Behind the Scenes: Mindsets of Top Management Consultants
What is it that sets the best management consultants apart from the rest?
In essence, all consultants do the same thing – they provide expertise to help organizations solve problems and improve their performance. Management consultants can be distinguished from others, such as IT consultants, tax consultants, or legal consultants, by the nature of the problems they solve.
The classic definition is that management consultants work with complex business problems to solve challenging strategic questions and conundrums faced by client organizations. The day-to-day tasks include gathering information, analyzing it, synthesizing insights, and communicating solutions. Achieving this takes experience, skills, and techniques. The mistake that many would-be consultants make is that they think this is enough. It isn't.
The best stand out from the rest not so much by what they do but how they think. This has variously been described as mindset, attitude, worldview, or philosophy of life.
There are many mindsets, but I'm going to focus here on just four that, in my view, make a significant difference in consulting: growth mindset, curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, and agreeableness. Whether you are working in a traditional consulting firm or as a freelancer on a consulting platform, they are important. (As a bonus, I'll be giving a few tips about how to achieve them.)
The term growth mindset is associated with Carol Dweck, whose work shows the impact of basic beliefs on ultimate success. She defines a growth mindset as the fundamental belief that your intelligence and personality are things that you can develop, rather than being fixed and deep-seated traits.
The problem with having a fixed mindset is that if you believe your qualities cannot change – you are what you are – you need assurance that this is enough. You will want to prove yourself correct rather than being open to new learnings. You will also always be on your guard about whether you look smart or dumb and whether you will be accepted or not.
A growth mindset is about accepting that you might have limitations – for now – but that you can overcome many of them through your efforts. The hallmark of a growth mindset is to stretch yourself and stick to things, even when the going gets tough, you fail, or the client rejects your solution. As Albert Einstein famously said, "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."
The best management consultants are on a path of constant learning through reading, attending conferences and training programs, networking with their peers, keeping up to date with the latest technologies. The goal of continuous improvement is particularly essential for those who aspire to become the best freelance management consultants. They could otherwise be isolated and become stuck in old ways.
A growth mindset has another dimension that is important for consultants: hard work. Talent isn't enough. Neither is technical skill. Deliberate practice, active listening, paying attention to environmental cues, taking action, and being fully present are the requirements. As psychologist Anatol Rapoport says, "To gain knowledge, we must learn to ask the right questions; and to get answers, we must act, not wait for answers to occur to us."
The best management consultants are like 4-year-olds – they ask a never-ending stream of why's! They are relentless in their search for answers and curious about new things and alternatives.
There's a difference between applying a consulting technique – for example, the 5-Whys approach developed by Toyota – and having a why mindset. Genuinely curious consultants will constantly be asking, "Why is this so?" or "What would we have to believe for this to be true?" These are simple questions that quickly expose the assumptions and biases of both the consultant and the client. Humans are designed to make sense of vast amounts of data by imposing patterns that have worked in the past. While this is necessary to prevent data overload and move forward on a day-to-day basis, it also gives rise to unconscious biases that play out in our decisions.
Framing solutions as questions is a surprisingly powerful way of opening up new thinking and getting buy-in. All it takes is putting a question mark at the end of a statement. It forces everyone in the conversation to focus on other options and on what the evidence is to support the first one. The best consultants, who have done their homework correctly, will have the evidence to hand to support their suggestion – but will also be open to hearing how it could be improved. They will be asking, "Why is this solution better?" and "Why not that one?"
Tolerance for Ambiguity
A marker of effectiveness for executives and consultants is judgment: the ability to deal with fuzziness or ambiguity, allocating weights to issues, prioritizing them, and then making decisions.
One of the most exciting things about consulting is not knowing the answer in advance. When you run a survey, a scenario, or even a business model and then subject the outcome to objective and statistical scrutiny, you are often surprised by the insights delivered and the changed paths that they suggest. This inspires the best management consultants. The not-so-good may want to force the results into their preconceived solutions and models.
You might wonder whether agreeableness should be considered a mindset at all? Surely this is a behavior?
In my view, agreeableness is an approach to consulting life that says that you will have many disagreements with clients and colleagues about methodologies, solutions, and implementations, but you will not be disagreeable about them.
This means that you will not be defensive, and you will not take personal offense. You will try to see things from others' perspectives, asking, "Why did they make that decision?' or "What is important to them here?" You recognize that people will push back against your recommendations and that they are allowed to challenge your assumptions. This isn't a fight – it's a collaboration. It's about ideas and opinions.
I have found two surprisingly effective ways of achieving agreeableness. The first is to smile (I know that sounds trite!). Smiling before you present a view or disagree with something takes all the heat out of the exchange. Remember to do this before you make a phone call or send off an email – this puts you into a cooperative mode.
The second is to reframe your responses, even if you are disagreeing. Instead of saying, "No, but …." say, "Yes, and ….". The first puts up a barrier that rejects the other person's idea. The second includes the other person's view and adds a new one in a non-confrontational way. Ask questions, without being inquisitorial – "How does that solve the problem?"; "What would be the consequence?"; "Why is that the best solution?" Never ask, "Why did you …..?" – for some reason, this raises defenses.
The best management consultants can challenge the client's most fundamental beliefs and disagree with most of their ideas – and still be friendly, professional, and effective.
The behind-the-scenes strategies of the best management consultants
Perhaps it's true to say that consulting is an inside job. On the surface, all consultants are doing the same things. But those who are working behind the scenes to develop the mindsets of growth, curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, and agreeableness will find themselves rising to the top of the profession, whether they work in big consulting firms or from consulting platforms as freelance consultants.