In future management consultants will need to have a combination of technical and what we could define as soft skills, e.g. cultural adaptation and empathy.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” A. Einstein
Most of the work that we do at CMCE focuses on the future of management consulting, with particular emphasis on understanding and evaluating the emerging practices in our profession and on what being a management consultant will mean in a decade and beyond. One of the most discussed topics is therefore the skills that future professionals will need to possess in order to navigate change and innovation. In 2018 the Centre published the ‘Consulting skills for 2030” report in an attempt to throw light on the specific competences and knowledge that management consultants will need going forward, based on the trends and challenges that are currently observable. Our research identified two separate sets of key skills: what we called ‘timeless skills’ like, for example, senior relationship building and change management that are and will continue to be essential for management consultants, and new skills that included not only new technology, cyber security and innovation but also cultural adaptation and empathy. This shows how our respondents recognised the need for professionals to have a combination of technical and what we could define as soft skills.
However, when aspiring consultants ask the classic question about which skills they should develop to have a successful career, there is a tendency to focus mostly on technical skills because they are somewhat more tangible and measurable. Even though it is indeed easier to see the impact of hard skills on a balance sheet than that of personality traits and interpersonal skills, we should make sure that we do not underestimate their importance or, even worse, overlook them completely. On the contrary, the current business environment makes it imperative for organisations and individuals to find ways to develop and measure these competences as a way to prepare professionals for a future-proof career. This is exactly why we decided to start this series of articles aimed at drawing attention to different soft skills and related competences such as, for instance, self-leadership, communication, creativity, adaptability and resilience, and how these can improve our performance as consultants.
Why, now more than ever, is it important to focus on soft skills?
Unlike what many may think, the idea that soft skills are essential for leaders in any profession - and increasingly for each individual who wants to have a competitive advantage in the current business environment – is not new. It was 1918 when research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Centre suggested that 85% of a person’s success depends on personality and ability to communicate, negotiate and lead, in other words anything that today we would label as soft skills. While only the remaining 15% is linked to technical knowledge. This does not mean that technical skills should be neglected in favour of soft skills, they still remain the core knowledge and competences that each professional must have. However, soft skills are the glue that holds everything else together and represent the real differentiator, all other things being equal. The reason why they have become even more important over the last few decades is that we are living and working in an age of economic, social and political insecurity, deeply characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA).
A VUCA environment and the trends shaping the future of work
Coined four decades ago and initially adopted in the military world, the VUCA acronym is still an appropriate descriptor of the current business environment. But it now takes on a different meaning because today change is a constant element of our daily work, not a single, time-bound event as it was often considered in the past. In addition, the phenomena of disruption and turbulence that we experience are increasingly extreme, rapid and frequent and even a small event can trigger a domino effect with huge global repercussions. The future of work will be shaped by continuous changes at individual, organisation and societal level, mainly driven by the introduction of new technology, globalisation and increased mobility as well as demographic and attitudinal changes. As a result, many of today’s jobs, especially at entry level, will either change significantly, require completely different competences or will be taken over by AI.
As Margaret Heffernan explains in her latest book, ‘Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together’, in such a context, organisations and individuals should break free from their dependence on traditional datasets and models to achieve certainty. What they should do instead is embrace the idea that multiple futures may exist and they might most likely not be predictable. We should therefore shift at least part of our focus on learning how to be flexible to adapt and, even more importantly, thrive in ambiguity and complexity.
What does this mean for the next generation of management consultants and their work with clients? It highlights the need for developing the knowledge and ability to find innovative solutions and unconventional approaches to solve the key issues that we are currently facing and we will continue to face in the foreseeable future. This mainly entails three things:
. de-learning some of the traditional processes that we considered indispensable in the past and are not designed to help solve our current issues;
. being prepared to acquire new skill sets – some of which do not even exist yet:
. developing a new mindset based on leadership, communication, proactivity and collaboration.
And soft skills are an essential factor in this process.
Valentina Lorenzon, member of the CMCE Coordination group and editor of the CMCE newsletter
In my next article I will explore the concept of leadership and will discuss the need for future consultants to learn how to lead themselves first in order to improve the way they work with clients.
In the meantime, we would like to hear from you! What are, in your opinion, the skills that will be crucial for future management consultants? Get in touch to let us know what you think.