Wright, N. (2005) ‘Three Cs of Consulting’, Training & Learning, Institute of Training & Occupational Learning, December, Volume 1, Issue 10, p14.
Ever wondered what the magic formula is for an effective consultant? Some people seem to glide from success to even greater success whereas other struggle, crash and burn. I’ve spent 20 years working as an internal and external consultant and alongside other consultants of all shapes and sizes. I still haven’t found a magic formula but I have, nevertheless, noticed three interdependent variables with significant bearing: confidence, credibility and competence. I will describe each of these variables and their key characteristics below.
Confidence is, in essence, what we believe about ourselves. The confident consultant believes he or she has something to bring to the consulting process that will add value. This isn’t the same as self-confident arrogance but has more to do with self awareness and honest self-appraisal. Confidence often grows as competence and credibility grow – we start to feel confident on the basis of our knowledge, skills and reputation. The risk is that confidence can collapse if any of these areas falter. Confidence has to be based on something deeper, our core sense of identity and calling, to weather professional storms.
Paradoxically, one of the greatest contributors to my own confidence has been the growing recognition that, even in consultant mode, it’s OK not to know. The freedom not to know helps avoid defensive, face-saving routines and allows me to seek answers elsewhere if needed. “I don’t know everything about this process but I do have some insight to add to the whole.” Or, “I can’t seem to get my head around this problem – can you help me?” This perspective restrains perfectionism, engenders mutuality and opens the consultant to new possibilities and learning.
If confidence is what we believe about ourselves, credibility is what others believe about us. It’s possible to have highly-developed confidence and competence but fail to gain access because clients don’t know or don’t believe what’s true about us. This is a particular difficulty for internal consultants, often based in human resources or training departments and viewed more as administrators than knowledgeable agents of organisational change. Personal credibility can be enhanced or tainted by wider agency, sector or departmental reputation too.
I’ve noticed that one trick is to find ways to demonstrate capability, even on small-scale initiatives, in areas that matter most to your potential clients and where your efforts will be noticed for their positive impact. This may feel frustrating for the new or ambitious consultant but the benefits of gradually increasing visibility and credibility often prove worthwhile in the longer-term. Associated skills borrowed from public relations and marketing can be important additions to the consultant’s toolkit.
Competence is having the right knowledge and skill to meet the demands of a particular situation and the ability to apply them effectively to bring about change. This ensures that credibility and client trust are well-deserved and maintained. Credibility relies on more than technical expertise, though the consultant does well to take on-going study and practice in his or her professional field seriously. The competent consultant has an ability to read situations, consider options and intervene alongside others with genuine integrity and wisdom.
In my experience, the most competent consultants are highly emotionally intelligent people and, in the Bible’s words, ‘quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’. They know consultancy is as much about relationship as task. They somehow enable sustainable change even in the midst of complex environments by drawing in others and walking-with rather than doing-to. These are the consultants who have, on reflection, inspired and taught me most.