Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

Moving from Subject Matter Expert to Consultant

Two interesting moments this week:

  • I was asked by a client to work with his team to help them understand what it is to become consultants. Interesting mandate and many might say, why on earth would you want to do that?
  • A powerful debate with a fellow consultant around the challenge behind being both a subject matter expert and a consultant.

In preparing something for the first of these challenges, I’ve thought in particular about the challenge of moving from an SME position into that of a consultant. In this case, the team I’m working with is composed of extremely clever, highly motivated and articulate developers with a focus on working in a highly specialist, software product focused part of the financial services sector. They are multi lingual with a range of experiences across the Asian region and across the sector. It’s a perplexing problem precisely because what often sells the engagement to a client, subject matter expertise, is entirely different from what makes the consulting engagement a success, consulting skills. Think about it from a personal perspective. When you go and see a doctor, you’re expecting some subject matter expertise. However the challenge of understanding symptoms and reaching some kind of diagnosis calls upon consulting skills; the ability to ask powerful questions, listen intently, develop solutions which are acceptable and are perceived to be unique for the individual etc.

There are a number of challenges to address in making this transition but in my view the most important one is an intensely personal / behavioural one. Moving into the consulting space requires a different approach to risk and an understanding that decision making has to be replaced by influencing. From a behavioural perspective, flexibility / adaption to clients cultures and modes of behaviour, listening and communications skills become critical skills to focus on. Most importantly, the ability to work without an agenda, to be comfortable in an opaque environment and bring structure in a subtle way to the problem makes the role challenging and interesting.

Which brings me to the second moment. Does the act of providing subject matter expertise automatically exclude the individual from a decision making / influencing role? Equally does it exclude the individual from a facilitation role? I would argue that there is a fundamental challenge for ‘one stop shop’ consultancies in providing both the expert advice and the ‘arms and legs’ to deliver the work. It might form an easy buying decision but is it the right one?

Categories: Career development, Change management, Consulting, Learning, Project Management, Systems led change, Transformation

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