Three golden rules for business consultants

How to build and maintain relationships critical to being an effective consultant

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Rebecca SchalmI have a routine I try to follow each morning. I take a shower, do 20 minutes of yoga stretching, pour myself a cup of coffee, and sit down to read something that centres and inspires me. A little Seneca, thoughts from a Buddhist teacher, a chapter of Eckert Tolle.

This morning, I opened Oriah’s meditation guide to her famous poem The Invitation. In her introduction she sets out what the reader can expect from her as a spiritual guide. Her commitments stopped me in my tracks. They are, quite simply, two of the best principles I have come across for anyone who – like me – puts themselves in a position to be a guide to others. As business consultants, people hire us to help guide them to new knowledge, insight, behaviours, processes, and strategies. Oriah’s principles apply equally well to us.

1. Don’t pretend to know something you have not experienced. Many of us have not lived the life, or done the work of those we advise. Many leadership consultants have never led. Many executive coaches have never been executives. Many strategy consultants have never transformed an organization. Many business consultants have never worked for an organization outside of a consulting firm. What we know is based on theory, research, innate and unique knowledge, and the rigorous observation of people, behaviour, strategies and outcomes across time and over multiple contexts. From that we extrapolate key lessons to help people map out a more direct route to success.

When I first became a consultant, I was smart and well-meaning but probably marginally competent as a guide. Through experience I became much better. Now, having returned to consulting with the experience of walking in the shoes of my clients, I have a different and more well-rounded perspective.

What I have learned is that we don’t need to have the same experiences as our clients to be good and capable guides. But when we have not experienced something it is especially important to remain circumspect and humble in our advice.

2. Don’t pretend to know something you have not experienced. This principle has a second interpretation. It is important that business consultants be honest about their experience and capability – to themselves and to others.

Earlier in my career, I sometimes felt I was ‘faking it’. Some of that was a confidence issue, but some of it was the absence of relevant experience from which to draw.

Experience is frequently a key criteria for winning work, and there can be pressure to build ourselves up. ‘I haven’t done that before’ is often followed by ‘but I’m sure I can figure it out.’ That may turn out to be true. But it isn’t being honest with a client.

As I have gained age and wisdom, I don’t feel the need to pretend so much. People still ask if I can help them with things I haven’t done before. Now, I don’t hesitate to tell them the limits of my interest, or expertise. And I am quick to refer them to a colleague who has more relevant experience than I do.

What I have discovered is that being fully transparent only has positive consequences. Many times a client still engages me; maybe, because they believe I can figure it out. Maybe because they appreciate my candour. The worst that has happened? They thank me for connecting them to someone who has the right experience.

3. Don’t build rapport by feigning confusion where you have knowledge. I am paraphrasing Oriah, but what I take from this principle is to not let the fear of damaging a relationship stop you from speaking truth.

Building and maintaining relationships is critical to being an effective consultant. It is also what helps us build our book of business, critical if we want to keep working as consultants. Sometimes, in an effort to manage a relationship, we may not be as candid as we need to be. We may fear how a client will react if we are too bold in sharing our insight. Or, we may see an opportunity to extend the relationship by holding back some of our knowledge to share at a later date.

If we desire, first and foremost, to serve our clients and be that valued and trusted guide, we need to let fear and opportunism fall away and share our knowledge and wisdom wholeheartedly. I have been fired for saying things that people didn’t want to hear. I have never been fired for being honest.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

business consultants

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Rebecca Schalm

Rebecca holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has assisted organizations for over 25 years in building talent capability that enables business strategy. Prior to founding Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., she was SVP & Chief Human Resources Officer of Finning International Inc. and spent over 10 years at RHR International LLP.

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