What are the differences between average and great leaders in management consultancies?

Article written by Graham Clark, Director of Coaching and Consultancy at The OCM

I was a management consultant for 16 years before deciding to become a full-time coach. When I was consulting friends, clients and family members they would sometimes ask me what the point of consulting was – and the very short answer I’d always give was that it’s about making our client organisations stronger and more capable. And then they’d ask me what consultants do, the answer I always gave was based on David Maister’s seminal book “Managing the professional services firm”. When you boil it down, there are only 3 things that consultants do – sell, deliver and manage.

As far as sales and delivery go, management consultants have a justifiable reputation for being amongst the most capable professionals.  The best management consultants are highly commercial, strategic, persuasive, agile, client-focused and above all have an unimpeachable work ethic. 
 
But in my experience, it’s fair to say that consultants’ skills in line management lag far behind their sales and delivery acumen.  All too often, line managers speak to their direct reports infrequently and most interactions are task-focused and quite transactional.  When it comes to line managers making their people stronger and more capable, these conversations often leave a lot to be desired. 
 
Of course, consultants will have access to more senior colleagues as part of project teams and may get some mentoring along the way, but that’s not the same as an ongoing relationship with a line manager that provides support, challenge, development, feedback and career planning.  
 
Managers frequently don’t have time for developmental conversations with the consultants they manage.    Line management is not incentivised to anything like the same extent as sales and delivery so it risks dropping down the priority list, so direct reports don’t get access to quality development or coaching, or they don’t get the feedback that they need to hear – both positive and more developmental.  All this means that highly talented consultants are frequently disengaged; and consultants with performance issues are unaware of them, or lack the support or motivation to address them.  
 
Of course, there are consultants who deliver fantastic line management   and when you look at what they do differently from others it boils down to the following:
•    Focusing primarily on the direct report’s agenda during the 1:1 conversations, generally approaching them in the spirit of inquiry rather than the spirit of advising
•    Helping direct reports to learn from things that went well, things that didn’t and to seek and understand feedback from the right people
•    Helping direct reports navigate the stakeholder environment and coaching them around the relationships to build
•    A focus on longer-term career development, managing direct reports’ expectations around career progression and offering support and challenge as appropriate 
•    Managing their direct reports’ levels of anxiety (sometimes reducing it, occasionally raising it) to maintain the right level of motivation
•    Ensuring direct reports are developing the skills that they and the organisation need through a coaching approach
 
The essential skills that highly effective line managers use to do this are actually simple: listening well, asking great questions that make people think and delivering feedback in way so that people understand, accept and act on it.   They are truly stewards of talent in the organisation.  But just because these essential skills sound simple, it doesn’t mean they are easy to do.  
 
At The OCM we specialise in developing these skills.  We exist to make people and organisations stronger, more capable and more adaptable.