering give free admission to the rest of the conference, and giving workshops/tutorials also covers expenses and usually provides some fee. I’ve always been amazed at how few prominent speakers ever attend others’ sessions, let alone conferences, where they’re not speaking.

    • David A. Fields
      April 14, 2021 at 7:45 am Reply

      Signing up to present on a topic that will stretch your knowledge is a brilliant idea, Robin. Love that. Nothing forces you to master material as much as having to teach it to others. A great addition to the list! (And yes, it can be dismaying how many “thought leaders” believe they have nothing to learn from others.)

      Your contribution today was hugely valuable, Robin.

  2. Robin Goldsmith
    April 14, 2021 at 8:00 am Reply

    Oh, and silly me for not mentioning the importance of participating in professional associations. Over the years I’ve held elective offices in quite a few local chapters, and I belong to and attend meetings (these days online, though some seem to be hibernating) in a few other groups. Again I’m continually amazed at how few office holders continue to participate when they are no longer in office.

    • David A. Fields
      April 14, 2021 at 8:36 am Reply

      Well said, Robin. Professional associations can be a tremendous source of knowledge and an opportunity to learn from peers. Good job stacking value on value, Robin!

  3. Jen Swanson
    April 14, 2021 at 10:25 am Reply

    I just signed up for a webinar on a topic in the general cosmos of what I do, but not at all central to my offerings. But I know it will be something I should be conversant on – and need to know who to call in or partner with – should it come up with clients. I love the ladder idea, but also thinking about what other ladders are out there where you should at least know the basics. I also think that kind of learning is so uncomfortable as to shake things up in your own expertise. I love it!

    • David A. Fields
      April 14, 2021 at 11:55 am Reply

      Good on you for exploring the cosmos, Jen! You’re absolutely right: there are a lot of “basics” that we need to master in order to be high-value consultants, and pushing past the comfort zone of our own experience is crucial to truly level up. Thank you for highlighting those points!

  4. Barry
    April 17, 2021 at 5:58 pm Reply

    I ensure I keep learning by the basics as well; subscribing to content from competitors, podcasts, webcasts, audio books when in the car and reading. I try to reserve an hour or two on the weekend to keep up as best I can. A book I am reading now that is providing ideas is Dan Heaths, Upstream, ‘the quest to solve problems before they happen’. Having said all that, the other tried and true way for me is talking to people. Thanks for the ideas on presenting, I have not done that and now feel I need to get after it.

    • David A. Fields
      April 19, 2021 at 6:37 am Reply

      It sounds like you’re very diligent about staying on the learning curve, Barry, which is impressive. Talking to people, which amounts to primary research, is definitely a powerful way to continue building your learning–particularly, if you structure the conversations with some learning intent. Thank you for highlighting that!

      (By the way, any work by the Heath brothers is worth the read–they write great content.) I appreciate you chiming in, Barry!

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