The only 2 skills you need to be a Consultant

by Evren Ozkaya on 24 May 2015

Since my "official" consulting journey started back with McKinsey & Company, and now continues with my own venture at Supply Chain Wizard into the endless and exciting world of challenges and opportunities, I had the privilege to see so many different consulting projects, programs, initiatives in various countries, companies and industries, that I think it is time for me to look back and tell a few words about consulting.


 

For the small percentage of world population who are in the consulting business, it may not be a mystery (for US, the estimate is about 250,000 consultants per wetfeet.com, which makes less than 0.1% of population or 1-in-1000). But for the vast majority of the people, consulting is still a "new" and increasingly interesting field of occupation, where more and more people would like to jump right in. I think world needs more consulting talent, and my objective is to inspire the future generations of consultants, and hopefully take part in cultivating, educating and preparing some of them for a successful consulting career. If you want to be encouraged on the future prospects of consulting, I highly recommend the HBR article "The Rise of the Supertemp".  

First of all, no single corporate job could beat the combination of experiences, learning and fun I have accumulated in my consulting career, and that's why I love being a consultant. Looking back, I have fond memories of helping a medical device manufacturer redesign its entire supply chain planning, supporting a consumer packaged goods company in Midwest to optimize its global manufacturing and sourcing network, spending time in Mexico and Honduras training client teams, conducting a full operations diagnostic of a diaper manufacturer company in Turkey, helping a US-based Private Equity firm assessing a target company in Education industry, preparing project proposals for leading global retailers for their distribution network optimization and even spending considerable time in trash collection stations and landfills around the country to optimize their operations. More recently, having a chance to live in Rome, Italy for about 3 months to support a major humanitarian logistics organization and projects we took on as a company in India, Turkey, Rwanda and in Europe are all adding up to great excitement, pride, continued learning and fun. In my latest blog post "Launch your startup and go global", I believe I have captured some of this excitement and learnings.  

I have been invited to speak at universities such as Carnegie Mellon University and Georgia Institute of Technology to talk about how to be a consultant, and what skills are needed to be a successful one. Judging from the interest of both undergrad and grad students, there is significant amount of enthusiasm in the new generation to be consultants. Whether the reason behind it is financial, prestige, experience, learning, resume-check-box or other, I see the common theme in student questions that they want to be consultants, but they don't know how and they cannot exactly articulate why. Moreover, I am meeting increasing number of experienced professionals (early, mid or late stage in their careers) who are interested in getting into consulting or start their own consulting business for variety of reasons, and the same theme holds true: how to be a consultant and what skills are needed

Let's get to the bottom of things, and discuss what skills are essential in a successful consulting career first. Then, I will leave it to you to think about "how" you can be a consultant given your own circumstances. 

If you have time, you can see here the full video/presentation of my talk/lecture in April 2014 at Georgia Tech, organized by PhD2Consulting Club: "Preparing for a Consulting Career: Problem solving, Executive presentations & Storytelling".

Consulting is a life long journey for some. For some, it is a stop-gap until the next "full-time" gig. Regardless, you would need only two skills to be successful: 1. Problem Solving Skills, 2. Presentation Skills.  

I can hear some say: "BUT, you need much more than these two. You need expertise in specific topics, you need experience, you need x, y, z...". I hear you loud and clear. But without these two, others have minimal impact. And with these two alone, you can be a great consultant. 

1. Problem solving

What is more challenging: problem solving in a client setting or problem solving in a case interview? I think it is more challenging to do the case-interviews, because you are under time pressure, you are being directly interviewed for your abilities by a senior consultant or partner, and the topic is most likely about something you have no clue. 

I mentored many candidates before they went into their interviews with McKinsey and other firms. I conducted good number of first/second round interviews with other candidates. I also presented on this topic multiple times. So, here are some of the best strategies when preparing for a consulting interview (key component of interview process where they measure your problem solving skills):

Before the case:

  1. Get a practice partner
  2. Find a case coach
  3. Read case examples
  4. Practice & practice
  5. Relax & get curious

During the case:

  1. Listen and/or read
  2. Understand objective
  3. Clarify and ask
  4. Take time to think
  5. Structure
  6. Hypothesize
  7. Analyze / solve
  8. Sanity check
  9. Recommend
  10. Synthesize

Was this a long list? If I have to only select one advice about problem solving, it would be about "structuring". Structuring a problem, breaking down to smaller, meaningful and manageable pieces, and then solving these pieces to arrive to a holistic solution is a crucial skill. Every day in a consultant's life is a problem solving day. Complex problems are hard to deal with, and hard to articulate and solve. When you practice how to structure problems, you will see that every problem is going to be much easier, and this ties well to the next core skill: Presentation / Communication. If you structure a problem well enough, then you can not only solve it more easily, but can also present it nicely and effectively.

Here is an example case I enjoy discussing with candidates or students:

 

If you want to get some feedback on your problem solving skills, send me your solution in an email at evren.ozkaya@supplychainwizard.com, and I would be glad to tell you if you would pass my interview :)

2. Presenting

When I was presenting about these two core skills last year, I gave 50/50 importance to problem solving and presenting. Because they are complimentary, I thought and they should be equally important. But last year changed my view slightly. I think the presentation skills are more important than problem solving. Given the technical or business skills/insights, you can solve a problem, at least eventually :) But presenting a problem and its solution to an audience effectively is a much challenging skill, and therefore it is a more rare skill in the professional world. 

Presentation skill does NOT mean Powerpoint or Prezi. It is all about communication, and about telling a story that is easy to follow and understand; that has a purpose and an impact. Everyone of us use presentations in our lives. Verbal or visual or both, we all communicate with each other, within technical teams, to leadership teams and so on,on a regular basis. 

One day, a department head in my former company asked me to put together a training material to teach entire department staff how to make great presentations. After spending some time thinking about this topic, here is what I prepared for this very first training session I conducted, which was much more than just "presentation skills", but more about "story-telling":

  1. Emotions: Presentations (or any communication) are significantly more emotional than they are logical; so, learn to address people's feelings
  2. Audience: Understand your audience, and customize your messages and story to their needs and expectations
  3. Top-down: Leverage "Pyramid Principle", top-down messaging, giving the key message first, then presenting the supporting facts if needed
  4. Structure: Structure overall story, structure choices/options, structure pages, structure everything
  5. Color: Add color to your presentation by using some proven techniques such as jokes, quotes, provocation, analogies or some great charts

Presentation skill is like a language skill, and it can only be improved by practicing, and taking opportunities to speak, present and talk. Take every opportunity to improve your presentation skills, and you will find the benefits in every aspect of your life.

During the last year, I have given 13 speeches/talks in 10 conferences, and every time I continue to learn more and improve on this skill. It is a never ending story. The sooner you start practicing, the sooner you will see the compounding effects of this most important skill in your daily life as a consultant. 

If you read all the way to here, it is likely that you are very interested in being a consultant. Please start a conversation by commenting below, and I am happy to provide more insights and feedback based on my experience. I also look to learn from other consultants, and what they believe are the critical skills needed for success and a fulfilling consulting life. 

About the author: Evren Ozkaya, Ph.D. is the Founder and CEO of Supply Chain Wizard, LLC, a management and technology consulting firm focusing on designing strategies to improve operational performance of companies with complex supply chains. Dr. Ozkaya writes about various topics such as Entrepreneurship, Productivity, Consulting, Communication & Presentation Skills, Technology & Data Analytics, Supply Chain Transformations, Supply Chain Security and Pharmaceutical Serialization (Track & Trace).

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