What does it take to be a Great Consultant?

Mar 2012
Issue 24

by Gabrielle Wallace


In the article below, I identify 10 attributes that, in my opinion, describe the distinctive characteristics of a Great Consultant. I challenge you to add to my list of 10. Send me an email that suggests a new GCA (Great Consultant Attribute), along with your reasoning for why it is so important. And, if you’ve got a specific example, throw that it in, too. We’ll share the best (and most provocative) suggestions in the next issue of the Free-Range Learning News.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing your ideas! – Gabrielle


In today’s business environment, if you are committed to creating a meaningful impact with the work that you do, I assert that you must approach each business situation as a consultant, whether you have an internal or external role. Why? Well, there are two big factors. One, we all have stakeholders – also known as “clients” – for whom we have to produce results. And, two, when you act effectively as a consultant, you dramatically increase your opportunities to produce results that are truly outstanding. For example, a Great Consultant …

… asks the right questions and listens intently. (If you don’t ask the right questions and listen to your client, you risk spending time and money on the wrong priorities.)

… establishes great rapport with clients. (You may have excellent ideas but, if you lack the savvy it takes to gain buy-in with stakeholders, then you fall flat.)

… understands the client’s business. (If you lack an understanding of the underlying business operations, you may try to bulldoze a solution that simply won’t work.

These types of mistakes will clearly jeopardize your credibility when you are an internal resource and will certainly damage your reputation with clients when you are an external consultant.

In general, when you have clients to serve, internal or external, your ability to do the necessary – to identify their needs and implement the right solution – is critical to success, but it’s not everything, and it’s definitely not sufficient to make you a Great Consultant.

Let’s take a closer look at what those secret-sauce ingredients are. But, before we get there …

What makes me a credible source on this subject?

With nearly 20 years in the talent development field, I’ve been in internal roles in professional services firms for 9 years, holding positions from staff through director, and I’ve spent the last 11 years of my career as an external consultant. In addition, I’ve worked with many other external consultants and individuals in internal roles, which has provided an opportunity to observe the good, the bad, and (definitely) the ugly. Lastly, I grew up with a father who was a senior executive of a major corporation and was thus a client of many consultants, and I vividly remember his rants about “those damn consultants … They steal my watch to tell me what time it is!” Needless to say, my dad’s insights on what he liked and disliked about the consultants he hired helped shape my views, even before my consulting career began.

Top 10 list of Great Consultant Attributes (GCAs)

With that intro … here is my Top 10 list of what I think it takes to be a Great Consultant. And the attributes are listed in no particular order. Why? Because, to be a Great Consultant, you need them all.

