How do I choose the right consultant?

From the class-room to the board-room, one of life’s consistent keys to success is to know when to ask for help. To paraphrase Socrates, true wisdom is ultimately accepting that you don’t know it all – sometimes it makes sense to seek the counsel of others.

That is only half the fight, however. While the right consultant can create tremendous value, the wrong one can destroy just as much. The problem then becomes, “how do I find someone who can be trusted to help improve the business?” Here are three key factors to focus on when selecting a consultant.

Reputable professional character

A consultant must be willing to put the best interest of the client ahead of their own; they must be up to the task of telling clients things that they need to hear, but may not want to – even if doing so means that the consultant loses business. First and foremost then, clients need to ensure the consultant they are about to contract has a solid character, after all, they are about to be trusted with access to some of the most sensitive areas of the organisation.

While consulting is not a chartered profession – so technically anyone can become a ‘consultant’ – there are still multiple ways of ensuring the consultant in question is a consummate professional. If the consultant comes from an established brand – such as a member of the Big Four, or the leading strategy consulting firms – that will go some way to serving as a stamp of approval in its own right, especially as they will have been subject to intensive vetting and training by such a firm.

In the case of many independents, they have a background at one of these firms – and you will be able to find prior examples of their work in that capacity. Alternatively, using a matchmaking service can help clients pick out consultants with solid track-records; as such sites have stringent vetting mechanisms in place to ensure the right consultants are recommended to the right projects.

Well-rounded skill-set

Explaining what makes a good consultant, Marvin Bower, the founder of McKinsey & Company, considered by the Harvard Business School as ‘the father of modern management consulting,’ once wrote, “Mental equipment – the successful consultant has outstanding analytical skill and the ability to synthesise his thoughts readily in reaching conclusions… He is a quick and effective learner – imaginative and creative.”

A good consultant should have experience with the challenges or opportunities a company in their chosen sector of expertise is facing. They may not know of a client’s specific company before being contracted, but they should be well grounded in the trends faced by certain kinds of work, and able to help clients implement industry best practices as a result.

At the same time as knowing a client’s industry inside out, any consultant worth their salt will also be able to think on their feet, and respond to new challenges. Ultimately, clients are hiring a consultant to help them solve problems, or take advantage of opportunities – so without this ability, hiring a consultant becomes redundant.

Outstanding interpersonal skills

Simply put, for any consultant to be successful in helping your company, a trust-based relationship is going to have to develop. You will need to be comfortable revealing the intimate details of your business. The relationship between consultant and client is not unlike the relationship between a doctor and patient. Without the candour that this kind of professional relationship brings, the consultant will be hindered in their effort to help your business.

Following on from this, the right consultant for a project must be an accomplished communicator. They should possess unusually strong communication skills, both orally and in writing, without which relating to the staff of a company, and relaying ideas to its management will be impossible.

Of course, being a good communicator is not just about being an articulate speaker. Communication is a two-way street, and arguably even more important than the ability to speak, a consultant must be able to listen intently. Without that, however intelligent an individual consultant may be, they will be unable to fully understand or address the challenges a client is facing.