Back-to-School for Consultants:
How to Continually Develop Expertise
I’m often asked how I stay abreast of current trends and expertise. Constant self-development is an absolute requirement for any consultant. Think about it much of what we learn in undergraduate or graduate schools becomes outdated in five years, so it’s up to us to expand our knowledge and understanding.
I learn something new every day and I’d like to share some of my sources with you. I’m not advocating that you do exactly what I do, but I find that these work for me and hope you might be able to adopt some of them. I’m providing specific examples in order to give the most direction, and encourage you to adapt my examples to your own particular situation.
1. Read the newspaper every day.
No matter how busy you are, it’s absolutely critical to read The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times as well as your local newspaper every day. You don’t need to read these publications cover-to-cover, but scan the headlines, read articles on clients and their industries, and review clients’ stock prices.
2. Listen to books on CD during travel and commutes.
Books on CD are a wonderful way to update yourself and use travel time wisely. Hearing the author read his or her work adds to the overall experience. I am currently listening to Jim Collins read Good to Great, and the experience feels like being one of his students! His stories and examples really come to life as he read them, and travel time flies by.
By the way, I realize Good to Great is not a new book. In fact, I’ve had this book on my shelf for some time and haven’t gotten around to reading it. The option of listening to a CD expands the opportunity for me to absorb additional knowledge while I also continue to read other works.
3. Once a year, undertake a major educational experience.
Commit to a significant course or seminar each year that will expand your professional breadth and expertise. In my experience, this often involves three to five days and approximately $5,000-$10,000 when you include fees and travel expenses. This annual commitment is invaluable when you consider the content, new experiences, interaction with professionals and exposure to outside perspectives.
Personally, I have benefited from courses in quantitative analysis and focus group moderating offered by Burke (www.burkeinstitute.com) and recently returned from a week-long training course on conducting innovative workshops offered by Synectics (www.synecticsworld.com). The week following the Synectics experience, I conducted an interactive session using the techniques I had learned and helped an organization develop a new mission statement. Talk about an immediate return on investment!
4. Read books and magazines in your industry, as well as outside your experience area.
I always read two books at once -- one business and one fiction book. The business books keep me abreast of current trends and thinking in key professional areas. The fiction freshens my perspective and improves my own writing. One of my most popular articles, about how to engage employees who have been through a reorganization, was written in a suspenseful tone inspired by a John Grisham novel that I had recently read.
5. Use your own personal library the Internet.
When I was in high school, I noticed the library had received a new name it was called the IMC, for “Instructional Materials Center,” because it encompassed far more than just books and included all kinds of additional resources such as audio materials and films. (Notice I didn’t mention video that came later!)
Today, we are incredibly fortunate to have our own personal Instructional Materials Centers right at our fingertips through the Internet. For example, I subscribe to both the Crain’s Chicago Business and the Wall Street Journal online newsletters. With both of these services, I have identified client names and industries in which I am particularly interested, and receive email updates of breaking news about these categories. This allows me to update my clients with news about their industries and organizations, at times even before they have received the news internally! In addition, search engines are obviously very effective resources for rapidly gathering background on organizations and issues.
6. Talk to your internal and external clients about their organizations and industry beyond the specifics of any current assignments.
By regularly getting up to speed on the current opportunities and challenges that your clients are facing, you can be prepared to offer the expertise they need to improve their situations. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Beyond your conversations regarding current initiatives, ask regularly how your clients and their business are progressing so that you are continually prepared with the skill set required for interventions.
7. Belong to professional organizations both formal training programs as well as individual member experts within the organization.
Most professional organizations offer training programs either through seminars or web or teleconferences. In addition, I have learned a great deal from members who have expertise in a specific area in which I am interested. I belong to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA), the Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) and the Business Marketing Association (BMA). I regularly participate in teleconferences conducted by these organizations in areas such as research techniques, consulting approaches and presenting results.
In addition, one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had as a member of a professional organization involved tapping into the expertise of one of its members. The very first time I conducted focus groups with children, I contacted a QRCA member listed with that expertise in the organization’s directory with a routine question. One question led to another, and my new contact very generously offered to service as a resource for the entire project. As a result, I was professionally coached through a new experience which greatly accelerated my learning and skill development. In turn, I am always responsive when other members contact me regarding an area in which I have expertise.
8. Stretch beyond “safe” areas in which you have expertise to new horizons.
When it comes to learning, there’s nothing that beats actual implementation. For example, I became involved in quantitative data analysis about 12 years ago when a client said, “I know you do focus groups and interviews, but we want to do a survey now and we like working with you. Can’t you hire someone to help with quantitative research so that we can continue working with you as our contact? We like the way you translate research gibberish into our language.”
I immediately found skilled quantitative partners with whom to collaborate and also, because I wanted to truly understand what we were doing, I aggressively read and took seminars about questionnaire development and data analysis. Today, quantitative research is a substantial part of my consulting business and I continue to translate research gibberish into actionable information.
The takeaway here is that when you are asked to do something new, don’t immediately decline because it is outside your area, but think about how you can respond to the request, whether that means tapping another resource or quickly educating yourself in a new skill. Actually implementing a new technique is an ideal way to expand your expertise and results in more hands-on knowledge than any book or article can provide.
9. Write articles and white papers.
You know a great deal more than you think, and there's nothing that crystallizes that knowledge more than organizing your thoughts for an article or white paper. At least every other month, prepare an article or opinion paper. You’ll be amazed at the processes and knowledge you have to offer. Even if you don’t publish the papers, you can share them with colleagues and clients who will benefit from your expertise.
These recommendations aren't "rocket science," but simple, easy-to-execute steps for staying abreast of current trends and techniques in any field. The only fuel they require is the self-discipline to consistently take the actions necessary.
Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and motivate employees and customers. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter on www.jrsconsulting.net/newsletter.html
© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2007