  1. Opinionated– The first and foremost thing a consultant needs to have is an informed opinion or, in more “consultantese,” a point of view (POV). What is your take on the situation given your experience and expertise? Or, as many clients wonder, what can you tell me that I don’t already know? After all, that’s why you’ve been hired – to provide a unique look at the situation that takes into account your knowledge of how this problem has been approached by others, what’s worked or hasn’t worked in similar situations, and what critical things may not have been considered yet.Your POV is something you develop over many years and is a combination of your expertise and your experience. Be confident in sharing your POV with clients, but be careful to temper it with some of the other tips below. (You really want your client to believe that you are “knowledgeable,” not “opinionated.”) Most importantly, if you have a carefully considered POV, you won’t ever need to steal someone’s watch to tell them what time it is.
  2. Pragmatic– One of the biggest faults I see with consultants is taking a purist view of their field of expertise and, when I have the chance, I tell them that what works in textbooks doesn’t usually work in the real world. Models and frameworks are great, but you need to bring things down to a practical level and consider how to actually design and implement solutions for your clients.To do this, it’s important to look at things from all angles and play out the possible solutions from the top down and the bottom up. How does this impact Sue the accountant and Bob in HR? Consider the unintended effects it will have on work, morale, and any other important aspects of the work environment. A practical approach, informed by appropriate theories, will help ensure the best outcome for your client and will often set you apart from others.
  3. Passionate – No faking here, you’ve got to really care about helping your clients. It’s obvious when someone is doing a job just for the money or takes a passive, careless approach to the work. A Great Consultant gets invested in the client’s issues and gets excited at the prospect of making a difference. Finding passion in your work is something you can’t force, and you may need to turn things around – find out first what you’re passionate about and then make that your professional focus.
  4. Resilient – We all have bad days. We all hit brick walls. What distinguishes Great Consultants, however, is the ability to pick themselves up by the bootstraps when things aren’t going well, motivate the team, and keep helping the client to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Some problems are easily solved, and others take some time. The right solution may come after long days, much rework, and many iterations. If you get some tough feedback or experience a setback along the way, you’ve got to be resilient and bounce back. Don’t let them get you down!
  5. Business-minded – An area that many consultants in the Talent Development arena lack is business acumen. Understanding how a business operates, what drives decisions, and what makes the industry unique really sets consultants apart. If you don’t know the basics of the balance sheet or P&L statement, it will be next to impossible for you to connect the dots on how your work will impact the client’s bottom line. Even a simple appreciation for key business drivers, risks, and the financial aspects of your client’s business will suggest that you “get it” and that you bring a seasoned business perspective to the work.
  6. Professional – Consultants should hold themselves to the highest standards of ethics, confidentiality, and integrity. By virtue of your role, you will likely see and hear a lot, and it’s imperative for your clients to trust you. Also, just because something is within the letter of the law doesn’t make it right… Hold yourself to standards beyond what’s expected. In addition, always present a professional demeanor. Don’t get your feathers ruffled. Look calm even if below the water your feet are paddling like mad!
  7. Curious (but skeptical) – Ask questions, listen, and be professionally skeptical. As a consultant, your value comes in asking the tough questions, culling out the inconsistencies, and driving to the root causes. Realize that being inquisitive may sometimes be annoying but it gets results. Keep in mind that your client may not be able to see the issues as you see them. As more of an independent party, you can be objective and avoid being clouded by politics and other confounding factors that may surround a problem.
  8. Resourceful – Know when to enlist help. None of us is an expert in everything, and you should always know: 1) when it’s time to bring in reinforcements, and 2) where to go to find them. Actively maintain a network of talented people in your area of expertise and in other, related areas where you might need help. Use the abundance mentality – there’s plenty of work out there. So, if you share your opportunity with others, not only will the client benefit from the combination of strong minds at work on their project, but reciprocal opportunities may come to you.
  9. Influential– Your ability to influence may be as important as your expertise (if not more so). If you can’t get your client or other stakeholders to buy into the plan, idea, or strategy, then the forward movement stops there. Great Consultants know how to be savvy and navigate situations with dexterity.Some tips on influence: Read between the lines, and know who your allies and potential adversaries are. Enlist the allies, and work on softening the adversaries… Never go into a meeting or presentation without pre-meeting with key stakeholders to socialize the topic… You know you’ve been successful when you make your client look good. So, let your idea be theirs. The important thing, above all, is that you get to the right solution.
  10. Strategic (and tactical) – Seeing the big picture and connecting dots may be some of the most important value you bring to your clients. They are in the thick of things and being pulled in various directions. You are in the unique position of being able to step back and look at the whole system or situation. Some tips along this line: If your client’s organization is silo’d and you have line of sight into multiple areas, you can help them by seeing across organizational lines. You can also help them look ahead and think beyond the here and now. Their immediate objective may be to fix today, but they’ll thank you if you’re also thinking about tomorrow. Lastly, being strategic is great, but you also need to be tactical – to focus on effective organization and successful execution.

Well, these are some of my views after almost two decades in the trenches, and it may be the case that what it takes to be a Great Consultant varies somewhat by situation and by individual. My goal is to toss out some ideas and get you thinking on areas where you may be able to step up your game. And, if as a fellow consulting veteran you’ve got other perspectives that I didn’t highlight, then bring ‘em on, and we’ll share them with others.

In the final analysis, if each of us strives to make a difference and do the best we can for our clients, then we’re all one step closer to making differences that matter in the workplace.

Next month


It’s easy to be impressed when we see lofty mission, vision, and values statements ornately framed, proudly displayed, and enhanced with soft lighting. However, our natural skepticism cautions us that actions speak louder than words. Intuitively, we sense that how a company connects to its people in crisis is a more accurate barometer of the company’s health than mere words on a wall.

Next month, Ross Stern, a St. Charles Director, builds a case that creating a sense of connection through lived values is what enables a company to truly reach its full potential. Stay tuned.