The consultancy market is booming; in fact there is so much business out there that firms are having a hard time getting enough people on board.
Although more and more people are interested in getting into consultancy, it is the same old story: firms cannot find the right people with the right skills.
So what is it that gives someone enough competitive edge to move into consultancy? And do people really need different skills when working for an internal consultancy (within a bank, building society or any other organisation) than if they were working for an external strategy firm or Big Six consultancy.
Fundamentally, consultancy is about communication. It is about sending and receiving information that can easily be unwrapped and digested by the receiver. And it is about asking the right questions and then presenting the client with the most important information in a clear and concise written or spoken format.
“It’s about how you run a meeting, and what the group dynamics are; how you manage people when you give presentations and how you form a team, run it and give feedback,” says Calvert Markham, now managing director of Consultancy Skills Training, and a former consultant at PA Consulting.
The interpersonal skills required for structuring events, so that both the team and client feel involved and are able to put forward issues, are just as important as the consultant being able to put across his point of view.
Markham believes that consultancy is about who you are and whether you have the right interpersonal skills to manage interdepartmental relationships well.
Marlene Mason, head of business consultancy at the Nationwide Building Society agrees: “The key skills are the people skills. I believe that you don’t buy the consultancy, you buy the person. We look for people who are able to influence and negotiate and realise there is always a compromise to be made.”
She adds: “We would expect people to be able to think in an analytical way anyway and have project management skills: from planning through to implementation.”
Transposing a problematic situation where there is a sense of malaise into a structured problem analysis with a defined plan and solution is a feat in itself and not everybody’s cup of tea. It is about understanding that there is a structure to collecting and assembling data. The next part of the paradigm is having the ability to develop a business plan, a valid business proposition and being able to juggle that with client handling.
“You have to be able to do account handling, relationship development and identify the sales opportunities and understand these from the clients’ point of view,” says Markham. “And when you are looking after client relationships, while you are doing the projects you have analyse how well they are doing.”
But finding people who have these qualities, an understanding of business and expertise in particular industry sectors is becoming more difficult as internal consultancies are increasingly competing against the large consulting houses for top strategy people.
In the last two years Nationwide’s business consultancy has raised its sights and brought onboard consultants with strategic skills. It will be focusing on implementing ISO 9000 throughout the organisation, integrating the standards into its already established methodologies and processes.
Mason believes that the market trend is for internal consultancies to acquire the same top level skills as external consultants. Essentially, firms are trying to ensure skills are passed on in-house as part of the organisation’s drive for knowledge transfer and to keep down costs.
What the practice wants to avoid is a repetition of what has happened in the past, where external consultants were brought in, completed a strategic change process and left with all the knowledge. Leaving without transferring that knowledge is now considered to be robbing a firm of its intellectual capital and skills.
“We work very closely with the other business units and that cuts down on the time an external consultancy would have to spend understanding the business and culture,” Mason says. The firm still works together with Big Six firms, but lets its 30-strong consultancy practice bid for and implement internal projects.
Whether people work as external or internal consultants, Markham believes that their roles are developing in the same way and a certain amount of skills convergence is going on in the market. External consultants are spending longer periods of time with one client, mirroring the way internal consultants work with one firm. Understanding and manipulating the relationships so that the outcome is positive is the same within both types of practices, the only significant difference is the power base.
Markham points out that external consultants will be regarded as having more power because people do not know their rank. With an internal consultant, whose rank is often known, employees will use it as an excuse not to engage in a change programme. Good influencing and negotiation skills here help internal consultants maintain that fine balance of implementing change and not treading on opponents’ toes.
The advantage of being an insider is that you also are privy to the unwritten rules of the firm and have that little black book with all the contacts.
The outsider may have to learn the latter, but equally has an advantage: the ability to think without feeling hemmed in by the firm’s political constraints and undercurrents.
Mason says: “The most challenging tasks are the ones that people set. We recommend effecting change at a pace that the society can accept.”
This may happen two years later, but it is something she believes people will often pick up when they can deal with that change.
Whatever consultancy work you are involved in it is all about delivering skills or value in a client environment. Flexibility and speed are the essence of this process and maintaining your skills are crucial if you want to survive in the future.
“Managing your own personal development and ensuring high “performance maintenance” will be more and more in the hands of the consultant,” says Markham.
He believes this will be true regardless of whether consultants work within an internal or an external consultancy framework. The type of paternalistic infrastructure that supports and looks after consultants will be pushed aside for one where the boundaries are more fluid and it is up to individuals to decide when to update their skills.
“Consultancy is about developing specialist skills or value in a client environment. There is not a lot of difference between external consultancies and internal consultancies; the skills are similar, it’s the application that might be different. The key bit is keeping the consultant outside the business,” he says.
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