by Heather Smith, Plaster Group Consultant
“It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best.”
-W. Edwards Deming
A growth mindset is key to assimilating new information and skills (Dweck, 2006). Business and technology are constantly evolving and the best consultants work tirelessly to keep on top of emerging technologies and business trends. Given the diversity of practice areas in management consulting, this can be anything from reading the latest industry-relevant periodicals and books, attending conferences, classroom training, or self-study. The goal is continuous improvement.
Before any discussion on improvement, setting some context around “consulting” is key. The practice encompasses a broad array of tasks and knowledge areas. Here it means providing expertise to help organizations carry out their business. Indeed, “the workaday experience of the consultant is all about gathering information, synthesizing insights, and communicating solutions” (Chen, 2012). Most management consultants have demanding full-time engagements where they must punctually fulfill commitments to clients. Some feel they do not have time to read books or engage in self-study. This is a mistake. We all have the same number of hours in a day and making time for growth is critical to high performance (Duckworth, 2016). Consistently, we see top performers are those who actively evaluate their capabilities and focus on shoring up weaknesses. These people engage in “deliberate practice.”
Deliberate practice is more than showing up or demonstrating consistency. It is the ability to observe and take in information. Top performers from tennis players to fund managers carefully contemplate their operating environment and use the information they gather to look further ahead, faster than others (Colvin, 2010). Being fully present, actively listening, and paying attention to subtle environmental cues separate the great from the rest. It is also critical to have an open mind. People who believe skill is built on hard work go farther than those who rely on talent (Dweck, 2006)
Another key aspect of deliberate practice is the ability to recognize weakness and correct for it (Colvin, 2010). Admitting weakness is uncomfortable for many people, but high performance demands it (Dweck, 2006). Regardless of your field—constructive criticism and coaching are vital. But self-examination and willingness to confront shortcomings are what define deliberate practice. A certain degree of discomfort is crucial to growth and building performance.
Achieving high performance requires a lot of work. If you are uncomfortable with sweating, you’re in trouble (Colvin, 2010). Management consultants are selected for engagements based on skills and training. When talking with others in the profession, I frequently hear grumbling about how important it is to have many years of experience in the field. There seems to be a widely-held belief that experience equates to quality. Yet, scholarly research shows that often, experience cannot predict success (Colvin, 2010). Familiarity can lead to increased confidence and speed—a state often referred to as “flow.” While a flow state is associated with high productivity, it does not contribute to mastery in the same way as deliberate practice. Flow is more spontaneous whereas deliberate practice is more uncomfortable and challenging (Duckworth, 2016). Often, familiarity leads people to rely too heavily on past practice rather than making observations about the present situation and crafting an appropriate strategy. People tend to gravitate toward what they know.
However, ability to take on new challenges is a major factor in success. Consultants who continually read about emerging trends, seek out training and mentors, who actively look to sharpen weak skills stay relevant. While there is value in the “tried and true,” consultants must compare familiar tools and techniques with newer methods to ensure they are delivering to the best of their ability. This means investing time. It also means possessing a willingess to confront personal limitations head on. This requires embracing challenge rather than fearing it (Duckworth, 2016). In consultancy, our clients look to us for solutions. We need to know what to do. Because business and technology are subject to rapid changes, we must engage in deliberate practice to keep our skills sharp and understand how emerging issues impact our clients. Investing time in reading and training outside of work hours presents a challenge, but it is a challenge we must meet. Deliberate practice is dirty work. It is uncomfortable, it is humbling. And according to thought leaders in the field, it is vital to success. In Getting Naked, Lencioni explores the critical role of self-awareness and examination in management consultancy. He underscores the importance of identifying weaknesses and actively working to correct them. Without using the term “deliberate practice,” Lencioni aptly describes the behavior throughout the text.
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
Reflection and deliberate practice are the ingredients of success. No one is born with a fixed amount of talent or potential. It is up to us as individuals to examine our performance, to act on constructive criticism, and to train ourselves to be better. As management consultants, this means stretching our capabilities and seeking projects outside our domain expertise—ability to synthesize information and use it to create new models for action leads to innovation. Staying comfortably inside one area of expertise is not only cowardly, it is bad for the brain. The brain requires novelty and challenge for optimum performance (Ericsson & Pool, 2016). Curiosity and willingness to try new tools and techniques can only benefit individual consultants, their firms, and the clients they serve. There is inherent risk—while on the one hand consultants should be trusted advisors, on the other hand that trust needs to earned. Willingness to make and learn from mistakes while being candid with clients helps distinguish both individual management companies and the firms they represent. People appreciate honesty and almost always reward it with repeat business and referrals (Lencioni, 2010).
Take some time to reflect—as a consultant, what are you most afraid of being asked to do? Is there a discipline or tool you are curious about? These questions can help identify concrete actions that will improve performance. Reading technical books and examining training programs can be time-consuming; self-examination can be painful—but, investments in building knowledge, skills, and abilities tend to offer the greatest returns.
Do you have a program or project going off the rails? Let’s talk. Plaster Group has experienced consultants that can help get a program/project back on track.
Chen, V. (2012). What is management consulting? Retrieved from: http://www.caseinterview.com/management-consulting.
Colvin, G. (2010). Talent is Overated: What really separates world-class performers from everyone else. Penguin Books, New York.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Penguin Random House, New York.
Ericsson, A. and Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
Lencioni, P. (2010). Getting Naked: A business fable about shedding the three fears that sabotage client loyalty. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.