Over the last few years, I’ve spent a fair bit of time observing and thinking about people who work at consulting companies such as ours. I’ve seen some thrive in their capacity as consultants while others struggle despite their obvious intelligence and apparent preparation. As someone tasked with recruiting and developing people, I know it’s best if we hire people well-suited to the role in the first place. But how do we know what to look for?

Look at virtually any job posting in our industry (ours included) and you’ll notice a couple of things. First, every applicant must possess some base level of functional skill. For engineers, this might include specific languages or technology stacks. For designers, you might need proven ability in graphic design, wire framing, or prototyping. The second thing you’ll find in every posting is an emphasis on the need for great communication skills.

Seeking excellence in both functional and communication skills is undeniably important. But these are hardly unique to the world of consulting. I don’t care if you work for a product company or an agency, if you’re unable to effectively communicate or aren’t proficient in the tools of the trade, you’re going to find success elusive. So which attributes predict the type of people who make great consultants?

Although this is certainly not exhaustive, I’ll offer three qualities to look for when considering a new hire: Great consultants are constantly seeking to improve themselves, they demonstrate empathy, and they’re problem finders.

Self Improvement

The fundamental difference between a product company and a consulting company is this: In a product company, employees create a product, or service, customers want and improve it over time in response to the needs of those customers. In a consulting company, the employees are the product. Just as a product company can’t afford to sit still or let their offering go stale, a consulting company can only remain relevant if its employees evolve and grow.

We seek people who need little or no prompting to pick up new skills. They are curious by nature and make an effort to understand which emerging tools and practices show the most promise for use on future projects. As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that consulting companies need to support their staff in this mission. At Mutually Human, we do that by consciously investing in ourselves every Friday. More on that in a later post.

Empathy

All of us are familiar with the satisfaction of solving a problem that’s confronting us. When the problem being solved is our own, we understand which solutions work well and which don’t address the underlying issue. The challenge is more difficult however when the problem to be solved is not our own. In such circumstances, the problem solver needs to understand the perspective of someone else. This requires empathy.

Anyone working on a product or service must be capable of understanding the thoughts and feelings of the customers. This is doubly true in consulting where the consultant must correctly interpret not only what the end user is thinking, but also what is driving the client. Are they constrained by their organization in ways that seem detrimental to the project but over which they have no control? How much of their own personal credibility is on the line? Is everyone on the client team on board with the use of consultants in the first place? An effective consultant can’t just wish such questions away or conclude that a client whose view differs from yours is acting irrationally. To the contrary, someone who enjoys consulting is the kind of person who’s not only open to dealing with these things, but comfortable thinking of these challenges as different types of requirements that help inform the eventual shape of the solutions they provide.

Problem Finders

The best consultants are those who are not only capable of solving problems, they also find the right problems to solve. If we only measure output we can easily fool ourselves into feeling good while completely missing the purpose of the project. An even worse situation occurs when you find yourself assigned to work with questionable value or clarity. Consultants can’t afford to make these mistakes. So much of our business derives from repeat customers and referrals, it’s imperative that the client recognize we’re doing something for them they can’t do for themselves. Helping the client to focus on outcome instead of output is the surest way to deliver this kind of value.

A problem finder is someone who takes a “what” statement and turns it into a “why” conversation:

Assignment: Build a better mousetrap
Q: Why is a mousetrap needed?
A: We have mice coming into the house that need to be caught.
Q: Why are the mice coming into the house?
A: To get the food that’s on the floor.
Q: Why are there crumbs left on the floor?
A: The children don’t clean up after themselves.
Q: Why don’t the children clean up after themselves?
A: They don’t face the consequences of failing to do so.
Q: Should we work on something to help the children behave better in any number of areas?

Consultants enjoy working with clients on this path of discovery because it usually better serves the client’s interests and provides more rewarding work for the consultant. The client ultimately decides where they want to focus, but they’ll appreciate the effort made in validating the problem.

The Essentials

While these qualities of continuous skill development, empathy, and problem finding can be found across both industry and company, they’re more than just valuable to a consultancy – they’re essential. And if they describe you, please get in touch.

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