As the pace of change increases, we find ourselves, more and more, in unfamiliar situations. Different forces can push us into uncharted waters at different times in our lives. Yet at Protagion we urge our members to practise doing things they’ve never done in order to feel at home with the unknown. For us, elements of this are staying curious, consciously pushing ourselves, and embracing new experiences.
In the context of this belief, the focus of this post is on how to learn at the same time as demonstrating expertise. The risk of feeling insecure is high in new situations, but we must learn to embrace this feeling in order to keep learning and growing. Also, as we become more senior, we are less likely to have breathing space to learn and become experts before needing to demonstrate our understanding. The speed at which things evolve means that time out to build expertise is more of a luxury than a reality. Often too, learning is a result of interaction with others, and in order to be accepted into the group, we need to demonstrate some credibility first.
In previous posts, we found that successful people often have some consulting experience in their careers (e.g. Routes to the Top – Investment Management). So, we looked at what we could learn from management consultants, who find themselves in new situations regularly. At a high-level, the mindset of a consultant can be described as a problem-solving one, where they gather data about the specific problem, formulate solutions, test these with their clients, and then repeat the cycle many times to refine their proposals. This cyclical approach means that consultants learn a lot about their industry and the players within the industry within a short period of time.
But, this post is not only relevant to consultants. Others who need to learn and deliver at the same time include:
- contractors (IT, programme management, actuarial, marketing etc)
- existing team members allocated to a project
- analysts and professional advisors
- freelancers and
- others trying to learn something new on-the-job.
Like consultants, these types of workers have to adapt to a different setting with each new project or client and rise to dynamic challenges from the start. They also have to prepare carefully, signal their competence, understand the environment they’re in, and cultivate acceptance from others.
Successful application of knowledge and delivery that delights your clients (external or internal) depends on in-depth situational awareness of an unfamiliar environment – which you can’t have when you start a project… And consultants or advisors may not yet be completely clear on what the client really wants, even though the client expects results asap. Often the client might not know in detail what they want – they may know what the high-level issue is, but their struggle to articulate and distil it is precisely why they need external assistance. So consultants must quickly and sensitively gain knowledge of the client’s business while simultaneously giving an impression of competence and self-confidence.
The purpose of creating this impression (while doing everything they can to learn and deliver at the same time) is not to manipulate the client, but rather to build rapport and trust in a short space of time. In effect, it is a combination of technical knowledge (gained from a variety of sources) and people skills (to work most effectively with the client) that allows them to ultimately deliver the results the client is looking for.
Potential approaches to learning
There are a number of ways to gain knowledge, but not all of these are suitable for situations when you need to quickly demonstrate expertise and deliver. For example, sometimes you can set aside a significant block of time, learn and practise, all with the aim of demonstrating your expertise at a future date – an instance of this would be studying for an exam. This approach is unlikely to suit a work environment where you need to evidence some expertise to others quickly.
Another way would be to ask direct questions. Sometimes consultants are able to ask informed questions during the discovery phase of an assignment, similar to how a doctor might take a medical history and evaluate a patient’s vital signs, or a lawyer might discuss with the client and evaluate precedent to understand the situation before applying their expertise. These questions need to be informed by careful observation, rigorous homework and relevant prior experience, and can help consultants both learn about the client’s objectives and circumstances and gain credibility. The danger though is that by asking questions, you could look uninformed and your client may feel like they are training you!
Experimentation is a further potential approach i.e. learning by testing out different theories or possible solutions. However, your client may expect you to know how to rise to the challenge and be surprised if you start trying things out, especially if your tests fail…
However, trying to show your understanding immediately may be dangerous because an inadvertent mistake may reveal your ignorance, and your credibility can take a knock. One example of this is using different terminology to that used by your client, which can open you up to the criticism that you don’t understand “how things work around here”, especially from non-sponsoring members of the client organisation that you may need to interact with. You may also be perceived as overconfident and the client may lose faith in your expertise, stifling your ability to deliver.
Lessons from consultants on learning
A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article recommended to us sets out three methods for managing what the authors refer to as the “learning-credibility tension” i.e. projecting expertise and learning at the same time. The authors interviewed a number of consultants to identify the approaches they take to managing this tension, and have distilled these into three methods:
The article can be found here: https://hbr.org/2018/07/how-consultants-project-expertise-and-learn-at-the-same-time. The comments on the article echo its authenticity. And, as its approach is described by one of our members, with decades of experience in the consulting industry, as “a framework for how I experience it”, we felt it would be worthwhile to share with you as a guide to how to demonstrate expertise while learning.
Crafting relevance is about having an impact in a short time by leveraging all the nuggets of knowledge that are available. Consultants excel at knowing just enough to be taken seriously and appear competent while they seek out more information to improve their knowledge. They collect pieces of information to build a high-level view of the client’s situation and selectively present them back to clients to hear their feedback, including information from:
When engaging with the client, consultants also describe past experiences that have some parallels with the current assignment, demonstrating industry awareness, and encouraging the client to share what resonates and what points of difference there are, which helps the consultant to learn more about the specifics of the client’s circumstances. This technique is also helpful when pitching for business.
Before they will listen to their advice, clients need to accept consultants as fellow professionals. Some level of trust is also needed before people will share their own thoughts with the consultants, especially if they weren’t involved in the decision to appoint them. Wider employees of the organisation may be more likely to view the consultants suspiciously, or as outsiders who don’t appreciate “how we do things around here”. To be more accepted by these groups, consultants replay internal knowledge while acquiring new information, and monitor their clients for physical approval cues. They also use industry and company-specific terminology and expressions. These words and phrases indicate they understand the company, and help to encourage more engagement during their interactions with employees.
Consultants are also known for borrowing insights from one group at a client and replaying these when they’re with other insiders, which sometimes earns them a reputation as people who “borrow your watch to tell you the time, then walk off with the watch”. However, they use this technique to assess reactions to their borrowed insights, which helps them determine which ideas and people have support within the organisation more broadly. This then allows them to reiterate and amplify the ideas which resonate with the organisation when presenting their solutions.
Crafting substance is about demonstrating progress to the client, especially as they will be keen to get ongoing value for the consulting fees they are paying. While the consultants are gaining speed and working towards producing their highest-value output, they may be questioned by the client on what they are delivering. To evidence ongoing progress, consultants create “knowledge objects” to show their productivity while seeking information and feedback at the same time.
These often take the form of strawmen or ideographs to summarise what they’ve learnt. communicate the essentials, and gather feedback from the client – it is much easier for the client to critique draft diagrams, and they encourage the client to articulate what they like and what they don’t. These PowerPoint figures visibly indicate the consultants’ thinking, understanding and progress, and allow the solution to evolve as feedback is received. This is a subtler form of experimentation referred to earlier.
Another way to demonstrate activity is to provide schedules and workplans. These project plans give a sense of control and professionalism, and offer a way to update the client on progress. They can help to draw out what the client expects, highlight milestones, and also indicate dependencies on internal teams, serving to mobilise areas that the consultant needs input from.
The HBR article argues that with these three methods, “you can build confidence, feel better about your work, and maintain your face”. They continue: “...managing learning-credibility tension is something much deeper than ‘personal PR’ or acting out a role. It will also help you to gain new insights, share information, and work toward longer-term goals. After all, without belief and acceptance from those around you, your important new project will never get off the ground.”
Other lessons from consulting
Some other lessons from the consulting world that our readers may find helpful in their careers, including for projects you work on:
Please let us know if you have other suggestions from your experiences as consultants – what aspects of your assignments or approach have particularly helped you further in your career?