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What social and emotional skills do consultants need?

What are the specific social and emotional skills, the ‘soft’ behavioural skills that consultants need that differ from those required in conventional management roles, or require a much higher level of effectiveness?  (‘Soft’ skills have been defined as personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.)  The skills required by managers vary widely, depending on the type of management job in question.  For the purposes of this comparison, we will take a stereotypical operational line manager’s job.

The competence framework for the Chartered Management Consultant accreditation places considerable emphasis on social and emotional skills.  It states an expectation that Chartered Management Consultants should take responsibility for their personal and professional development, including social and emotional intelligence, collaboration, influence and stakeholder relationship management, and provides a more detailed breakdown of what is required in some of these areas.  However it does not explicitly set out how the competencies required of management consultants differ from those more generally required by managers; indeed it draws on the Chartered Management Institute’s Code of Conduct and Practice and competency frameworks from other professional Chartered Institutes.  This article draws on the framework insofar as it identifies distinctive competencies of management consultants.

A consideration of the activities involved in management consultancy indicates that different social and emotional skills are likely to be needed at different stages of the consultancy cycle:

  • Sales;
  • Project start-up;
  • Project execution;
  • Project completion;
  • Between projects.


Many management jobs, although not usually operational line management jobs, include sales.  Consultancy sales, however, have some specific characteristics that differentiate them from most product sales, although sales of some services and systems require a similar approach.

Listening skills are undoubtedly crucial in consultancy sales.  A customer’s core requirements are not always obvious on initial contact.  For example, clients usually demand high quality, low cost and speedy execution and it sometimes requires careful attention to determine which is the most important.

It is also important to establish rapport and build relationships with key purchasing decision makers.  This helps them discuss any sensitive issues more openly.

Project start-up

At the start of a project, consultants often need to engage and build a working relationship with a number of people quite quickly.  Again, the ability to establish a rapport with people at various levels in an organisation is important, potentially from the shop floor to Board level.

Typically a consultant needs to gain access to and build trust with key contacts in the client organisation.  Research by Julia DiBenigno of Yale University found that some external advisors are able to capitalise on short windows of opportunity to develop relationships of influence with senior staff.  Successful advisors were able rapidly to achieve access to the relevant staff members, gain their trust and then use their relational expertise on a continuing basis in order to have their recommendations accepted.  Advisors who did not complete all of these steps were less successful.

Project execution

Consultancy projects vary widely.  Some may require relatively little interaction with client staff, for example externally focused projects such as market analysis or benchmarking.  Many consulting projects require consultants to take up leadership and management roles, within their own teams or in the client organisation.  The competencies required are well covered in the Chartered Management Consultant framework. 

Frequently, consulting assignments include an element of change management.  It is widely accepted that communication skills are important in change management.  In addition, consultants on change management projects often have to have to handle group meetings of staff that may include individuals hostile to the changes being implemented.  Managing such meetings effectively is an important skill.

CMCE is currently researching the skills of expert change management consultants, in particular the competencies involved in managing difficult meetings.  We already know that it is important to be able to manage one’s own emotions in such situations and be able to continue to conduct the meeting effectively in the face of hostile reactions or personal attacks.  It helps to be able to cool the emotional temperature of the meeting, for example by showing empathy to speakers voicing critical opinions and restating any arguments they present in an objective manner.  We trust our research will permit a more detailed analysis of the competencies involved.

Consultants may often have to handle difficult one-to-one conversations, for similar reasons.  It is not unusual for consulting assignments to include some coaching, for example of managers whose roles have changed as a result of organisational change.  Coaching skills are a useful addition to a consultant’s professional repertoire.

The Chartered Management Consultant framework identifies collaboration as an important competency.  Speakers at the recent International Council of Management Consulting Institutes (ICMCI) discussions on ‘Management consultancy in 2032 – Time travel into the future’ predicted that consultants will increasingly be working with new partners on every project, in many cases partners from different cultures.  The ability to establish effective collaboration rapidly despite cultural differences will be critical.

Specific beliefs and attitudes help to underpin a successful management consulting career.  Self-efficacy is a psychological concept meaning the strength of an individual’s belief that they can act in ways necessary to achieve specific goals.  The work of a consultant typically presents many and varied challenges; every project is different.  A consultant who is confident that they can complete their work successfully, while having a realistic understanding of their capabilities, is more likely to achieve their aims.  Self-efficacy can be complemented by an appropriate mindset, a concept popularised by the psychologist Carol Dweck.  A person with a growth mindset is open to learning and welcomes opportunities to expand their abilities, rather than just completing a task with as little effort as possible.  A growth mindset is more likely to favour a consultant faced with the unexpected challenges that so often occur in consulting assignments.  My colleague Valentina Lorenzon wrote about the growth mindset in a recent Newsletter article.

Project completion

Towards the end of a project, the consultant may need to hand over various activities to client staff.  This may require reducing their dependence on the consultant, giving them confidence to carry on the work and training them in any relevant skills.

It may be necessary to disseminate some findings in an organisation.  Communication and influencing skills are likely to be required; often a consultant has to persuade senior and more powerful people in an organisation to change their views.

Between projects

Independent consultants and senior consultants in consulting firms need to build and maintain effective networks.  Networks of contacts in potential client firms are a key source of leads for new consulting projects.  Even where a project goes to competitive tender, a consultant with good connections may be able to influence the definition of the requirements.  Independents may also need to network with other consultants who can bring complementary skills or additional resources to a particular project.

In conclusion

CMCE is continuing to research the social and emotional skills needed by consultants and plans to publish a report on the subject in due course.  We would be very interested to hear your views; please contact the author at


Dr Karol Szlichcinski FIC is an Associate Director of CMCE, a Chartered Psychologist and a Certified Principal Business Psychologist.

Tuesday 14th November 2023
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