Developing skills in the management consulting industry

18 October 2019 5 min. read
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Calvert Markham, Director at the Centre for Management Consulting Excellence, has published the most recent editions of two consulting books first released thirty years ago. Markham reflects on how the skills of management consultants have evolved on the back of the industry’s changing face.

Earlier this year the Centre for Management Consulting Excellence published the study ‘Consulting Skills for 2030’. Although the report identifies a number of technological developments that consultants will need to help their clients address over the next ten years, it also notes that there is a category of what it calls ‘timeless skills’, which are perennially required of effective consultants.

The need for timeless skills was brought home to me when preparing ‘The Art of Consultancy’ and ‘Mastering Management Consultancy’ – two books that serve as a source of reference for consultants, providing them with a toolkit to becoming a trusted advisor to clients.

At the time of the first editions of these books, the internet was in its infancy, email was only gradually being used, desktop computers were far from widespread and mobile phones were rare. But the skills covered then – how to address client problems, managing projects and keeping your clients happy – remain as relevant now as they did then.

Developing skills in the management consulting industry

And these are concerns of management consultants around the world. For years I have run training programmes for consultants in many countries and for example earlier this year delivered courses covering these skills in Thailand and Kazakhstan, where, as elsewhere, these skills remain just as relevant.

I also run a post-graduate programme at a leading business school in which teams of students tackle real consulting problems for organisations. We ask their clients for feedback following the projects and typically they commend the work rate, quality of thinking, insight and value of the recommendations – all of which are technical skills. Where there are criticisms they all relate to timeless skills: did they turn up on time? Did they exhibit a real concern for the needs and challenges faced by the client? Did they keep the client informed?

Of course, consulting projects are joint ventures between consultants and clients and the quality of the project depends on the performance of the client as well as that of the consultant. Good clients help their consultants do a good job – and of course, it is important that consultants help their clients be good clients!

Consulting’s changing face

Over the thirty years since the books were first published the shape of business has changed. Then, outsourcing and off shoring were unusual (and not called such). Businesses were international but seldom global. The large consulting firms of today – benefiting from the growth of globalisation and outsourcing – dwarf those of the late 1980s, and now there are lots more consultants.

Many executives on the client side therefore may now have had a spell in a consulting practice and will be familiar with the situation of the consultant who is now trying to engage with them. Hopefully this will make them better clients, but as I tell my students, even if you are not going to become a consultant, you will probably be hiring them at some stage, so understanding what makes for excellent consulting is going to be of help.

As an author, there are two further changes to how the world of work has changed, both related to the move away from gender stereotyping. The first is in the use of language. The introduction to the first edition of one of the books finished with these words: “Finally a small apology. Throughout the text I have referred to a consultant as male; many management consultants are, of course, female, but I thought it less verbose to write ‘he’ rather than ‘he or she’ on each occasion.”

In later editions I realised that this would not do, so then used ‘he or she’ quite liberally. But the change that has occurred of late is in the use of language where it is now quite acceptable to use ‘they’ as the third person singular. So the sentence ‘when a consultant writes a report they should use grammar carefully’ does not jar as much as perhaps it once did.

Secondly is the death of the secretary. Secretaries were heavily engaged with document production, but most business people now type their own documents. The residual tasks are now covered by personal assistants.

Finally, it’s worth noting that management consultancy is a craft skill. As well as classroom sessions, my early training in management consultancy was as an apprentice, under the tutelage of more experienced management consultants. I hope that in these books I have captured the lessons that I learned from their successes and failure, and subsequently from my own, and that they will be of value to all who are providers or users of management consultancy.