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Who Is a Consultant?

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Some years ago, I spotted a familiar face at the airport. No mistake about it, it was Ben. A wave of nostalgia came over me. We had been college friends thirty years back. The head was bald and the girth increased, but the mischievous, pixie face was the same. Lots of bear-hugs and reminiscences of capers on campus. Ben had been a renegade and an upstart. A brilliant boy, he'd had the grudging respect of his fellow students and his teachers. But he was always in some kind of trouble. Then the conversation came around to "So what are you up to these days?" Ben is president of his own successful consulting firm. How did it happen? "I got tired of being fired," he said in a straightforward manner.

Ben isn't typical. There is no typical consultant. But he has certain traits that are requisite for a successful career in consulting, albeit these traits alone do not guarantee success. At school, he had a quick, receptive, and retentive mind. He questioned everything-a bane to his instructors. He would not and could not abide "chicken-shit." He ignored red-tape. Socially accepted custom was anathema to him unless he could see some private or public good in it. He dropped out or was kicked out of a number of courses; but those in which he was interested and to which he applied himself, he was straight "A." Ben never seemed to care what others thought of him - neither his peers nor his betters. But he did appear to be grading himself all the time according to his own standards. Most of all, he loved a good laugh. To him, the world was an amusing spectacle. He was able to maintain this attitude throughout the war, but never ignored its tragedy. Some called this courage, others called it fearlessness; I call it a spirit of adventure. Ben has been married more than once. When things weren't right for him, he either tried to fix them or moved on. He has never stayed for very long in a bad or uncomfortable situation. He has never found himself permanently trapped.

This vignette fairly well sums it up. If you are indecisive, dour, fatalistic, deterministic, plodding, or pessimistic, stick to what you are doing and don't consider a consulting career for yourself. These qualities are listed without peroration. If everyone became a consultant, our whole society would fall apart. As Lao Tze put it, "If every sentient being in this world was a bumblebee, there would be no bumblebees." A consultant is like a lawyer; he is also like a psychiatrist. Both must, first and foremost, be good listeners. But like common sense, that quality is not too common. Listening is an art. Ask any lawyer how much money his average client wastes by thrashing around emotionally hour after hour in his office until the facts in the case present themselves clearly so that the lawyer may act intelligently. Ask any psychiatrist how often a patient comes to him with a problem which is not the problem at all but merely a smokescreen for the real one, almost always. Since you don't know what the problem is, you must have the gift of listening intently with both ears plus Theodore Reik's "third ear." You must be receptive.

I have often heard it said that a consultant primarily must be an objective person. Not necessarily. He might be an opinionated lout. Objectivity in the human animal is automatic when he is not emotionally involved in a problem or situation. What is required here is technique, not objectivity as a personal trait. Child psychiatrists can be of enormous help to other people's children because of the techniques they use, even though these same techniques are unworkable on some of their own unmanageable children because of the emotional involvement. A fine surgeon will rarely operate on a close friend or relative. Emotional involvement cancels out objectivity; lack of it guarantees it. Your strength as a consultant lies primarily in your ability to listen receptively. Only in this way can you identify the real problem as opposed to what the client often times thinks it is, and then get to work solving it.

You must question everything. Only a curious person can do this and do it effectively. The more information you have, the better you can work. If you are not curious by nature don't try consulting as a career, because you will fail.

Adventurousness almost to the point of heresy is another important quality. One of the reasons a client is in trouble is that he has been doing the same things with the same attitudes for too long without self-examination. It is possible for you to be brash without being disrespectful. The really big assignments come often to those who are able to run the fine line in this area. Here is a verbatim conversation with a prospective client, the president of a growing conglomerate:

He: I want you to help me build an empire here.

Me: Fair enough. You want to be an emperor.

He: I didn't say that.

Me: Yes you did. I'm not judging you. You want to be an emperor. Let's get to work and see how we can accomplish this.

He: I've never had any employee talk to me this way before.

Me: Maybe that's one of your troubles. Besides, I'm not your employee. I'm a consultant, who, for a fee, would like to help you actualize your goals.

That cemented the relationship in that instance. I earned $5100 in fees and was of considerable help to him. Of course, you can't take this approach, or any other, with everyone. You have to be able to size up whom you are dealing with. But this in itself is an adventure. It is off-beat. It's fun. You must be able to enjoy each encounter. I have never met a successful humorless consultant.

You must be a person with extremely high standards for yourself - and be self-motivated enough to constantly push yourself to meet those standards. In other words, an inner-directed person makes a good consultant. If you are still trying to please "the boss" (your client) you will surely fail. The client has been self-indulgent for too long and his employees have been yessing him to death. That is why he is in trouble and has called upon you. If he can coerce or browbeat you into doing what he wants, he has no use for you in the first place, and, even though you may come away with a fee, you will lose your self-confidence. Remember, your self-confidence is one of your main tickets to success.

There are all kinds of articles and courses these days that deal with something called "assertiveness training." If you feel you need this kind of training, forget consulting. Put another way, the consulting experience implies assertiveness. Look at the situation itself. The prospective client called you; you didn't call him. He is in trouble; you are not. He has money or "face" to lose; you do not. All of this ensures your ability to come on strong. We are assuming, of course, that you are an expert in your field, because, above all, you must be right. Your strength in this situation builds the client's confidence in you. Consider the physician who displays a lack of assurance in his own diagnosis. The patient loses respect. The patient lacks confidence in the proposed cure. The patient does not cooperate. The patient does not recuperate too quickly. The doctor's reputation suffers. The patient does not recommend others. The doctor cannot raise his fees. A client's initial confidence resulting from the consultant's self-assuredness means that there is already a 75 percent chance that the project will be successful due to mutual cooperation.

Never forget that, at the very least, you are in a peer situation. If you can't shake the old attitude that a person in a high position (usually the one who is considering retaining your services) is your superior, you are in trouble.
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