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Consulting: Prerequisites for Success

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Learn what you need in terms of skills, experience, and personal qualities to launch your own successful consulting business in this chapter from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Consulting.
This chapter is from the book

In This Chapter

  • Finding out the essentials for success in starting and running a successful consulting business

  • Understanding the breadth and depth of knowledge

  • Looking at your attitudes and values

  • Surveying the personal skills specific to the consulting industry

As you consider a career as an independent consultant, you need to know what elements are essential for success. And, boy, there are a lot of things you need to know, a lot of skills you must have, and a certain outlook you need to cultivate.

Ideally, you will have many of these elements before you hang out your consultant shingle, but it's not necessary to have absolutely everything. You are going to learn as you go. However, the more resources and skills you bring to the table from the start, the more likely you will reduce your number of growing pains, mistakes, and hard economic times.

If you are a practicing consultant, this chapter is also important to you. It's an opportunity to begin a self-assessment to identify any gaps in knowledge, skills, and attitudes that you may have. And we all have them.

In this chapter I'll cover the basic elements you need for success.

Specialty-Related Skills and Knowledge

Specialty-related skills and knowledge refer to those basic and advanced skills and knowledge that are required in your chosen field, and that are needed by you in order to provide expert advice to clients and to be seen as credible by prospective clients.

I can't tell you exactly which skills and knowledge this entails, because obviously your needs depend on the field in which you want to practice. However, I can tell you that you'd better know your field well and what it requires before you market yourself as a consultant.

Regardless of whether or not you know your field, try to identify four or five consultants who work in your field. Find several consultants who work in your geographic area, but also track down one or two who work outside your area. This provides some balance.

Explain that you are considering starting a consulting business in this particular field and that you would like 15 to 20 minutes of their time to ask them some questions. When they agree, make sure you ask the following two questions:

  • What skills and knowledge have you found most valuable in running a successful consulting business in your field?

  • Before I start a new consultancy, are there any absolutely essential things that I need to know and understand in order to have a good chance of success?

If you are wondering whether potential competitors will be willing to help you, don't worry about it. Even though you may find a few consultants who guard their secrets, those really aren't the ones you want to talk to and learn from. The majority of consultants (provided they have the time) will be glad, even honored, to give advice, and that advice can be golden.

Consulting Confidential

While consultants are generally honest people and will give you the "straight goods" on most questions, there's one area in which you will likely get inaccurate information. Probably every consultant on the planet is going to exaggerate his or her own success. For good reason. If a consultant is known to be struggling, clients hear about it and shy away. So take statements about the great success of small consulting businesses with a grain of salt. The consultants aren't being dishonest so much as protecting their businesses.

Listen carefully. Ask in humbleness.

This picking of consultants' brains allows you to get some other perspectives on your business, something we all need.

When discussing specialty-related skills and knowledge, you must consider two significant questions: How broad should your knowledge be and how deep should it be? The answers will be the topics of the next two sections.

Breadth of Knowledge and Skills

What is breadth of knowledge? Breadth of knowledge refers to the number of different areas in which you have expertise. Let's say you're a financial consultant. You need a wide range of skills and knowledge so you can provide your clients with high-quality advice and service. For example, you might have significant expertise in the following areas:

  • Tax laws
  • Stock market investment strategies
  • Retirement plans and funds
  • Mutual funds

Every time you learn something new, you increase your breadth of knowledge. The broader the range of things you know, the better off you are. Why is that?

Because consultants sell their knowledge, the more you have the more you can offer to your clients. Keep in mind that clients looking for consulting advice want someone who has more knowledge in more areas than they themselves have.

There's another reason why breadth is important. Our world is complex, and giving good advice requires that you look at a number of interrelated factors. Let's look at the tale of two financial consultants.

Our first financial consultant, Fred, knows a great deal about tax laws, mutual funds, and stock market investment strategies. However, he isn't familiar with retirement plans and regulations. Jane, our second financial consultant, has a wider range of expertise. She's got all the areas of expertise that Fred has, and more. Now which consultant do you think is going to be more successful over time? All things being equal, Jane's got the upper hand, because she's able to offer more complete advice—advice that takes into account more options and possibilities.

The bottom line on breadth of knowledge and skills is that you need to know way more than you might think. And you must strive to increase your breadth of knowledge throughout your career as a professional consultant.

Depth of Knowledge and Skills

If breadth of knowledge is about how many relevant skills and how much information you have at your disposal, depth of knowledge is about how well you know each area. You can know a lot of things superficially, but that kind of shallow knowledge isn't what clients are paying you for. You have to have depth to your knowledge.

To use another financial consultant example, imagine a financial consultant who knows just some of the tax laws relevant to financial planning. Would you take advice from that person? Maybe initially, but as soon as you got dinged for a big tax bill, you would be telling that consultant Sayonara. You'd also tell your friends not to hire the person.

Make sense? You don't want to be a consultant who can offer only inferior service because the breadth and the depth of your knowledge falls short of excellent.

As a final point on both depth and breadth of knowledge, consider that you can't ever know exactly how deep and how broad your knowledge and skills must be. However, the market and your clients will often give you important clues:

  • Keep in mind that you have gaps in breadth and depth of knowledge and be aware of situations in which they interfere with providing great consulting services. Identify them and address them.

  • Be a continuous learner. It's essential that you commit to learning constantly. Think of what you learn as your knowledge inventory. The more you have to offer and sell, the more likely you will be to succeed.

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