Many people want to work in strategy consulting for the learning opportunities. This makes sense because the rapid pace of work combined with the generous investments in learning and development mean that consultants can quickly develop skills that enable them to work in many industries in roles after they leave consulting.
However, while there are many article listing some of these skills, they rarely go deep enough. Consultants are often thought of as being people that are good at charts and data. However, the best consultants often have a much deeper set of skills that are harder to understand and measure – the tacit knowledge of working at a high-level and doing it over and over again.
#1 Epistemic Humility
According to Socrates, wisdom was the admission that you are not wise. To the outside, one may think that the default stance in consulting is for young consultants to pretend they know everything.
Instead, successful consultants adopt the general sense that they are likely to be wrong…a lot.
This enables consultant to discover new solutions, insights or mental models without being too attached with one way of doing things. The consulting industry does a great job of attracting talented people that want to operate in this way and also offers this as a service to its corporate clients who often are stuck in the “that how things are done here” mode.
The day-to-day experience of this can be frustrating as your teammates will always look to challenge you or poke holes in your analysis or reasoning. Over time, you internalize these critiques and learn to be more skeptical of your own data and analysis.
#2 Comfort With Uncertainty
The first six months working in consulting can be traumatic for some who have a desire for control and certainty. New grads often struggle with the shift shift from clearly defined assignments and 10-page double-spaced papers in school to the nebulous problems that consulting firms are hired to help companies solve.
The only way to develop a comfort with uncertainty is to experience the consulting process over and over again.
Over time, the consultant develops a deeper understanding of what comes next. This deeper sense of “knowing” they are on the right path is hard to explain, but definitely exists.
By working on many projects, exploring new topics with limited understanding, knowing how to react to client roadblocks and helping business leaders take action on formerly intractable issues within a certain domain, each successive moment of uncertainty becomes a bit less daunting.
This is where real confidence comes from and is likely one of the biggest reasons many ex-consultants go on to lead large companies.
Comfort with uncertainty emerges through ones ability to deal with anxiety. This plays out in mini-conflicts in team rooms across the world due to varying levels of anxiety about the state of the project.
A typical conflict is when a Partner doesn’t feel that the project is heading in the right direction and starts to put pressure on the project leader to push the team further. That project leader’s own capacity and comfort with uncertainty can make all the difference on whether or not he and his team are able to manage the tension or self-combust into conflict.
As one progresses in their roles at a consulting firm from associate to project leader to principal to partner, the consultant faces higher levels of uncertainty and challenges. The reason many people decide to stay for 4-5 years at a consulting firm instead of two is often because of their ability to continue to grow and learn and develop one’s capacity for navigating this anxiety and uncertainty.
Synthesis is something that many junior consultants think that they master quickly – within 2–3 months of joining a consulting firm. However, this is likely a duning-kruger effect and after a while you realize that becoming highly skilled at synthesis takes a few more years of deliberate practice.
In consulting they call this the “so what?” meaning you are able to absorb an enormous amount of information and then communicate to your audience what they should think about it. The more complex the inputs, the harder this is to do. At a simple level, if you see a company with three products and all have increased in sales for the last twelve months, you can synthesize that the company is doing well reaching new customers.
However, if you are working with a company with 100 product lines across 50 countries and with different marketing and distribution channels in each country, you can start to see how it is hard to synthesis clear takeaways from any information you have on last year’s sales.
One approach to deal with this is to generate a list of all of the data points you have and then start to group them, giving each group a temporary label that summarizes the information. You then would shift things around many times, adding some data that might be missing and eliminating data that doesn’t really help you get to the “point.” Eventually, you’ll have a couple of groups with clear common themes or even one central idea that ties everything together.
Synthesis is more art than a simple set of steps to follow and there is often no “right” answer. It is a deliberate process that is the result of critical thinking. In my consulting course, one of the exercises is a set of fake quotes, interviews, and survey data from a fictitious company. The students then synthesize the information into three themes to present to the CEO. While I provide a “correct” answer, I’ve also been impressed at how many answers my students have added that is also correct.
#4 Structured Writing Skills
The best consultants are great writers. Writing forces the consultant to come face to face with their own arguments. When you are writing out your arguments it is much easier to call BS on yourself that one might while looking at a PowerPoint presentation. While writing (more specifically “memos”) was once the center of consulting work firms did (businesses often operated through “memos”) a lot of this has eroded in the past twenty years as firms have leaned more heavily on analytics and PowerPoint presentations.
When I started at McKinsey one of our first “assignments” in training was to develop a structured memo synthesizing information from 5–10 articles on any topic we wanted to research. That was transformative. Compared to the kinds of writing I did in the business and engineering schools, the feedback was non-stop and constantly pushed me to better structure my ideas and more clearly communicate what I was trying to say. This iterative feedback helps many consultants become better writers.
Many remote companies are shifting back towards writing as a central way of communication because they realize that writing is a way of forcing people to more clearly communicate what they think. No matter how good a PowerPoint slide is, nothing is clearer than writing, which is why at places like McKinsey, there is always an executive summary included in addition to the deck or in the front of the deck.
Writing forces one to come face to face with the quality of their thinking in a way that speaking, sharing decks or giving a PowerPoint presentation does not.
The caricature of consultants is that they are rigid analytical geeks. While this is directionally true, the best consultants are the ones that can be creative after learning how to succeed within constraints. The point of learning frameworks, structured thinking tools like MECE and Pyramid Principle, and operating within defined rules like “never use smaller than 14 font” (ahem, McKinsey) is that once you master these foundational principles, you can then start to use them in more creative ways.
A good consultant doesn’t have to consciously use MECE to organize a group of ideas, they just do it naturally and start coming up with more creative ways of summarizing the information – often spending more time on how to make the ideas or recommendations persuasive rather than perfectly organized.
For example, I facilitate workshops for companies sometimes and I know that a 2×2 framework, while perhaps one of the most obvious signs that you are a nerdy consultant, can be one of the most useful tools in helping teams make decisions. I’ll draw a 2×2 on a whiteboard before I know what the labels are. I can then start with a well-known framework such as ranking impact on revenue vs. ease of implementation but tailoring it to the companies language or way of doing business. The consultant archetype is often an asset to companies because they have been exposed to many different problems and have 100 different ways of solving them.
The best consultants learn these frameworks but are not constrained by them. They can adapt to the company culture, use different language, adapt to the project realities or even abandon the frameworks altogether.