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Consultant – Required Skills and Education

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The profile of the management consultant is often discussed in the consulting literature-the conclusion being that there is no one ideal person or style. Nevertheless, we can identify characteristics common to successful management consultants which differentiate them from professionals in other industries.

Personal Characteristics of Consultants

As a consultant, you must be forceful and self-confident. Management teams from the largest organizations in the country are very demanding in the services they require. To obtain projects, which are usually granted after competitive bidding, you must feel certain that you offer the best services and be able to so convince the client. Due to the competitiveness of the field, you must be able to deal with rejection and failure without loss of self-esteem or confidence. Because you tend to work on a larger number of projects than professionals in other industries, and because your projects typically begin with a problem situation, the risk of failure is higher in consulting. You must enjoy risk taking and have no fear of failure.



Successful consultants tend to be self-motivated self-starters. Most consulting people are entrepreneurs motivated by achievement and recognition rather than company loyalty and job security. Consulting projects usually entail severe time-limits requiring initiative and a high energy level from all members of the consulting firm.

Consultants typically enjoy problem solving and are curious. Often finding the solution to a problem requires the ability to see beyond the facts available and generate novel responses. The diversity of your work and its problem-centered nature require that you have a high tolerance for ambiguity. The course of a project may change many times in response to new data and results at different stages; you need to be flexible enough to change, but level-headed and stable enough to perform consistently while the project is in flux.

Skills And Abilities

The most important requirement in the consulting business is expertise through technical knowledge in a particular industry, function, or technique. While consultants are hired because they are experts, there are other skills essential to successful consulting.

The Association of Consulting Management Engineers has developed a list of key skills. Most listings of these skills-to be found in various publications and the recruiting materials of most consulting firms-generally put them into five categories: (1) expertise in the field (as described above), (2) technical skills, (3) communication skills, (4) interpersonal skills, and (5) administrative skills.

The most important technical skills required of a business consultant are uncovering problems and solving them efficiently. These are distinct abilities which require analytic thought and ingenuity. Another important technical skill is research skill. A great deal of work as a consultant involves thorough research-the collection and synthesis of information and in-depth analysis of diverse data.

Communication skills are important to consultants, as they often spend more than half of their time communicating. You must be adept at public speaking and able to express yourself clearly, concisely, and precisely in both oral and written forms. Since you may make formal presentations, visual communications skills are also helpful. You must be adept at listening and observing; much of the data in a consulting project is collected by observation or interview. An aware and perceptive consultant should be able to gather data from both what is said and what is not said.

Interpersonal skills are required, as you must be able to work effectively with a variety of clients and with staff at all hierarchical levels in both the client's firm and yours. You must be able to engender trust and openness in clients. This is important in collecting information and in creating acceptance of organizational change during implementation of programs or policy changes. You must also show strong leadership. A senior or managing consultant must be able to motivate and lead others as well as work with them in developing their skills.

Administrative skills are required mostly at the top levels in the consulting hierarchy. Consulting managers must be able to manage people, projects, and data. They must be knowledgeable and skilled in business, marketing, fee collection, and new business development. Entrepreneurial skills are necessary at the manager-partner level in consulting firms. They are especially important for independent consultants.

Education And Background

Most consulting firms require at least an MBA or other advanced degree, although a few MAS firms will hire qualified applicants with a bachelor's degree. The MBA or advanced-degree major required depends on the type of consulting involved. The most popular degrees in large consulting firms and MAS divisions are accounting, general business, computer science, engineering, finance, information systems, and marketing. An MBA degree is often preferred because the case-analysis research method taught in many business schools is similar to that used by entry-level consultants.

Many consulting firms require work experience in industry; some will consider experience a substitute for an MBA. Someone with experience and in-depth knowledge of a particular industry or function is particularly well suited for a consulting position. Although there are no age requirements for consulting positions, the typical entry-level age range is twenty-six to thirty, reflecting educational and prior work experience requirements. There is also an informal upper age limit, ranging broadly from thirty-six to fifty, for entry-level positions in many firms. This is because the work patterns required in the early years of a consulting career (long hours and extensive travel) are thought to require young, healthy individuals with a high energy level, willing to make sacrifices in other areas of life to move ahead. In some firms it may also reflect the desire to maintain an image of young, aggressive, fast-paced consultants trained in the latest techniques and technologies.

Training And Certification

There are few formal entry-level training programs in consulting firms. Rather, initial training occurs on-the-job under the supervision of an operating consultant or managing consultant. However, the ever changing business environment and the explosion of new business technology make ongoing training essential in the business consulting field. In order to stay on the leading edge of an area of expertise, consultants participate in both internal and external training and development programs.

As a consultant progresses through the hierarchy, internal, firm-sponsored training programs usually emphasize the development of appropriate consulting skills. In order to update technical skills and learn about new theories and techniques, you need to stay abreast of current literature in the field. Because of the fast pace of the business day, this reading is not usually done at work. It is also important to attend regularly seminars and meetings of professional associations; university-sponsored courses are attended occasionally.

The training function is becoming more important now that the certification of consultants has become an issue. Business consultants as such are not regulated by law. A number of professional associations do award certificates to consultants, who meet some minimum requirements, but these are not licenses and few consultants actually have them. At present, anyone can be a consultant and solicit business. While some specialists have to meet licensing requirements (e.g., CPAs, engineers, psychologists), until the field of business consulting is better defined attempts at certification and licensing will probably fail.

The Consultant's Lifestyle

A management consulting career is often envisioned as being glamorous. Consultants are thought to whip around the world, meet with Fortune 500 presidents, and collect high fees. The average consultant's life, however, is far from this image. As an entry-level consultant you would be expected to work long hours (fifty to seventy per week), including weekends. You may spend many weeks each year at clients' out-of-town locations (which are rarely in Paris or London); this means that you may have to sacrifice social and family concerns while building your career. Many consulting firms have strict standards regarding their employees' behavior. Some consultants are known to consider client confidentiality so important that they will even refuse to tell their families or friends where they are traveling.

If you are willing to make a commitment to a consulting career, there is good compensation for your sacrifices. You typically have autonomy in your work, high earnings, and a great deal of status and respect in the business community. You also have tremendous career opportunities both within and without consulting. If you are willing to make some sacrifices and work long and hard hours, a consulting career can be highly rewarding.
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