10 Characteristics of a great consultant

As information explodes and new technologies such as cognitive computing become a reality,  certain professionals, subject matter experts and consultants may well ask what skills and capabilities they really need to continue to add value in the future.


After all, most technical queries can be answered through a simple online search so who really needs to pay a consultant to repeat what can easily be found online?

While this question is rhetorical,   the future of consulting can nevertheless be a real concern for someone who has built their entire career on their technical expertise.

Most of us have experienced a meeting where the hapless technical expert is being unsettled by someone who has no real experience but who does happen (at the time) to have access to Wikipedia on their mobile phone,  and who is prone to use the power of easy search as a kind of weapon.

Over time as the underlying knowledge base increases and the algorithms improve, information available through online search will continue to grow in relevance and significance.   The role of the expert is therefore further diminished unless they bring other skills and capabilities to bear.

Certain professionals such as technical specialists, business analysts, subject matter experts and consultants will be profoundly impacted by this trend.   Previously it might have been possible to just rely on technical knowledge and personal experience to find answers.  Now this experience and knowledge is available to anyone who looks for it through online search,  or even through a virtual personal assistant on their mobile phone.

Virtual assistants such as Siri and Cortana are already capable of handling many of the simple day to day tasks,  and these capabilities are set to improve radically over the next few years to the point where a computer based virtual assistant may become practically indistinguishable from their human counterpart in many respects.


One interesting example of the disruption that lies ahead is in the courtroom, where it has already been shown that computers can “learn” and interpret historical case law. This can result in computers analysing patterns and recommending viable legal solutions and court room strategies that are likely to succeed in specific circumstances. These cognitive tasks that are done best by computers can replace much of the research effort and leg work previously done by the legal team, and with better results.

Another example is in the medical industry – where computers are able interpret and match patterns from available medical research to guide the doctor in narrowing down options when diagnosing a disease with confusing symptoms.

So if you consider yourself a technical specialist or consultant,  perhaps it is a good time to reflect on why a client will need to use you in future?  Or put in another way, you need to ask what specific skills you need to develop and hone that will ensure that you continue to be relevant and add value?



The good news is that computers will always lack certain fundamental capabilities.   In the new world of work, virtual assistants will be just that,  assistants.  When you understand that a virtual assistant is another supporting tool  you will soon realise that VA’s can be very powerful in improving the quality, accuracy and speed of your work,  but they will never be able to replace your role completely.

Many of the capabilities needed to solve complex business problems are inter-personal in nature. In other words there is a deep need for humans to connect with other humans.   This human connection creates the necessary empathy and emotional link that is needed for people to be open to suggestions and to be sufficiently motivated to act on recommendations.

Consultants aspire to the label “trusted advisor” because this highlights the trust that is necessary in business and that can only develop between humans.  This same level of trust is unlikely to be developed between a human and a computer.


Over the years I have worked with really good consultants and have identified 10 characteristics that really differentiate them as true trusted advisors: These characteristics are unlikely to ever be effectively usurped by a computer.  They are:

  1. Good consultants have exceptional industry knowledge and experience.  This is something  that cannot be fast tracked or bypassed.  Industry experience is earned over time, through making many mistakes and celebrating many successes.  The hard skills that are needed in any industry by engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors etc cannot ever be substituted and they form the foundation of any credible consulting offering.  These capabilities also include analytical skills, creative thinking and organisational capabilities.
  2. Ability to see and describe the big picture.  Good consultants are able to quickly see the big picture (or the “30,000ft view”).     In contrast, inexperienced consultants often tend to be unable to see beyond the detail and sometimes fail to appreciate important context.  When you don’t see the big picture you come across as lacking confidence.   The ability to see and describe the big picture is substantially enhanced through gaining varied experience in different industries and solving different types of problems in different companies.     This builds confidence and competence.   A good consultant therefore seeks opportunities that will extend his or her experience in many companies and situations beyond the comfort zone.  A consultant who works in one company and culture their whole life is far less likely to have this confident big picture perspective.
  3. Good consultants can develop simple frameworks out of complex concepts.  A true expert has the ability to curate and simplify information and present only what is essential.  In todays always on digital world, time and focussed attention is more valuable than ever before.  You need to be able to get your message across quickly and succinctly.   In the past the “thud test” was used by consultants to measure the weight or importance of a report or a document.  In the modern information economy no one has the time or inclination to read a long report or attend training workshops that last days.  The new information currency is brevity and simplicity.
  4. Good consultants are first and foremost good listeners and facilitators.  They seek to understand the problem first, they consider all inputs and are willing learners.   They seek to journey with their clients towards a solution as opposed to preaching their words of wisdom from their tower.
  5. Good consultants have methodologies and follow proven processes.  They are able to leverage and build on existing capabilities and they resist reinventing the wheel.  They use and reuse templates that are proven and they work systematically.   They don’t suffer from the “not invented here” syndrome – they know and acknowledge the importance of the prior work of others and they build on this.
  6. Good consultants are always objective in their judgement.  While there may be many vested interests and personal preferences, good consultants are true professionals.   They will diplomatically acknowledge the preferences of others including their clients, while still remaining true and convicted of the best objective solution.    At times this will require the advice and sound boarding of others, and good consultants have no hesitation to solicit alternative viewpoints to get a better solution than theirs.
  7. Good consultants have good interpersonal skills.   When you work with someone with good interpersonal skills you always feel good about the interaction.  Computers will never replace these traits.   Good interpersonal skills lead to authentic trust based relationships that last.
  8. Good consultants are good communicators.  Good communication is two way, leading to mutual understanding and motivation and commitment towards an outcome.
  9. Good consultants have a well developed sense of political acumen.   They understand the nature of relationships in business, and understand that loyalty must be earned before it can be leveraged.  They know the importance of winning support and effectively handling detractors.
  10. Good consultants are able to influence without formal authority.   Most technical specialists and consultants do not have ultimate decision making authority and cannot autonomously implement their solutions.  Even top decision makers are actually quite limited in what they can do without consensus and buy in.  Consultants need to use influence to gain the trust and commitment of the decision makers,  but  must also be able to influence throughout the organisation and all stakeholders.


When you consider the list of skills and characteristics above, a consultant should feel secure that it will be a long time indeed before your role is ever usurped by a computer.

This then is the time to put in place your own development plans to further develop and refine these skills so that you can become an exceptional consultant.  Why not work through the list above and assess for yourself where you feel you need additional experience or support and then set out to develop these over the year ahead?