It is said that a consultant needs three kinds of expertise: a general understanding of management and organisations, knowledge of a specialist domain and the skills specific to selling and delivering consulting projects. The consulting-specific skills include so-called ‘soft’, social skills such as building rapport and establishing relationships of trust with clients.
CMCE’s report Consulting Skills for 2030 explored the topic of the expertise needed by consultants in the future in some detail. Our survey for the report confirmed that soft skills are important but that they are often regarded as core personal attributes rather than skills that can be learnt. Consultancy firms may look for them in potential recruits but typically do not implement formal measures to develop them in the consultants they employ. However research suggests that these skills can be analysed and some aspects of them could be taught.
A paper I read recently (1) sheds light on some of these soft skills. Dr Julia DiBenigno of Yale University studied how external experts win the confidence of operational line managers. The context was unusual, mental health experts advising army commanders in Afghanistan on whether individual soldiers with mental health issues should be available for duty, but the analysis of approaches used by experts who established successful working relationships with commanders has implications for consultants entering organisations in a wide range of contexts. The successful experts used a range of tactics to rapidly establish a relationship with individual commanders, prove their utility to them, and subsequently maintain the relationship. Experts who did not achieve all of these three steps did not establish effective working relationships. There is not space here to list the tactics that were successful at each stage but they are described in the paper. Knowing which tactics are likely to be successful would undoubtedly help consultants in similar situations in future.
Our Consulting Skills survey concluded that technology will be the best entry point for younger consultants into the management consulting profession, but that ‘timeless’ consulting skills, including soft skills, will continue to be important and new skills required of consultants will include soft skills such as empathy and cultural adaptation. Analyses of the soft skills deployed by successful consultants, along the lines of the study described above, could be used to develop training approaches for developing some of these skills in consultants recruited primarily for their technical abilities.
(1) DiBenigno, J. ‘Rapid relationality: How peripheral experts build a foundation for influence with line managers’, Administrative Science Quarterly January 2019, 1–41.