What a consultant is not
Let’s start with the traditional concept of a consultant. When most people think of consultants they think of professionals in suits, working for large consulting firms, for large clients. They picture recent college graduates from the top business schools. They also think of crazy hourly rates. This is what many people think of when they think of consultants, but this is only one form of a consultant: management consultants. But even this stereotype of a management consultant is over-sensationalized. This view is very shallow and narrow view of consulting. My experience with consulting resembles very little of this. Fortunately for all of us, consulting is much more than portrayed in this stereotype.
Aren’t consultants the same as contractors?
No. Many people equate consultants with contractors. Although they share similarities (contractually hired, temporary), there are major differences. Although the employment structure is the same, the difference is in how the two approach their work. A contractor follows their contract’s scope very closely. They follow a script and do not navigate much from it. A consultant’s approach to their work goes well beyond the scope defined in their contract. They ensure the scope is met, of course, but their desire is to provide much greater value and insight.
If consultants aren’t contractors, what are they?
Let’s start with a new definition of consultant. Let’s define a consultant as “a career minded, self-managed freelancer, who epitomizes professionalism in all their dealings, brings tangible value to their clients that is beyond the contractual scope, and puts their clients’ needs first above all else”. My definition might be a bit grandiose but it’s what I mean when I say consultant. By definition, a consultant is a freelancer because they are contracted and temporary. But unlike a contractor, or a person who works in a very narrow scope, they gain an understanding of what the client needs, what their pain points are, and self-manages themselves to solve their problems. They are their own project managers. They approach all challenges as an opportunity and see beyond the symptoms they’ve been hired to fix and dive right to the heart of the problem. Doing so requires seeing the whole picture, the needs of the organization and not just the project. It requires great communication, experience, and perspective. Acting as a consultant is choosing to perform at a high degree. By this definition, nearly any professional can be a consultant simply by adopting a Consultant Mindset.
Implied Needs vs Explicit Needs
A consultant is hired to perform a job or solve an issue. But what differentiates a consultant from contractors, and really most anyone else, is they intuitively understand the difference between Implied and Explicit Needs. This is a concept I’m borrowing from SPIN Selling, but can just as effectively be applied to something that consultants do naturally: uncovering the real issues. As a consultant, you may have been hired to perform one job (driving a project to completion, completing very challenging tasks, etc) but where your real value lies is in understanding why you have been hired to do the work. In SPIN Selling, two types of needs are defined: “Implied” and “Explicit”. Implied needs are actual needs of the organization, they are actionable, and must be met for the organization to succeed. Implicit Needs on the other hand are “wants or desires” of managers. A consultant may often times be hired to solve Explicit Needs, but by the time their contract ends they have also solved the client’s Implied Needs.
I like to use the example of a personal fitness trainer or nutritionist. They may have a client who comes to them and says they want to look great and fit into some new jeans they have just purchased. Their client is describing an explicit need, it’s a desire and want, but that’s not the issue that needs to be solved. The implied need is to lose weight. But actually, that can be further broken down. A better developed implied need is to learn how to lose weight and keep it off; to reverse their habits which have resulted in weight gain and retention. This is where a personal fitness trainer or nutritionist can act like a consultant and get to their client’s real needs. And through their temporary relationship they will leave their clients better off than they were originally (coached, educated, successful, and now self-sufficient).
Let’s work backwards. You were hired to do work because the necessary labor wasn’t available at your client because either a) they don’t have anyone available to do the work, or b) because they don’t have anyone with the qualifications to do the work. A contractor would come in and do the assigned tasks and be done. They wouldn’t add any additional value other than the narrow scope defined by their contract. Before starting to work, a consultant on the other hand will evaluate the situation and work to ensure that when their contract is complete the client will be better prepared to handle similar needs in the future. This might involve educating the client or correcting bad processes, for example. But ultimately, the consultant will always leave the client not just with the work completed, but in a better position than when they had first started. They will provide value beyond the scope of their contract.
To become a consultant or to just adopt a Consultant Mindset
I don’t believe that adopting a Consultant Mindset should be relegated to just consultants, because there are just too many other professionals who would benefit. Choosing to adopt a Consultant Mindset will help your business (or career) immensely. It will force you to question how you’ve been doing things. It will enable you to help your clients (or employer) and provide them with great value. You will not just be providing them with what they want, but also what they don’t yet realize they need. You’ll ask the hard questions, for example “why are things done this way”, plus you’ll be thinking so large and two steps ahead of them that you’ll be able to effectively challenge their resistance to change. However, you’ll need to approach it professionally.
A professional approach
You mustn’t confuse a professional approach with being politically correct. The difference is that a professional will say what they are thinking in a respectful and appropriate manner, whereas someone being politically correct will allude to what is on their mind and they will phrase it so as to minimize offending others. One method is effective and tactful, the other is a waste time, makes you look incompetent, and can actually be insulting.
To adopt a Consultant Mindset or to become a consultant
Whether you decide to adopt a Consultant Mindset or become a consultant, you’ll find the information you need here. Everyone will benefit from adopting a Consultant Mindset and some may even decide to become a consultant. Either way, adopting a Consultant Mindset will only benefit you.
How to adopt a Consultant Mindset
So how do you apply this to your own business or career? For starters, provide exceptional value. Whether this means doing things for your clients (or employer) they didn’t know they needed done, doing your work quicker than expected while still maintaining great quality, or going above and beyond the call of duty. Chose to never complain, chose to be as professional as humanly possible. Remove your insecurities from your products and services. If you’re writing an E-Book, spill all the beans, don’t hold any information back for your next E-Book. If you design websites for a living at an hourly rate, don’t milk the hours, get the website done and move onto the next one. If you’re an employee who feels like you’re not appreciated or listened to, understand it might be because of your previous approaches to communication. Have solid reasons for your suggestions, lead by example, gain your manager’s trust, do things before you’re asked to do them, simply be a high performing employee and make sure that you never complain. I once asked a Senior consultant what would happen if he left consulting to become a permanent employee again. His response is that he’d become a VP very quickly. Understand the value you hold. You can quickly elevate yourself, but only if you think with breadth and depth, understanding your organization and how to add value to it, and choosing to be a higher performing employee. It can also be summarized as “just care”.
This is just the beginning of your Consultant Mindset journey. Each week I will write and speak about adopting a Consultant Mindset and different ideas that you can try with your clients (or employer) that will give you a competitive edge.
Remember, we’re all in this journey together
I’d love to hear about your journey with consulting, or what questions you have about it. Please take a moment and leave a comment below.