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MVP Consulting, Part I: Communication

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At a recent conference, I presented thoughts on how consultants can contribute value that transcends the scope of the engagement. Compelling questions from the audience raised the issue of whether it is possible to train consultants to add more value to their client projects or whether it is dependent on natural abilities. Since then, I have been intrigued by the idea of how ''change'' and ''performance improvement'' experts can change themselves to improve performance.

At the end of last weekend’s Super Bowl, no one had to think too hard about who deserved the MVP award. As consultants, we don’t get trophies, and there are no league standards for outstanding talent. So how do we measure our success?

In this two-part series, I focus first on client communications, and then on project management to outline winning mindsets and practices:

  • Develop a flexible and open communications style to underscore mutual respect.
Demonstrating confidence and competence is certainly part of our role. But to establish lasting and valuable relationships, understanding interpersonal dynamics is the first step, not an afterthought. No matter how brilliant your branding strategy, or how elegant your systems integration plan, nothing surpasses the core impact of how you convey ideas.

Establishing mutually empowering relationships involves approaching clients with an open mind and quickly establishing mutual trust and respect. For example, consultants on all levels should be capable of interviewing client staff in ways that makes them feel important, not threatened.

The most valuable consultants adapt their communication to each situation. It takes continual practice to determine when you should speak definitively as an expert, when you should listen attentively, and when you are needed as a sounding board.
  • Objectively review your communications style.
Do you rely on jargon to establish your expertise? Do you make an effort to learn and assimilate your clients’ vocabulary and values? Do you acknowledge internal knowledge and past events verbally and in writing?

As interpersonal styles vary greatly and different methods work better in different situations, it doesn’t make sense to design specific rules. However, methods such as role playing exercises and sensitivity training can help you to become more receptive to challenging viewpoints and more perceptive about personality and work style differences. Feedback sessions and skill building in recognizing communications patterns can increase your self-awareness and enable you to make constructive modifications.
  • Evaluate your personal and firm’s strengths and weaknesses, as they both come into play. Solicit client feedback in a comfortable and targeted way that focuses on practices and results, not personal differences. Analyze your findings to reinforce what is working and identify where you can become more effective.
  • Set standards for your own communications skills…and keep raising the bar.
On a recent phone call with a colleague in Raleigh, I accidentally jumped into the middle of his statements three times, not realizing he wasn’t finished speaking. In New York, cutting someone off can be seen as enthusiastic. But I don’t think it comes across that way in North Carolina. After cringing at my inadvertent behavior, I wrote down my goal of pausing long enough before responding to ensure that he was completely finished expressing his thoughts. Now, I look forward to our next conversation as a chance to practice.

It’s a sign of strength to identify opportunities to improve your communication skills. If you’ve been meaning to learn to lead meetings more effectively or speak before groups more engagingly, schedule it now. You’re a consultant. You know all about timelines and milestones.
  • Articulate short-term goals in line with your professional objectives. Literally write down how you would like others to describe your communications style and then regularly checkpoint against this description.
  • Encourage and support multidirectional communication.
Traditional organizational structures and communication channels have encouraged information flow on an as-needed basis only in one direction — from the top downwards. Today, with technical specialists in systems, compliance, finance, and product development dispersed throughout organizations, critical information comes from many directions. It is vital for information to flow not only from the bottom of an organization upwards, but also horizontally across business units and functions. Consultants often discover that one division has access to data or resources sought after by or extremely useful to another division, but a simple lack of communication has impeded the transfer of information.

The advantages of establishing channels and incentives for multidirectional communication are significant and far reaching, from improving morale to increasing profitability. This may initially require a structured approach, such as scheduling interdepartmental meetings, but communication will become more natural and more frequent as all parties recognize and benefit from the results.
  • Encourage multidirectional communication flow throughout your projects, from fact gathering through implementation and assessment. When you demonstrate the power of exchanging good ideas from various areas of the organization, you prove the untapped potential which exists.
  • Present findings and analysis in clear, interesting, and relevant terms.
With the increased use of electronic communications, our clients receive larger and larger volumes of business information. Thus, to best capture and retain their attention, oral and written presentations should be clear, concise, and illustrative.

Clients easily recognize an emphasis on form over content. Professionals participating in a meeting, reading a report, or attending a presentation are more interested in knowing the consultant’s bottom line, especially if it affects theirs.
  • To impress your audience, reduce emphasis on the “study and analysis” and increase focus on the “action items.” Contrary to beliefs long held by some management consulting firms, clients are well aware that thicker reports are not necessarily better reports.

  • Avoid boiler plate. When consultants recycle their last presentation, clients recognize that they aren’t really talking specifically to them, because they know they aren’t learning much. Use templates for formatting, but not for content.

Eli Manning delivered consistent and winning results to become the Super Bowl MVP. Your clients will view you the same way if you communicate with their benefits in mind. I can’t promise you a Cadillac, but client appreciation is also a worthy prize.

About the Author

Stefanie Smith leads Stratex, a Manhattan-based executive consulting and coaching firm. She advises executives on planning and executing strategic initiatives, working one-on-one or leading projects with their management and staff. Her unique consultant-coach style yields fast, powerful results.

Ms. Smith has provided solutions for executives at Morgan Stanley, American Express, JPMorganChase, Grant Thornton LLP, KPMG, WinStar Communications, Western Forge, Mount Sinai Medical Center, Direct Marketing Enterprises, Grant Associates, and the ASPCA. The successful outcomes of her projects reflect a blend of analytical and qualitative perspectives. For more specific information, please visit

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