The single biggest mistake that people make in starting their consulting business is thinking they’re ready just because they have strong technical skills or content knowledge.
They think that their years of experience in their field, their skills in some technical area, or their content knowledge is enough to start a successful consulting business.
Oh, Boy! Are they ever in for a rude surprise. In reality, it takes bringing together – harmonizing, actually – five sets of skills to have a successful consulting business. And new consultants typically have two of them at best.
The five skill sets are:
1. Sector, industry, and field knowledge
Every sector of organizations (government, nonprofits, and business), every industry (manufacturing, service, etc.), and every advisory field within them (human resources, finance, governance, etc.) have their own quirks, norms, and narratives. The dynamics of, say, a technology startup business and a nonprofit behavioral counseling agency are dramatically different. A solid grounding in the sector, industry, and field in which you will work, and having a good appreciation for the dynamics of that field, are essential to successful work with clients.
2. Content knowledge and technical skills
Successful consultants have deep skills and knowledge that underpin their services. These can range from executive coaching to advice on financial systems, to strategic planning facilitation – the list could go on and on. Those services are based on the consultant’s content knowledge and technical skills. Successful consultants also maintain a “growing edge,” regularly learning new skills and information to stay at the forefront of their field.
3. Small business skills and practices
Whether it’s a solo practice or a multi-associate firm, consulting is a business that becomes and remains sustainable because its leader(s) have mastered a range of business skills. This includes the ability to structure your business, price and market your services appropriately, contract with clients efficiently, organize projects and the work overall, deliver projects on time and within budget, invoice projects on a timely basis and maintain cash flow, and meet your regulatory and tax obligations. No matter how strong the consultant’s services, shoddy or amateurish business practices undermine client confidence and eventually will kill the business.
4. Consulting process skills
While nearly all consulting projects involve a standard set of five or six stages, the tools, content, and approaches employed within those stages vary considerably depending on the type of engagement. The craft of consulting includes the ability to shepherd projects through these stages and having effective tools and approaches for each stage of the process. However, it’s not all about steps and techniques. Successful consultants are masterful guides. Rather than moving through stages by rote, they use these stages to orchestrate a client experience – an experience of discovery, change, and commitment that leads to the project objective.
5. Consulting presence
Successful consultants cultivate their interpersonal skills to work effectively with client teams and manage client relationships. “Presence” is the ability to wed process skills with people skills to successfully move the client forward. First, it involves “being there,” which means showing up, being available, and being fully present when working with a client. Second, it includes the ability to inspire clarity, confidence, and a sense of possibility in the people with whom the consultant is working. It’s the ability to help clients discover and commit to a way forward and taking the necessary action to follow through.
So, how can you develop these skills? If you worked in your industry or field for any significant period of time, you probably are well on your way to mastering the first two – sector, industry, and field knowledge, and content knowledge and technical skills. The craft of consulting, the consulting presence, and business skills and practices are also born of experience, but we can help you jumpstart the process.
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