Essential skills for the solo consultant

The essential art of listening well

Being a consultant is a very particular role.  You are invited into an organisation to provide expert advice, sometimes at a difficult time, or when it is faced with a complex issue it has been unable to resolve with in-house resources.  Your job is to provide that ‘expert advice’ as a solution to that problem or issue.

But you will only figure out what that expert advice to provide after listening very carefully to multiple people.

In my humble view, listening is everything.

And the good news is that as a consultant there is much more time to listen than as an employee.  As employees, especially at senior levels, the pace of day-to-day business can be fast and furious.  There are always multiple balls in the air, competing demands and on-the-go decision making.

But the privilege we have as consultants is to be able to focus on a single complex issue. To spend time with it, look at it from all sides, listen to what people have to say about it, formulate considered opinions about it.

I’m not suggesting we have all the time in the world; far from it.  But we do have a singular focus. Our job is to delve deep and wide; to develop a comprehensive understanding of what’s going on in relation to that issue, to diagnose the contributing factors; and ultimately, to figure out what might work in addressing that issue. 

And in my view, the most important skill that is going to help us in this task is, you guessed it, listening.

Listen before you even win the project

I’ve written before about the importance of figuring out what the client really wants from a project so that you can produce an excellent consultancy proposal.  A proposal that will not only get you ahead of the competitors [so you can win the bid] but which will also make sure you have understood the scope adequately so you don’t end up being out of your depth or out of pocket.

There are some tricks of the trade that help with this that I outline in another FS article [link here], but suffice to say that listening is essential at the outset.

Listen with intent

What are you listening for?  Figuring out the important questions is a key part of the listening process.  My advice is to focus on two levels of questions.  Firstly, what overarching questions must the consultancy project find the answers to?  And secondly, what questions do I therefore need to ask key stakeholders?

The higher-level questions form the basis of your terms of reference.  No matter what the nature of the project, identifying high level questions works, for example:

  • What is the shared vision of the service in 5 years time?
  • To what extent has the program achieved its stated objectives
  • How effective are the governance and management arrangements?

Once you have agreed those with your client you are beginning to get clear about what to listen for during the project.  The you can identify the questions for stakeholder.  For example, what do you need to ask stakeholders to find answers to the question about governance and management arrangements?  It might be:

  • How are decisions made within the organisation? Are you able to contribute? Are the processes transparent.
  • What reporting mechanisms are in place?  How do teams report progress against the business plan?  

And perhaps most importantly

  • How effective do you think the governance arrangements are? 

Listen with flexibility

For every project I always have a clear set of guiding questions as I’ve outlined above.

But it’s also really important to be prepared to listen outside of those questions.  Because at the start of a new project there is only so much information I will have taken on board and without doubt, things will emerge that mean I need to explore a slightly different angle, ask a slightly different question. 

But beware of rabbit holes and red herrings; there is definitely a skill in figuring out the difference between an important issue relevant to the organisation, versus a burning passion or bugbear of one or two individuals.

So be guided by your pre-prepared questions, always come back to them to check you’re on track, but don’t be limited by them. 

Listen broadly

Your client will advise you about who you should be talking with or interviewing for a project.   But you can [and should] provide guidance about this.  Listening to the obvious people is important, but getting the views and insights from a broader range of stakeholders will give you a much better understanding of the problem and lead to a much better outcome.

Think about who this problem or issue impacts on, who has experiences that might be helpful here?  This might be admin staff, clients/customers, members of other teams, people from external organisations that interact with your client organisation. 

The key message here is don’t limit who you listen too.  Don’t just interview the usual suspects.  

Listen with an open mind

Sometimes after I’ve conducted around half the stakeholder interviews in a project I am tempted to somewhat arrogantly think ‘yes I now understand what’s going on here, it’s pretty clear what advice I need to give’. And the danger with this kind of thinking is that I stop listening actively, that I listen only for views that confirm my diagnosis.  But I’ve learnt time and time again, that how important it is to keep an open mind throughout the whole consultation. Yes, a lot of what is said confirms my thinking so far, but you just never know when some new information is going to emerge that adds something very important. So don’t rest on your laurels too early; stay alert and listen with an open mind right to the last stakeholder interview.

Listen to some more than others

I know, tricky to say this given I’ve just advised you to make sure you listen to the views of many stakeholders.  But the reality is that some people are more important than others in a consultancy project in terms of developing solutions. 

If I am interviewing the Chief Executive or Board members, clearly what they say has to carry substantial weight.  My job is to look for solutions that a] address the problem; b] enough people can live with; c] are feasible and practical; and d] the senior people are prepared to get behind.

The bottom line is that if there is no energy or will for particular solutions at the senior levels of the organisation, then they will simply not be implemented.  And if I deliver ‘expert advice’ I know is unlikely to be implemented then I’ve failed in my role. 

This is not about not listening, nor about whitewashing the views of others.  It’s about balance and pragmatism.  I understand the public sector well enough to know that sometimes the politics of the day simply won’t support a particular way forward, or that financial restraints render a particular solution impractical.

There is always more than one way up the mountain and our job as consultants is to find a way that balances the needs of multiple stakeholders.

Listen with discretion

You hear all sorts of things as an independent consultant. In fact, sometimes I’m amazed at what people who basically don’t know me from Adam are prepared to share with me. About past organisational ‘failures’, ‘failures’ of their manager or other team members; even disclosing inappropriate personal information.

As much as you might relish a morsel of gossip, its important not to pursue these conversations.  While it can be hard to move some people on from their pet subject, you need to stay professional and distance yourself [nicely] and move them onto more relevant discussion.

And then you need to pretend you never heard it!  Don’t ever be tempted to pass on inappropriate information given to you during stakeholder consultations. It’s simply not appropriate for professional for you to discuss this with others.  [My only exception to this rule is where information is disclosed indicating serious misconduct which obviously, I can’t ignore]

Listen with empathy

This is particularly important when conducting projects like organisational reviews or restructures – situations where it is possible [even likely] that people you are interviewing are going to be personally impacted by the outcome.  Even when they know that change is necessary it can be tough.  You’re probably going to be asking questions that they’ll find tough to answer, that may result in them being emotional.  Show empathy.  It may not change the outcome, but it will almost certainly change their experience of being interviewed.  It really comes down to basic respect.

Google ‘essential consulting skills’ and you may not see listening on the list.  But it’s an essential core competency for every good consultant.  Don’t be that person who thinks they know best.  You don’t.  The only road to delivering your client an effective outcome is to listen first, analyse later.

Jacq Hackett provides expert consulting services to public health agencies. And as a veteran of over two decades of consulting, she now provides coaching and development for other consultants. She is passionate about supporting the next generation of public sector consultants to become very good at what they do.

If you’ve recently made the transition from employment to consulting – or you’re on the cusp of making the move, enrol in my Public Sector Consulting Fundamentals program  – five video training sessions focusing on some of the essential building blocks of developing a successful public sector consultancy business.

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