EMH Insights

What does a good consultant do?

Consultants are often asked “what do you do?” On Showtime’s new management consulting-themed show House of Lies, Don Cheadle’s character Marty Kahn says this is the question consultants fear the most, requiring a verbal song and dance to get past. In truth, it is a fairly easy question to answer. Over the next several posts I will outline the key elements of what we do and how they help us do our job well.

#1 Thing Consultants Do: Listen Carefully
My colleague Eli Feinstein incessantly talks about the need to “listen very carefully.” I tease him about it, but he is absolutely correct. Much of what a good consultant offers a client, particularly on the front end, is the capacity to listen intently, forcefully and with an outside perspective. This allows us to do our jobs better and ultimately bring you more value.

A good consultant wants to understand all of the reasons, both conscious and unconscious, why they have been brought in to help. To do this, they have to focus not only on everything you say, but also on the way you say it. Are there non-verbal cues that tell us that something is keeping you up at night? Are there things conspicuously missing from the conversation that might indicate a deeper problem in the company? Does one person’s name get mentioned frequently in relation to those problems? To be effective a consultant can’t just take the client’s statement at face value; there is always something deeper going on beneath the surface that will help us provide value to you.

Another part of good listening is pushing, as executives are rarely challenged to dig deeply into an issue by their employees. We push our clients to consider the deeper implications of their immediate concerns and to provide information they might have been ignoring just because it was uncomfortable to grapple with. This prodding helps us do our jobs because it brings problem-solving closer to the root of the problem. If we can help a client understand their problems in more depth than at the outset, we are already closer to solving them.

An outside perspective is also necessary because in most organizations everyone is so consumed with day-to-day firefighting that they rarely are able to step back and consider their problems in relation to what is going on outside the company. A company may be grappling with a problem that all its competitors are also encountering (because of macroeconomic effects, for instance) and not realize it. In other cases a client may actually be doing quite well in their market but have no yardstick to measure themselves against, causing them to change systems and processes that are actually working. In the worst case, a client may think they have a minor challenge, but actually be woefully behind the competition. Bringing knowledge of both your market and general trends in the business environment adds perspective that is hard to get from within the organization.