What is a management consultant?

A management consultant helps companies and other organizations to improve their performance. Their work may be broad, such as to plan a strategy, or it may be specific, such as to devise a staff reward scheme.

Management consultancy involves a range of skills. In addition to having specialist knowledge, consultants must also be able to analyze problems, propose solutions, and help clients implement them.

An effective management consultant must also be able to build relationships and get on with people. Often, their work can involve working closely with clients, as part of a team. However, at all times, the consultant needs to maintain an objective, independent view.

Hierarchy of involvement

A useful way to look at how consultants relate to client organizations is to see the process as a hierarchy of involvement. This comes from an idea that Arthur N. Turner first described in a 1982 article in Harvard Business Review. He named it the “hierarchy of purposes.”

Turner’s hierarchy has eight steps. The greater the step number, the more involved the relationship between consultant and client. The eight steps are:

  1. Supply information in response to a specific request.
  2. Provide a solution to a specified problem.
  3. Diagnose a presenting problem: perhaps even redefine it.
  4. Make recommendations in line with the diagnosis.
  5. Assist client to implement recommended changes.
  6. Build commitment around implementing changes.
  7. Help client learn how to solve similar problems in the future.
  8. Improve organization’s ability to adapt to a changing world.

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What do the best consultants do?

No matter how close they are to the client, the role of the management consultant is to influence and not to control.

Although they can become deeply involved with the problem and its analysis, management consultants remain outsiders. They make it clear that the problem belongs to the client, as does responsibility for deciding solutions.

Management consultancies range in size from independent individuals to large global companies that employ thousands of consultants around the world.

Accenture is one such global company that offers management consulting among its services. Alexandra Nuth was a strategy consultant with the firm before becoming managing director of ATB Financial.

In Nuth’s view, the best consultants:

  • Build trust by doing exactly what they say they will do.
  • Pay attention to detail.
  • Have an area in which they excel.
  • Think before they act.
  • Face tough problems with resourcefulness.
  • Are not afraid to ask questions.