If You Don’t Like Case Competitions, Does This Mean You Won’t Like or Be Good at Consulting?

I was posed on Quora a question similar to the above question, and below was my response. I highlight in bold, a key insight drawn from behavioral science.

One the one hand, case competitions leverage a lot of skills that career consultants end up using, such as problem solving skills under pressure, teamwork, communications, creativity, and persuasiveness. But there are also many other skills to master in consulting which are not part of case competitions such as street smarts, empathy, functional excellence, engagement management, leadership, industry knowledge, and advisory orientation. In consulting, you serve your client, not case competition evaluation boards.

Recognize that at the core of consuting is mentorship, apprenticeship, teamwork, and learning from experience. Namely, people learn how to become better and better consultants by starting the profession with enough core skills and appetities to get started. After being involved with a number of projects, one learns from others in the firm how to develop more and more skills and one’s professional identity. You may start in one place and find yourself in a very different place at a later point. Of course, the flavor of the firm and how you experience this may vary a lot from firm to firm.

I wouldn’t overindex and project too far into your future how much you would like consulting based on a single indicator. People are not that great at forecasting in complex situations where they have little prior experience and little feedback. On the other hand, if you are getting multiple warning signs, such as you dislike teamwork, dislike 99% of the people in consulting, have gotten feedback from other consultants that you are the wrong for the profession, have gotten feedback from people that know you well and know the profession that you are not a fit, dislike business, dislike companies, dislike people, then I might reflect a bit more. Remember, you might just start consulting with a strong skills and proclivities in a few areas and flourish over time. My keys to success in consulting (as evidenced solely by my ability to stay in the profession for decades) were probably my appetite for variety and my ability to adapt. I also had supportive managers at key pivot points in my career.

Things to Think About If a Client Prospect Asks, “What is the Longest Time You’ve Worked with Any Client?”

This post is based on a question I was posed on Quora.

Based on this question, my gut reaction is that they are looking for a sense of a) how deep do you go with similar clients in similar situations, and b) what’s the outside norm in terms of project length for a similar clients in similar situations.

Key things to be aware of though are what is the client thinking and what you are thinking. With respect to client thinking, are they really talking about any client? Or are they more likely to be talking about a similar client in a similar situation? Where on the spectrum? In terms of what you are thinking, do you think the client has the right perception about any client versus similar client?

How you should respond depends on where you think the client is anchored and where you think they should be.

If they are anchored on similar clients in similar situations, then you could qualify to what extent you see them as similar and then give a range of how long you’ve worked with such clients depending on whether X was involved or X, Y, and Z were involved. You can use this opportunity to answer their questions while also giving them a sense of your depth of involvement.

If they are anchored on any client, then you probably have more work to close any deal. They may be just kicking the tires. If you want to close a deal, you’ll probably need to figure out how to shift perceptions so that they see themselves as similar to clients you’ve worked with, work you’ve done, and/or processes you’ve used in the past. The client prospect could very well be a fit for what you do, but there is a psychological gap that should be addressed.

What Best Practices Can Consultants Use to Develop Their Own Toolkit?

This post is based on a question I answered previously on Quora.

Here are some of the techniques I have used over the years in different consulting roles, such as working for a traditional consulting firm, boutique firm, or as an independent:

  • Research and keep a scrapboook of ideas – This can be a folder where you drop killer slides you’ve run into, killer figures, well done models, articles, etc. Your scrapbook may consist of a few islands in the electronic world, such as using programs like Pocket, OneNote, etc. and also the physical world, such as bookmarked pages in key books you have.
  • Share the ideas with others on a small scale – Consulting is based on an apprenticeship model, and part of the value you add as a consultant also applies to how you interact with colleagues. If you can filter out the best information and share nuggets of knowledge with your peers, this can help both parties to learn.
  • Use what you’ve learned to synthesize and create new ideas – Innovation can come from many directions. Sometimes you can apply a method used in one space into a totally new space. Sometimes streams of knowledge are separate and disjoint, and you may find a simpler more holistic way of combining the approaches. Or sometimes you can create models by creating a new relationship between the beholder and the model (e.g., such as creating a stakeholder value view instead of a shareholder value view).
  • Share the ideas on a larger scale – Writing about your ideas can help to flesh out your thinking. I have often created short presentations and then presented them in a setting like a business school class. I may then create an article about a key idea. In some cases, I have written blog posts or written a newsletter type memo to share with newer consultants or clients. I have also expanded presentations into thought leadership pieces (e.g., I’ve published three books).

In summary, I find that having a method to research, collect ideas, interact with the ideas, synthesize new creations, and share those creations is a meta process that works for me.

Should An Independent Consultant Focus on Their Expertise or Diversify and Branch Out?

This post is based on a question that I answered previously on Quora.

As an independent consultant it is generally better to focus on services aligned with your expertise. Otherwise, it will be harder to distinguish yourself in the marketplace.

However, as food for thought if you are going to add a new service, consider offering that service to an existing or past client. You may have a better foot in the door in terms of selling to them as they may at least trust you a bit more than the average consultant coming in cold. While you may have some issues with existing and past customers only seeing you as your “old self”, they may be more willing to take some risk with your new services. Then you can leverage this as a reference case when you approach new clients.

How Do Management Consultants Quickly Come Up To Speed On Projects?

This answer is based on the response to a question I was posed on Quora.

Here are some of the main ways I’ve seen consultants get briefed on projects.

