In my 20 years as an international consultant, I’ve observed my colleagues in action: from the very predictable cohort of gray-suited analysts to the egotistical and colorful "friend" of the CEO.
And then, they are those who do great work.
These often discreet consultants share nine skills, not taught in business school, that separate the effective from the awesome:
Dot-to-dot literacy is the ability the connect the dots and as such anticipate threats and opportunities long before others do.
Intelligence takes its meaning from the Latin "inter" and "ligare," or "between" and "links." To be intelligent therefore is to create meaning between different realities: to understand that a violent storm in the Gulf may affect oil production, which in turn jacks up fuel prices, which might hit an airline’s bottom line, etc.
Dot-to-dot literacy develops through ongoing scanning of trends, reading from multiple sources, asking questions, and actively seeking out new ideas.
As an effective listener, a consultant needs to be able to identify—and discard—the "bullshit" to capture the truth within a message. Though hired by the CEO, a consultant often depends on input from his sycophantic inner circle. In times of threatening transition, many of these senior executives might sugarcoat a situation or indulge in window-dressing to present the most positive image possible. A consultant needs to dig deeper to get to the heart of a situation. A "That’s interesting. Why would you say that?" is one way to draw out information from insinuation.
When buzzwords abound and platitudes are offered in response to key questions, a consultant needs to translate the inane verbiage of business into clear language.
A 200-page report filled with jargon and complex charts and graphs can shield a consultant from client scrutiny. And when asked: "But what does this mean exactly? What can we take from it?" they experience the questions as a challenge and respond with more gobbledygook.
A consultant intent on doing great work takes highly sophisticated data and concepts and explains these to clients with clarity so that they may in turn offer clear explanations to others.
In a globalized world, where diversity can be both a barrier and a bridge, intercultural elasticity is the ability to be flexible without losing one’s own form. It requires giving up absolutes and giving in to ambiguity, or "going with the flow," as it were.
From taking part in a communal meal in an Omani home to sorting out supply chain networks in India, intercultural elasticity is a skill that stretches a comfort zone to encompass new and diverse experiences so that these become an integral part of the consultant’s way of being.
A sustainable solution needs the buy-in from all areas and levels of the company and a consultant needs to offer recommendations that drive efficiency in a way that brings the efforts together.
Long gone are the days when decisions made at the top were implemented en masse. Today, the power of the individual voice—through customer boycotts or employee revolts—echoes throughout the globe thanks to the click of a mouse. And it must be heard.
The value of fairness is held up against a consultant’s recommendations: Even when these prescribe tough decisions, they will be more readily accepted if understood as fair.
Diva deflection is the ability for a consultant to turn their attention away from the corporate divas at center stage crying loudly for attention to focus on the other players contributing to the client’s performance.
When a consultant realizes to what extent the show depends on the crews working behind the scenes, they go backstage to learn more. The insights they gather from their exchange with employees throughout the company give them a broader sense of opportunities and challenges their client is facing to keep the show on the road.
While most people work according to a steady schedule regulated by a 24-hour clock, a consultant must be able to operate in—and constantly adapt to—a variable time zone.
Instead of being flustered when a missed connection means a six-hour wait for the next plane, the consultant welcomes this time as a gift for creative reflection or professional catch-up. And when a deadline moves from next week to tomorrow, they get into the zone to get the job done.
Time conformance is like playing the accordion: understanding that both expansion and compression are necessary for creating the music.
High-five diffusion is the ability to give credit to others and celebrate their success.
To do great work and expect no recognition in return is a quality that few consultants share. A consultant with the skill of high-five diffusion is able to step back once their assignment is done, smile, and congratulate their client on the successful rollout of an initiative that might have very well been inked on the back of a napkin in an airport restaurant.
To be truly great, a consultant needs to know and recognize when they are simply no longer good enough.
As a consultant gains experience and moves up the ranks to the C-suite, the responsibility of providing sound advice and key expertise increases accordingly. Knowing when to turn to others for extra support is capital. And for some, going back to school is a way of moving forward. Humility is the quality and recognizing the competence gap is a skill that leads a consultant to do great work.
Some may dismiss these skills as superfluous. Indeed, they challenge the "godly" stature that some consultants enjoy as undisputed experts.
Yet, in the wake of financial crises and scandals, a new cry can be heard: for help, yes, but for substance rather than style, for authenticity rather than appearance, for consultants who empower their clients to greatness.
—Nathalie Kleinschmit is an international business consultant & trainer. After 20 years of serving multinationals, she realized she'd hit her competence ceiling; she is now completing her MBA in Change & Innovation at the IAE Aix Marseille Graduate School of Management in France.