Posts Tagged “consulting”

As a consultant, I am a paid expert.

What does it take to be an expert?

A few things.  There is subject matter specific lingo/vocabulary that experts use; if you know the lingo you somewhat self-identify as an expert.  Experts are sometimes published.  Experts know frameworks and the history of their subject matter.  They are knowledgeable, and can demonstrate that knowledge to others.

How do you demonstrate knowledge?

You can answer questions about your subject…lots of them; pretty much any question a layman can think of.  You know of stats and research.   You can be helpful to people regarding your subject matter/industry.  You can talk about your subject in such detail that a layman could scarcely follow the conversation.  If you can talk about something in so much detail that others can’t understand you, people assume you know a lot.

One thing I have not mentioned: You don’t necessarily have to be right about your subject, just informed.

Most important questions in life do not have right answers, just trade offs.  Experts always provide their “expertise” from a certain point of view.  The assumptions that underlie their advice are not stated, and sometimes the experts themselves do not realize their underlying assumptions.

Experts are sure of themselves.  We believe people who are confident.

This is one of the main issues with experts:  As long as a certain person knows more about a topic than you do, they can sound like an expert….even if they know little or are completely wrong.

When I was a few months into learning Spanish, a new student was listening to my conversation with someone else, and said, “Wow, you are so fluent.  How long did that take you?”.  She didn’t realize my vocabulary was limited, my verbs were conjugated wrong, and the person I was talking to probably thought I sounded like a child….as long as my Spanish was better than hers, she identified it as correct.

It is like that with experts.  Only a real expert can identify another expert.  The rest of us will identify an expert as anyone who knows more than we do about a given subject.

A real expert is very unsure.  They know they are informed; however, the “right” answer is very elusive and they know it.

The only experts I hear that admit to this are academics, since their jobs are secure and they aren’t really leading people who need to believe in them. Anyone who is sure of their knowledge is either putting on a show for some other reason or they are foolish.

The issue is that very few people want to put forward an expert who is so unsure of their ability to give the right answer (after all, aren’t experts supposed to be right?)….so by definition we are advancing experts who are not expert.  They might be knowledgeable; however, they are misleading us as to the extent of their knowledge and how transferable  it is to other areas they might be opining on.

The deeper your knowledge in one specific area, the less breadth you generally have across areas…you’re a technician of a sort.  We want general experts we can ask questions that apply to real life, not someone lost in the minutiae of a single subject.

The worlds foremost expert on human cell membranes or mammal fat metabolism, cannot tell us why people are getting fat.  If they might opine on why people are getting fat (with some unuseful answer about too many calories) , I don’t think they would be able to answer what to do about it.

The fact is that we are unable to identify the right person to ask why we are getting fat…if there even is a person.

Why do we need experts?

The world is increasingly complex, and the store of human knowledge is increasing. It is hard to know everything, so we must increasing rely on others.  If we don’t believe anyone, then we are overly cynical and unlikely to help move anything forward (naysayers usually aren’t much help).

Additionally, I believe our concept of “right” has increased in specificity as science has advanced.  If someone 100 years ago were asked the “right” diet, I think they would answer something vague about enough to eat, or good balance of fruits/vegetables, etc.  With the concept of calories and FDA percentage of vitamins and minerals the “right” diet now might be some very specific combination of foods (calories, vitamins, minerals, fat, cholesterol, carb content etc.) designed to optimize total health (measured by homone levels or BMI or something).  In short, it is getting more difficult to find the “right” answer.

How do I identify experts?

The short answer is that to identify expertise you must have some yourself….or put faith in someone who selects expertise for you.

It isn’t a hard answer for me:  I attempt to educate myself (which is time consuming); or I ask someone I trust (friend of family member).


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Here are a few thoughts on what it takes to be a good consultant (something I work at everyday):

Consulting is generally filled with smart people. I mean that in the high IQ, “Gee, s/he is really smart” kind of way.  That is one thing to keep in mind if you think you want to be a consultant.  If you are not “smart”, you probably won’t make it.

Here is why:  The premise of consulting is that you are going to tell an experienced executive (15+ years of experience, and many rungs up the corporate ladder) something they don’t already know about their own business.  That is hard to do. It requires you to be able to learn as much as possible about their business in a very short period of time, and then share insights that the executive didn’t already know by applying things you’ve learned from other projects (even though they may not be that similar).  This type of quick learning and fluid intelligence is precisely what “smart” people are good at.

Consulting is generally filled with social people.  If being smart weren’t hard enough, you must also be very social to be a good consultant.  Good consultants are “Trusted Advisers”.  Who is the most trusted adviser in your life?  It is likely your best friend or a family member….someone intensely personal to you….someone you trust and like.  As a consultant you must be both expert and trusted.  Expert requires intelligence.  Trusted requires social skills and strong ethics.

Being both socially adept and very smart is hard to do. How many really smart people do you know?  How many of them are also socially awkward?  Being a good consultant requires an almost Goldilocks-like balance of smart and social since the two are often inversely related.

Consulting is filled with older people.  Consulting is as much art as science.  If there were firm answers to the questions executives ask, they wouldn’t need consultants.  It is human nature that when we are unsure about something we tend to stick with experience, which often means gray hair.  You can be a young consultant, no doubt, and very competent…however, gray hair helps ease the more difficult conversations.

Consultants are performers and social architects.  There is a social dance that goes on with clients and at big meetings.  Consultants lead clients to the conversations they need to have to move the project.  Good consultants, like good politicians, allow the client to give continued feedback while the consultant controls the agenda and guides the outcome.  Clients control consultants while consultants corral clients in the direction they want to go.  Remember, if executives already knew what they wanted, and didn’t need any corralling…they wouldn’t need consultants.  It is a complementary dance.

Consulting is about consensus building and storytelling.  Remember that there are often no “correct” answers to the questions being addressed.  So a good consultant, like a good lawyer, must build the case in the simplest, most appealing way to get people on board.  Logic alone is not enough; you have to be able to tell a compelling story.  If college rewarded length of response, consulting rewards brevity…preferably in bullet points (less than 3)…even more preferably in a graphic/picture.


So, being a good consultant is not easy.  It takes a mix of talent and years of work.  Like leaders, most consultants are made, not born.


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