  1. Engagement manager – The engagement manager has responsibility for the client problem statement and the problem-solving structure (i.e., project tactics). As the on-the-ground, field leader, the engagement manager can help to get new people on the project oriented both from a high-level and with their role on the project.
  2. Engagement workplans and blueprints – Some projects have clear engagement workplans laid out at the outset. Sometimes the high-level workplan is set out before the project even starts. If not before, then most certainly the workplan is addressed in the first week +/-. These often breakdown the workstreams, key activities, deliverables, project roles, and governance structure. Blueprints which potentially specify the templates that should be completed may even be available in some cases. These structures help keep consultants focused on what matters and may help them avoid re-inventing the wheel.
  3. Management reports – Consultants often get reports normally directly accessible by the management teams. This helps to accelerate knowledge transfer and provides a lay of the land within any limitations of the reports (which may also need to improved based on mutual agreement between the consultant and client).
  4. Peers – Consulting is really based on apprenticeship and teamwork. Consultants often ask peers on the consulting team for information they’ve learned, feedback on approaches, etc.
  5. Industry reports – Consultants often dive into industry reports very close to when they arrive onsite for a new client. This can help the consultant come up to speed about industry-specific terminology, product offerings, competitors, new entrants, regulatory issues, geographical considerations, etc.
  6. Client interviews – Consultants also get very key info through interviews with client management and personnel. These sessions are usually motivated by the engagement workplan and are used to assess the current state of a particular area, identify issues, collect ideas, and get color regarding business operations. It is often preferred that items #1 through #5 are explored to some extent as preparation for client interviews.

One of the Best Ways to Market Yourself as a New Consultant

One of the best ways to market yourself as a consultant is by having someone refer you to a client prospect. This type of marketing can be viewed through the lens of “networking by helping someone” (in contrast to networking and just meeting lots of people). These are investments you make to both build your reputation and professional networks.

As an example, for one of my first clients as an independent consultant, I got in the door through the referral of an IT systems consultant (met at a local lunch talk) who needed to help their client do an operational analysis. I first helped the consultant and then the client to understand how operational analyses were done and provided them with some tools they could use (e.g., gave them some management one-pagers I wrote on their topic). They then invited me to propose to them.

Marketing as “networking by helping someone” is a key tool to have in your kit. It is the idea of helping before selling. Once you have successful clients, you can then refer to the general experiences as case studies (often anonymized, but not always). These case studies accumulate, and they serve as resources that can help your marketing efforts as a consultant.


Steve Shu specializes in incubating new initiatives with a primary focus on strategy, technology, and behavioral science. He is author of Inside Nudging: Implementing Behavioral Science Initiatives and The Consulting Apprenticeship: 40 Jump-Start Ideas for You and Your Business.

How Do Consultants Stay Organized Before Creating Client Deliverables?

This post is based on a question posed to me on Quora.

Individual consultants and engagement managers usually develop their own ways of organizing information. Here are a few concepts I have used (but situations vary widely based on the situation and team composition):

  1. Document the problem statement, the problem solving structure, the set of workstreams and activities to execute the project, governance process, and structure of each deliverable. In some cases the engagement team may create (up front) an entire blueprint to execute the project.
  2. Develop interview guides according to the problem solving structure and conduct interviews with the interview guides in mind. Take raw notes roughly in line with the interview guides. Create managerial meeting summaries along the way and file the raw notes.
  3. Organize notes, specimens, analyses, deliverables, potentially by workstream folders and subfolders. For example, there may be four major workstreams at the top level like assessment, financial modeling, technology options, and business strategy. Here is a chart from my book, The Consulting Apprenticeship, and it illustrates the conceptual concept of workstreams and activities (I could have also included deliverables on the chart, but the sizing for print would have been an issue).
  4. Have clear consultant assignments and owners for workstreams and major activity areas. Have individual consultants organize and present progress (for their realm) to engagement managers and principals at least 1–2 times per week. This helps to both keep project cadence up and put pressure on the individual consultants to be organized and deliver the pieces that they have responsibility for. Make course adjustments or staff adjustments as needed.

Note that some consulting firms also set up “war rooms” where there may be many wallboards, whiteboards, and the like for maintaining an Agile-like environment. Elements of that can eventually get converted into more formal deliverables. You may also run into some tech-savvy clients that also encourage the use of things like Slack or InVision for collaboration and communication with the client.

In summary, careful planning, note taking, analysis, project organization, storyboarding, and regular project leader reviews are needed to keep information organized and a consulting engagement on the rails.

Edit 2/13/2019: Special mention to Kevin Johannes Wörner who has a nice video covering advice for new strategy consultants (9 lifehacks) based on his experiences, including at Roland Berger. I really resonate with Kevin’s comments about how to deal with massive amounts of data and information coming at you in the client environment and focusing on the few items that really drive results. 

Thoughts About Finder’s Fees to Other Professional Services Providers as a Consultant

This answer is based on a question posed to me on Quora.

I’ve only used finder’s fees sparingly over the course of my professional services career. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Some of the best referrals for me have come from other people that currently work either for the client or as a consultant to the client. Providing a referral fee can sometimes create a conflict for those parties providing a referral. The same applies to me providing referrals.
  2. Other referrals come through people that know me or know of me. In these cases, I may provide a referral fee (or something else) more as a unwritten gesture than as a contractual, business regularity, mainly since business through these channels is very much appreciated but more irregular.
  3. Unless designed properly, the referral fee can be stranded between a space where not enough incentive is provided (or even insulting to the referrer), too much incentive is provided and margins are decreased too much, and/or an unwritten obligation is created where the referrer feels overly responsible as to whether the referred is successful or not (as opposed to being arms length from both the referred and the client).

Others may have different experiences, so make sure to get some other perspectives.