For my next couple of blog topics, I thought I would write about the importance of soft skills in consulting. From my experience, it seems many consultants feel that “hard” skills are considerably more important than “soft” skills. Over the course of the next few blogs, I would like to discuss various “soft” skills that I think can be very beneficial to all consultants and why they are important.
So why are soft skills just as important as hard skills and what exactly are soft skills? Wikipedia defines soft skills as, “the cluster of personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism that characterize relationships with other people”.
First, let me state that hard skills are very important. In the IT field, hard skills are the skills that get you interviews and your potential employer will use them as a baseline to determine how you stack up against other technical people in the organization. Ultimately, they are the skills that your employer is buying and they will be needed for you to do your job.
Soft skills are those intangible skills that allow you to stand out from the crowd, they can make your boss, your co-workers and all the back office operations people’s job easier and can have a very powerful impact on your personal and professional development.
The soft skills I would like to focus on in this blog are timesheets, expenses and résumés.
I was talking to a good friend and fellow consultant about soft skills and in particular, about getting timesheets in on time and correctly on a consistent basis. When I asked why so many consultants struggle to get their timesheets in on time and entered correctly, he stated, “Most consultants don’t have time get their timesheets in on time each week because they are too busy delivering projects”. From my experience, I suspect that many consultants have this same view when it comes to submitting timesheets on time. I think that many consultants naively feel that as soon as they enter their time in their firm’s time tracking system that the firm is automatically paid. I attended a new hire orientation for a firm I was working for and one of the operations people gave a good presentation on the difficulties the firm faces with billing clients in general and how the process is further complicated when consultants are consistently late entering their time or entering in the wrong information. As consultants, we have to understand that recording time is how your firm gets paid and ultimately, how they pay your salary. Entering time on a consistent and timely manner is so important that many consulting firms reward consultants who do manage to get their time in on a consistent basis.
One skill that I see a lot consultants fail at is how they handle company expenses. At my current consulting company, we have a $55 a day per diem. When operations tells you that you have a $55 a day per diem, they are telling you the exact amount of money you can spend in a day and not one cent over. One way to keep your consulting firm’s operations team happy is to make sure you don’t go over the allowable amount and to submit your expense reports in a timely manner. A lot of times, per diem allowances are dictated by the client and when you consistently go over your daily amount, it reflects badly on your firm and it just causes more work for everyone, including yourself. Also, one behavior that I don’t understand is why some consultants feel the need to spend exactly the amount they are allocated per day. I went to dinner with one consultant when I was travelling to Sarasota, Florida. He told me that he felt his per diem was like a budget and that he makes sure he spends the full amount each day. This type of behavior can be very upsetting to your clients, who ultimately pays for all the expenses a consultant racks up. Staying within your allowable expense and consistently avoiding maxing out your per diem helps keep your client’s expenses down and ultimately makes them a lot happier, which should be one of the main goals all consultants should strive to achieve.
One thing I always tell my fellow consultants is to treat their résumés like a “living” document, similar to the U.S. Constitution. What I mean by this is that a consultant should always keep their résumé up to date and constantly amending it. When your consulting company is in pursuit of new business, many clients will ask the consulting firm for the résumés of some of the consultants that may end up being responsible for the delivery of a project, if a statement of work is signed. I cannot count how many times I have seen someone in business development ask a consultant for their updated résumé and the consultant had to scramble to provide the requested information. In this situation, the résumé was often inaccurate because the consultant simply could not remember everything they have done since the last time they updated their résumé. As a consultant, every project that you are placed on and anything that you do on that project should be consistently documented. First, if you treat your résumé like a living document, the information is going to be accurate because you are amending your résumé as you learn new skills. Also, when business development personnel need your résumé for possible new business, it is ready to go and you do not have to scramble to come up with an up to date résumé. Good résumé management is another soft skill that makes the lives of you and your co-workers a lot easier and creates a positive impression of you to others.
I believe that all the following soft skills mentioned are crucial for consultants to learn in order to set themselves apart in their consulting firm and will have a positive impact on their personal and professional career growth.