At some point, many professionals consider going into private consulting. The appeal of working in new places, earning based on your own terms, having job flexibility along with having the opportunity to effect real change all seem enticing. But seasoned consultant, entrepreneur, and former health care executive Aaron Kull has some words of wisdom for those considering this particular career switch.
The secret, Kull shares, is adaptability.
“You’re walking into a different situation every time you have a new customer; it’s going to look different, you’re going to have different personalities, you’re going to have different people that are worried about different things,” Kull advises. “And these might not even be professional things, these are personal things. ‘Am I going to keep my job? How is this going to impact me?’ So there’s all sorts of different considerations that exist in a consulting engagement, and I think trying to be aware of all of them and be adaptable to them and be responsive to them is really important.”
Kull speaks from deep experience. In his long and varied career, he’s played the role of owner/operator for large consulting segments, including leading a national practice while at Accenture, focused on financial performance improvement for health system
Aaron Kull: Consultants Need ‘Strong Critical and Strong Listening Skills’
After adaptability, flexibility is crucial, according to Kull. The ability to think on one’s feet and knock a curveball out of the park — even if it’s outside your area of expertise — will serve any consultant well.
“I think the ability to offer value in an area where you don’t have direct experience is probably one of the biggest skills a consultant can have,” he shares. “And that really just takes strong critical thinking and strong listening skills to understand where the breakdowns are occurring. If you can isolate what’s going wrong and figure out how things can be better, and then use the skills you have to fix those areas, you’ll be doing your client an invaluable service. Having and using a strong critical eye is a really important skill for consultants.”
In a way, Kull adds, every consultant is a mixture of a technical wizard and a part-time psychiatrist. It’s rare that a solution to any problem in modern business is 100% about the numbers. And any resolutions you’re likely to propose can only be implemented if they achieve a buy-in from management.
For that reason, successful consulting often means finding both the perfect solution and the best way to sell it. That can mean spending extra time trying to understand what motivates the key stakeholders, whether they’re the front-line workers, upper management, or the business owner.
Know What You Don’t Know
“Whatever you think you know, that’s not even half of it,” Aaron Kull continues. “It’s kind of like the iceberg, where you see the 20% on top of the water, but there’s 80% more lurking down below. When you come into a new project or get new information, you are going to get a view of something and think you have a decent perspective. But that perspective needs to be validated, tested, kicked, and dragged through the mud to ensure that it’s correct.”
Staying humble and ready to learn is essential in consulting. Consultants who have only worked in the private sector, in a specific industry, or with a certain kind of company may be surprised to learn how different the same process looks somewhere new. An open mind has not only saved many consultants from embarrassment, but it can help produce surprising solutions that actually work.
Instead of assuming that every job can be handled with smarter data analysis, the right software, or a restructuring, be open to other ideas, Aaron Kull suggests. Getting to know your client and their customers can make a big difference in your success rate.
“A lot of consultants wind up with this image that they are young, know-it-all hotshots and walk in and drop a recommendation down without truly understanding their customer and what their needs are,” Aaron Kull says. “ I think that is a really big point of failure for many consultants. I think really gaining trust, making sure that the customer knows that you’re on their team, and as you’re forming recommendations, understanding the reality of them, understanding how deep they go, understanding the impact that they will have. And as you’re putting them forward, doing them in a way that’s both well received and humble, I think is a really important facet.”