Consultant roles demand communication skills

What does it take to be a successful consultant?

Many IT professionals see consultancy as a desirable career, offering big bucks and exciting projects. But just because you are an expert in your industry sector does not necessarily mean you will cut it as a consultant - or be happy and fulfilled in your work. What does it take to be a successful consultant?

Consultants clearly need good interpersonal skills. "We look for examples of where people have handled sensitive or difficult situations - not necessarily just commercially but in extra-curricular activities - and where they have been able to move a group of people forward to a successful conclusion," says Julia Harvie-Liddel, recruitment director for Accenture in the UK and Ireland. "We want people who are capable of working in teams and influencing and driving things forward, not being the one who sits in the background."

One IT professional who has made the transition is Rebecca Smith, now a consultant in Deloitte's technology delivery management arm. Smith previously worked in house as a project manager for a global construction company, and as a database analyst for a data management services provider. She confirms that "consulting is very much more people-oriented and people skills are much more important than in many in -house roles where you can be more focused on the technology."

One of the conflicts you will undoubtedly face regularly is dealing with the demands of two bosses who may have very different ideas about what you should be doing. "You are not just reporting to your own boss but to the client," says Dan Picken, an account representative at specialist technical recruiters Advanced Resource Managers, who has recruited for both corporates and consultancies. Linda Jureidini-Cox, an associate director in the IT Practice of recruitment consultancy Hudson, says that "You have to be comfortable managing client expectations and making decisions, and have a can-do attitude." Consultancy is not for you if you do not like being put on the spot and having to think on your feet.

In fact, being able to hit the ground running is essential. "In house, you are working with the same people and get a chance to build up a rapport," says Smith. "In consultancy, you are involved in projects that last perhaps three to six months and you need to integrate quickly into the team to get the work done. You need to be able to adapt to the different management styles of the project manager on each project, and as you move across different projects, you need to be able to get up to speed quickly on industry terminology and operations for each particular client so you can start applying your technical skills to their project."

Top-notch communications skills are also vital. "You have to be a very good listener," Jureidini-Cox says, "and be able to convert a good idea into a practical solution for the customer." In addition, you need to be able to pick up on needs that have not been explicitly articulated. "There is often a misconception that you go into a client site to do a particular piece of work, but with consultancy there are add-ons, and everything is billable," Jureidini-Cox says.

Picken confirms that "even in the most technical roles, you need to commercially aware and understand the costs associated with decisions. The costs of anything you do not document and any problems you come across will be passed back to your company" - and your manager will not be happy if you make mistakes that eat into contract profit margins on a regular basis.

This means consultancies are also more likely to employ people who come from another consultancy or from an in-house role in larger European or global companies where the culture is also similarly heavily process-oriented rather than people from smaller companies with a less rigid working environment.

Those working in consultancy roles need to be flexible and relish a challenge. Harvie-Liddel warns that it is not a career for anyone who does not enjoy a lot of change and uncertainty. Frequent out-of-hours work and travel mean it is probably not for you if you prefer nine-to-five work or have a young family. She says that when evaluating candidates, Accenture is always "looking for evidence that people have taken on additional responsibility and pushed themselves."

That does not mean to say consultancies will only employ you if you already have all the necessary skills. Many run their own in-house training academies to ensure both graduates and experienced hires are brought up to speed with the necessarily soft skills. However, Jureidini-Cox says, employers want to see evidence that you are committed to continuously updating your skills and have an appetite for learning, so qualifications such as Prince2 and ITIL on your CV will do you no harm. Smith, for example, came into consultancy with the Prince2 qualification and training in various project management tools and techniques, as well as a degree in information systems. At the same time, Harvie-Liddel says, consultancies are wary of people who are highly qualified but have no consistent focus to their development, and who cannot show how they have benefited from and applied that learning.

Consultancies are certainly happy to invest in your development if they think you have the right aptitude. Accenture, for instance, puts staff through mandatory "core schools" designed to ensure staff have the skills they need at each level from analyst up to senior manager. It also offers a "bank account" of training hours that staff can use as they see fit for online or classroom training, and provide refresher courses in softer skills such as meeting facilitation or presentation skills if staff need them.

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