Consulting 101

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Lately, I’ve been working with a lot of new hires – many are college hires with zero real world experience. I occasionally get an opportunity to mentor them, or sometimes it’s a consultant struggling on the job.  Mentoring people is something I have done on and off during my almost 20 year career at Microsoft and I enjoy it.  The good news is that I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career, so you don’t have to, and I share them without hesitation.

Here are the top 3 things I tell new consultants to master first.

1. Deliver on What You Promise

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This is easily my #1 rule.  If you make a promise to do something, do it.  Don’t try to make the mistake of over promising with just the hope of delivering.  If you fail to deliver, it destroys trust and confidence people have in you.  You are far better off setting realistic expectations and meeting them.  Its fine to set a ‘stretch goal’ and be clear its not what you are committing to.  If you find that you are likely unable to meet your commitment – let everyone know as soon as possible to reset expectations.  You probably can do this once.

2. Don’t Go Dark

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This easily goes in the top three delivery sins.  For some reason a consultant just disappears – they don’t tell the customer, their manager, or the project manager. Emergencies do happen, that is understandable, but I’m referring to someone who does this repeatedly.  I’ve not had a customer ever complain of over-communication in this scenario.  These days we have to manage multiple active projects, so its important to set expectations up front like availability, working hours, response time for emails, etc.  I can only guess why this happens – for me its usually due to an uncomfortable situation.  Not responding or being clear actually just makes matter worse.  People may not like your answer, but they will be much more upset if you don’t respond and they think you are in agreement.

3. Documentation

docuementsThe final tip is to document everything.  You never know what the future holds –  project owners change,  things fail well after the project ends, personality conflicts, and honest miscommunications. The only thing you will have to defend a decision or work you did will be a written record. As much as I hate to write status reports – these are critical to chronicle decisions, risks, work completed and other project information.  If you have a decision made over a phone call or in a meeting, follow up with an email summarizing and ask for confirmation this was what was said or agreed to.  Plan for the time it takes to deliver some form of documentation for any work you do.  Sometimes on really short engagements its easy to walk away without ever handing the customer any documentation. Even if it’s some up notes from meetings, clean them up and socialize them.

I learned this the hard way on a project that went sideways, and when they brought in “the Wolf” to fix things – I had no documentation or status reports.  I could have had all of my hours stripped away – which ultimately would have made me miss my delivery targets and put my job in jeopardy.

Get Started

That’s it.  If you can at least do these three things you will have established good habits that will serve you well.  Once you are consistently delivering – we’ll cover some other habits in a future post.

Bonus Homework

I just completed a course on Coursera: Presentation skills: Speechwriting and Storytelling (a great class by Alexei Kapterev, who authored ‘Death by PowerPoint’).  In one of the section resources was a link to a video of Mike Monteiro’s Keynote from a design conference (forewarned, Mike uses colorful language).  In his presentation he talks about the top mistakes designers make – and many of these are really applicable to consulting as well.  Once you make it past my top three – I would check his content for some more great tips.