Consulting and the Role of Confidence


    Working in the consulting and professional services industry requires smart people who are in the spotlight and need to be able to think on their feet. As a result, it requires some confidence and poise.  This can be a particular issue for younger, less experienced consultants, but can affect any level within the industry. Having the right amount of confidence is a little like Goldilocks – It needs to be just right.Confident Business Woman

    1. I would think that any role in the business world requires confidence.  Why do you think it is so important in consulting and professional services?
      • The key difference is the level of customers that a consultant faces.  Employees at some companies rarely face customers and still others only face customers at very low levels.
      • Consultants generally face much higher-level professional people.  These are usually people that are a little more demanding and can be more intimidating.
      • Also, because consultants usually charge relatively high billing rates, there is a much higher expectation from the client for the consultant to perform.
      • I think all of these factors combine to make confidence an important factor in consulting.
      • Consulting firms are never going to put a brand new consultant in a situation where a high-level executive tears him a new one.
      • But even new consultants are present in meetings where they may be asked a question or even expected to give a presentation.  The firm wants to have the confidence that their consultants can think on their feet and be cool under pressure.
    2. Have you ever known a consultant that lacked confidence?
      • Well, I think every consultants lacks confidence at one time or another.  I did myself early on. I worked for a small consulting firm right out of college and there were times early on where I was in front of the client and wasn’t sure how to behave or respond to certain situations.
      • It wasn’t long before I observed the employees at my clients and I realized that, while I lacked confidence at times, I didn’t show it like they did.
      • It wasn’t as much a matter of being confident as showing confidence.
      • Also, as I got more experience, I understood the job better and developed a lot more confidence.
      • I think the lesson I learned there was to act confidently even when I wasn’t.
      • After that firm, I moved on to a much larger, top tier firm.  And I’ll admit that that was a bit intimidating also.  I needed to build that confidence back up again, but it was in the same way.  I’ve found that if you work through it and get some experience, you realize that it’s not quite as hard as you thought it would be.
    3. You mentioned that it’s important to act confident even when you aren’t.  Is it really just an act?
      • No. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that it’s all an act.  But how you act is the key factor.
      • Let me give you an example.  If you’re in a client meeting and the client asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, there’s nothing you can do about that.  You don’t know the answer.
      • If you really just wanted to act confident, you could throw out a wild-ass guess just so you could answer the question.
      • Or you could wince and cringe, hunch your shoulders and apologetically say you don’t know.  But that gives the client the feeling that you should know.
      • As a consultant, you aren’t going to know everything, so why act like you do?  If you’re confident that you don’t know, why don’t you just tell the client confidently “I don’t know, but I’ll look into it.”?
      • I’ve always thought that there is an answer for every question and sometimes that answer is “I don’t know”.
    4. What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a consultant but lacks confidence?
      • They should do a little self-analysis and try to determine what is behind the lack of confidence.
      • Is it based on lack of knowledge?  If so, make sure you do your homework.  I’ve seen that prior to a client meeting, if someone didn’t research the client and their industry they’re justified in being afraid that the client will ask a question they should know but don’t.
      • Going in front of a client can be very scary.  They expect you to know your stuff – it’s what they’re paying for.  And if you walk in unprepared, most clients won’t be happy.
      • I’ve seen some consultants that are just afraid to fail.  I’ve always felt that failure shows that you’re trying.  And if you never fail, you’re not trying hard enough.
      • A good consultant has to have the self-confidence to be able to fail and still hold his or her head up.
      • Related to the fear of failure is being afraid to say something stupid.  I’ve seen consultants – myself included at times – that don’t ask a question or make a suggestion because the client might think it’s stupid.  Going back to doing your homework, if you’ve done that, I think you have to be confident enough to ask questions and make suggestions.
      • It’s usually not a stupid question.  You’ll often find that there was someone else in the room that is glad you had the kahunas to ask it.
    5. What advice would you give to someone at a higher level who knows a younger consultant lacking confidence?
      • Well just like I said with the self-analysis, try to find out where the lack of confidence lies.  If you can find the root cause, you can better work with them.
      • If a higher level person observes a lack of confidence in someone, they should mentor them.  Teach them how to act confidently even when they don’t know the answer or if they’re confused.
      • Teach them that they don’t have to have the answers all the time, but how to act when they don’t can be a big help.
      • They should also give them feedback that will build confidence, not a false sense of security but advice to help them develop real confidence.
      • It’s also important to teach a younger consultant how to prepare.  I mentioned earlier how important preparation is.  Some consultants don’t know how to do it effectively.
      • Mentoring someone on the best ways to prepare and to stop and think about the possible questions a client may ask will help a younger consultant develop confidence.
