Inspired by an article called 45 Valuable Life Lessons For People Of Any Age, we took some time out to reflect on the most valuable business lessons we have collected from 30+ years of experience in the training and assessment industry, having met and worked with 1000s of consultants of all stripes and colours.
"Consultant" is a very broad term nowadays. Who exactly are we addressing here?
First and foremost, this list is written for "people consultants" — a collective term we use here to describe sole traders, firms and RTOs working in the talent development space, since this is our primary area of expertise. These include coaches, trainers, facilitators, recruiters, HR and OD consultants, change agents, leadership advisors (and those with job titles in a similar vein).
In addition, this list will be of benefit to (and incorporates the advice of) strategy/management consultants who work with business owners of small companies through to middle and senior managers of large multinationals. With that said however, many of the points will have relevance to a broad range of independent contractors including IT consultants, software developers, graphic designers, freelance writers, personal trainers, and marketing/SEO consultants.
The original list we came up with had more than 50 points — way too long for a single article — so we were promptly advised (by another consultant, of course) to break it into a series of blog posts and later an eBook.
The points in this series fall into five broad categories: relationships, pricing, marketing, operational and general. These are the first 10 of 50. We begin with the fundamentals...
1. Universal Principles Are the Primary Cause of Success (and Conflict) in Business and Life. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is a favourite of consultants, considered by many to be the most influential business book of the 20th century. While consultants often refer to concepts from this book such as the “emotional bank account” and the “Time Management Matrix,” the 7 habits themselves are made redundant by a more fundamental idea: universal human principles. The root cause of almost every personal, organisational and societal problem will ultimately come down to some form of violation of a very small number of core principles — principles like respect, fairness, integrity, humility and discipline. (Read more: Stephen Covey: His Most Important Idea.)
2. Trust is Everything. We are hired, promoted and recommended on the basis of it; all marketing and sales (the very life blood of every organisation) is dependent on creating it with customers; leaders rise and fall under its weight; and all of our relationships (personally and professionally) are held together by this invisible glue — this thing called "trust."
By far, the best text for consultants on the topic of trust is The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey (Stephen Covey’s son), which provides a comprehensive analysis of how trust affects business results, and includes a practical framework with 13 specific behaviours to understand how trust can be improved.
(Below: an adaptation of Covey’s trust framework as developed by Richard Barrett, from his book "The Values-Driven Organisation.")
3. The 80/20 Rule of Success. The 80/20 Principle (aka The Pareto Principle) is a popular ratio that appears as a rule of thumb in many different contexts. We use it here to reflect the broad belief held by many consultants that about 80% of your consulting success will come down to your communication skills and about 20% will be due to your knowledge/expertise.
4. Consulting is a Relationship Business. Relationships come first. With very few exceptions in life, if people don’t trust your character, your competence will mean diddly squat to them. This idea is expressed best by the following quotes:
1) “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 2) “When an employee is upset, they generally want understanding and empathy BEFORE they want your advice.”
5. The Golden Rule of Business. The golden rule for every businessperson is this: Place yourself in your customer's shoes. This goes beyond thinking about how they feel (empathy). It is truly attempting to think like your customer. If you had their problems, constraints and resources, would what you are suggesting still make sense?
6. If You Don’t Understand Emotion, You Don’t Understand Business. As HR expert Liz Ryan points out, “We are [emotional] animals first, then people, then family and tribe members, and only working people last.” If you think that allowing employees to have fun in the workplace is a complete waste of time, or if you encourage the practice of writing to employees using cold and detached corporate jargon, you really have no business being a consultant. Humans have evolved in such a way that emotions are the fundamental drivers of all decisions and relationships. With this in mind, here are three phrases to live by:
1) “People make emotional decisions which they later justify with logic.” 2) “90% of all workplace conflict is due to the wrong tone of voice.” 3) “People will forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
7. Smiling Is the Human Being’s Most Powerful Gesture. Seriously, there’s a lot of science behind this. Head over to Google if you’re interested.
8. The Most Powerful Question in the English Language is “Why?” There is a sales and problem solving technique used by many consultants called "The Rolling Why," which involves using the question "Why?" repeatedly until you gain a deep understanding of the root cause, reason or purpose for a particular business decision or strategy. There will often be times when your client won’t know why a management technique, performance system or software is used the way it is. The question “Why?” is useful to help managers re-evaluate the driving mechanisms in their business and determine the values that underlie behaviours.
Another related framework, made popular by Simon Sinek, author of "Start With Why," is the The Golden Circle, which has numerous applications including (but not limited to) leadership, business strategy, marketing, personal branding, and personal development.
9. Under-Promise and Over-Deliver. If a client wants you to write a report and you’re sure it will take 2 days to finish and polish say, “I’ll have it to you in 3 days.” Always give yourself the opportunity to exceed their expectations.
10. ALWAYS. MANAGE. EXPECTATIONS. This is possibly the single most valuable point of the 50 contained in this list. Alone it is worth the price of several books. In brief, the lesson is this: Pain, stress, unhappiness and disappointment happen when expectations of how reality should be are GREATER than the current reality. In a consulting context, this lesson applies equally to managing your client’s expectations as it does to helping your clients manage their employees’ and customers’ expectations.
To be continued...