The learning dilemma of the consultant.

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With evermore self-employed consultants walking among us – those who unshackled from the factory, hung out a shingle and said “I’ve got knowledge, talent, experience and a will to help your organisation with them” – the opportunity for enterprises of any size to bring in temporary niche expertise and services is tremendous. Without needing to full-time employ an in-house workshop facilitator, a social media gun, a time-and-motion guru or a HR wisdom font, smaller organisations can enjoy the more rigourous and up-to-date counsel their larger competitors, clients and suppliers have otherwise been advantaged by. Identify your need, bring in the advisor, pay to the line, take the advice, thank them for coming and move on.

As the advisor economy rises, and more folk stay longer in their consultancies (for the retreat of so many a consultant back to the safety & comfort of the corporate bosom having endured 18 months in the wilds was becoming a thing), there’s a counterpunch to the upsides of “experienced consultant”. 

It is “increasingly disconnected from the realities of the coalface" consultant.

The fine line (one that I, 12+ years into my consultancy, and many of my ilk tread daily) is;

we want you for your breadth and altitude of expertise


we need to know you are hyper-current and really deep in this one domain we’re needing genuine coalface smarts on”.

In other words, “be 35,000 feet eyes” and “be au fait with the realities and details of the shop floor”. Clouds and Dirt, to borrow a Vayner-ism.

Many consultancies take a position on one or other sides of this line. “This is the broad, disclaimer-rich vibe of what I’m advising, you’ll need to apply details in-house for yourselves” recommendation report writers, or “I can and will go in deep and tactical with you on this as a surrogate employee for a reasonably long period at the expense of other inputs and outputs” give-them-a-desk toilers. Both can work, as can hybrids.

The challenge regardless is keeping up to speed with the matters that truly will matter to this client, and to the next, when you’ve been out of the institutional environment (blinkered as it is) for a reasonable period. Out of an enterprise that, through the daily work or ongoing training, spoon feeds you evolving knowledge grist. There’s a point when the consultant's words “when I was doing it, this is what I learnt” sound as hollow and redundant as your Grandfather describing his 3-mile hike to school each day with warm milk money. The world changed. The game looks different. We don’t bring door-to-door vacuum cleaner guys in to run sales training courses anymore. AFL teams don’t hire the 70-year-old John Kennedy types as coaches anymore. Yes, fundamentals don’t die, but the street cred you once enjoyed and thought was evergreen maybe isn’t as respected or valued the way it was, for “currency” moves faster now than ever.

That’s a tough pill to swallow, and a re-invention reality all consultants must wrestle.

How does the consultant that’s been consulting out in the wilds for many years across many spaces stay truly relevant, valuable and deft at both strategic advisory altitude and tactical implementation coalface level? It’s a challenging conundrum because;

  • We don’t (can't) stay inside a clients’ business long enough to truly appreciate the whirring machinations, rub-point causes and precise manifestations of the matters on which we’re advising. We think we get it (to 98%), but there are nuances you just can’t ever feel from the other side of the glass. (And the few that do stay inside the aquarium long enough inevitably lose their objectivity by breathing the culture too long, by normalising it, and often find it easier to become employees).
  • We’re bringing in multi-client on-the-job learning perspectives that are built via consulting to other enterprises, which gives us some real-time, real-life, cross-organisation intelligence that’s often highly beneficial, but is still viewed through the consultant’s lens (and so execution idiosyncrasies and cultural minutia that can sometimes be the undoing of the mightiest machines is potentially missed or misunderstood.)
  • Running a little consulting enterprise that’s hyper-client focused, busy daily delivering to clients (often educating them) carries the (self-imposed) opportunity cost of limited ongoing formal training or self-education time. It’s a challenging discipline for the self-employed consultant to do the next course for themselves (“that’s client time!”), or to drive a program of self-directed learning (“that’s production time!”), and maybe most importantly, to be clear on WHAT they should be educating themselves on (Deeply? Widely? Niche? History? Trends? For my own strategic plan? For my client’s strategic plan?)

With information and ideation streams running like monsoon-bulging rivers from every corner of your iphone and laptop, the limiting step isn’t feeds. It’s focus. Time on the task of up-informing and up-skilling your consultant’s mind (hence value proposition) for ongoing relevance, for increasing value, for the client cohort you want to serve.

There perhaps lays your ultimate learning decision criteria.

Who do you want to serve tomorrow?

And what you can learn that will add greater value to them tomorrow?

We start each strategic planning process with the big “Why” question. Why does your organisaton exist? What’s its core purpose? What’s the legacy you’re defining for the entity in advance? What, one day, do you want this entreprise to be remembered for having done for others?

I’d put it to you that crafting for yourself a tailored learning program that’s pointed at that legacy-for-others idea might be a great starting point. Knowing who your desired “others” are, committing to studying and considering their evolving worlds, wants and waves, and getting on the front end of that wave via filling your noodle with more of what might be genuine future value for them.

Your sources of learning as a consultant?  They’ll still likely cascade down from “I picked this up observing how my other clients approach it”, to “my research on behalf of other clients taught me this”, to “I’ve been proactively seeking out better, more valuable ways of doing something” to “I’m part of a network I pick stuff up from”. Formal programs, depending on your consultancy domain, may still have a place (and as paid educators, it’s just good practice to expose ourselves to other learning environments and methodologies), but there are innumerate places and vehicles you can pick up valuable, current intell. (err, consultant hat on, “That’s the vibe of what I’m advising, you can sift through the details on those sources to suit your circumstances when I leave…”)

Bringing in consultants that have been doing what they do awhile carries great experience upsides... and potential vacuum-cleaner sales trainer risks. If you’re exploring one for a particular need your enterprise has, it will likely pay to consider the depth, breadth, chronology and currency of their value proposition.

And if you’re a consultant whose shingle is starting to show the early signs of weathering?

Take the medicine of a time investment in clear thinking, planning and decision making around - and making time commitments to - your next-level learning.

Not just for you (because I know the taste of “off the ball work” tablets can be bitter).

But for the legacy recipients you set your little engine up for. For your WHY.

(The beneficiaries of your Why.... what do they need to you be more valuable at?)


Troy Forrest runs Forrest Workshops, a workshop construction & facilitation service offered under the Strategy Road banner.