Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Consulting assignment life cycle 25: understanding the consulting context

Posted in career development, consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on July 19, 2012

This is my twenty fifth installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-246 for Parts 1-24.) Up to now I have been discussing why consult as a career or a career step, the consulting process going through an assignment life cycle, and consulting as a business. I turn here to consider consulting as a mindset and approach, and the importance of consultants to be students of businesses and organizations and of how they do and do not effectively function. And I address that point by starting with the fundamentals.

• Consultants land assignments and succeed in doing them, when they identify and understand their client’s needs. And that has to mean understanding their client’s needs and priorities from their client’s perspective.
• That means speaking their client’s language and understanding their unspoken assumptions, and it means really listening to them and observing them.
• That means understanding why they cannot do this work strictly in-house with their current staff, and certainly where that would mean working across their table of organization and their patterns of sustained conversation and cooperation in doing so.
• This, I add means understanding the client business in a way that can in many cases only be achieved once you are working there, and observing how things are actually done in practice and by whom.
• This also means identifying and understanding what cannot be done, and what lines cannot be crossed. I add that barriers to working across the table of organization can develop as mangers build their own organizational fiefdoms within a business, that they claim ownership of: barriers that can simply develop as a result of historically accreted efforts to achieve authority where managers hold responsibility. But regulatory and other requirements can mandate certain types of firewalls and barriers too, and as an example I cite regulatory barriers that can pertain in financial institutions between investment analysts, and investment instrument salespersons and brokers. It is important for a consultant to understand where patterns of supported and allowed communication and authority are functional, dysfunctional or some combination and how – and that they work with their clients in ways that those clients can be comfortable with.

And on top of studying, understanding and working with the client at the levels of their table of organization and their operational processes and policies, a good consultant also studies, understands and works effectively in the context of their corporate culture. That does not mean they have to be a true believer in all that this corporate culture holds dear. It does mean respecting and accommodating what the culture in place values, and respecting and working with the people there in doing so.

With time and experience a consultant comes to work with and see a wide range of businesses, and how they do and do not function. They get to see how these client businesses communicate their policies and practices and their values. And a consultant develops their experience base both as a matter of expanding their hands-on technical expertise from working and solving specific tasks and problems, and from doing so in a wide range of professional contexts – that they study and learn from too. This is a side to consulting that first time and less-experienced consultants often overlook. When they take on an assignment they are not just hired to find a technically viable and cost-effective solution as if working in a vacuum. They are hired to develop solutions to their clients’ problems and with resolutions that will work for their clients, and in the context of their ways and practices.

Effective consultants become conscious, aware students of their clients and their organizations’ processes and ways, and they seek to add to their knowledge base as to how businesses work with every assignment they take on and complete. This makes them more effective in finding clients and securing assignments and it becomes the key to securing repeat business and steady recurring client work.

I am finishing this series at this point but I will definitely be coming back to the issues of consultants and consulting best practices in future postings. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

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