    6. Is lack of confidence a deal breaker?
      • It probably is for most firms.  I remember interviewing people, mostly college students who were interviewing for their first job out of college.
      • That can be an intimidating experience.  Add to that that you’re interviewing with a huge firm that you’d really like to be part of, and that can do actually some people in.
      • I’ve seen them sweat and get the shakes and I’ve actually seen people freeze during the interview.
      • Knowing the situation, I’ve tried to put them at ease as much as possible, but in the end, we need to hire someone who can deal with a pressure situation like that and if they can’t handle an interview, it’s highly doubtful they can handle a difficult session with a client by themselves.
    7. Confidence is such an ambiguous trait. How do firms assess it?
      • Well you’re right; it’s hard to really put your finger on confidence. More than confidence, we’re looking for a presence.  In interviews, we know people are nervous – it’s natural in that situation.  But it’s really a matter of how they handle those nerves.  If they’re able to set that aside and focus on the interview, they’ve mastered it and shown that they have presence.
      • For example, one of the classic case interview questions is “how many basketballs would it take to fill this room?”
      • Now I’ll guarantee you that the questioner doesn’t care about the answer.  It provides him no value.
      • But, what the questioner wants to see is the following:
      • How does this person think under pressure?  Do they jump right in to solve a problem or do they get flustered because they weren’t prepared.
      • They’re also testing to see if you’ll push back and how you do it.  Diving in to answer the question may not be good consulting.  If the interviewee asks them why they want to know something like that, how do they ask?  I confident way to ask is “What is your business purpose for filling the room with basketballs?  Have you thought of other solutions?
      • Depending on what the interviewer says, they may just want to know the answer.  At that point, just start making some estimates on the size of the room and doing some math.  Questions like that are really meant to see how easy you get flustered.
      • One other example of dealing with pressure, I once had to give a presentation to a large crowd.  Now, I’ve given speeches before and don’t usually get too nervous about it, but this was a large group and I got really nervous as the time approached.
      • When they called my name, my breath became short and my heart was beating a hundred miles an hour.
      • I went up there and took a deep breath and started speaking.  I started talking at a slightly louder level to kind of work off that nervous energy.  Within a minute, I had developed a presence in front of the crowd and was fine once I worked through it.
      • But working off that nervous energy without letting the crowd see that I was nervous was a big help.
    8. What about over-confidence?  Is that a problem in consulting?
      • Yes.  In fact, sometimes I think over-confidence can be an even bigger problem. Consulting firms like to say they hire the best and the brightest.  So maybe they scare away enough of the people without the confidence to attempt it.
      • But when consulting firms say that they hire the brightest people, that starts to get inside their heads.  Once they’re hired into a firm, they begin believing “I am the best of the best”.
      • Then to make matters worse, they get out to client sites and executives begin turning to them for advice.  That begins to go to their head.
      • Once they have a few projects under their belt, they begin to think they know everything.
      • So confidence in consulting is a matter of balancing lack of confidence with having too much.
    9. How do you deal with over-confident people?
      • It depends on how over-confident they are.  If it’s more like what I just described and the consulting thing has just gone to their head a little, you want to teach them some balance.  You want to bring them down a little but maintain their confidence.  You want to make sure you don’t knock them down too many notches.
      • If they’re so overconfident that they’re arrogant, it’s a little bit different story.
      • If they’re condescending with the client or with peers, or if they’re coming to meetings late or being disrespectful in any way then you definitely need to coach them differently.
      • That can be very difficult because you have to confront them with a weakness where they believe they’re very strong.  You need to say “Hey, I’ve observed this behavior and I wanted to let you know how you may be perceived by the client.”
      • I also think it’s important to keep in mind that arrogant and cocky people usually act that way in an attempt to over-compensate for insecurities.  Deep down, arrogant people are very insecure and tend to act that way to cover it up.
      • So when you work with someone like that, you want to make sure that you don’t just “put them in their place” because their already at a much lower confidence level than they’re acting.
    10. Any final thoughts on confidence in the consulting and professional services industry?
      • I would recommend that you always keep yourself in check.  Projecting confidence is showing that you’re comfortable in your surroundings.  If you lack confidence, you’re going to be uneasy with your surroundings.
      • And you may be showing arrogant behavior if you tend to downplay or belittle your surroundings with disrespectfulness.
      • If you continuously strive just to be comfortable where you are without going to those two other extremes, you’ll get into the practice of being confident all the time.

    Next topic: The four keys to success as a consultant

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    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101 provides you with 101 useful tips to optimize your professional performance and jump-start your consulting career with success.


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