Beyond expertise: the role of soft skills in consulting success - Ana's journey
I spent nearly a decade working in London, and let me tell you, I absolutely loved it. London is a remarkable city, especially when you're young and single - but that is a whole different post.
During my time in the UK, I was still in the early stages of my career, and one of my first bosses happened to be a woman from Croatia. Let's give her the name Ana.
For those less familiar with European history, in the early 1990s, Croatia, which was part of the former Yugoslavia, went through a tumultuous period as Yugoslavia began to disintegrate. Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, leading to a violent conflict that endured until 1995.
The 1990s were a challenging time for Croatia, marked by its struggle for independence and the subsequent process of rebuilding and reintegration into the international community.
Ana, in her twenties at that time, lived through all of this. This certainly shaped her worldview and her interactions with people.
Fact #1: she had a deep professional affection for me. When we were colleagues, she was in her early forties, and I was just in my twenties. Somehow, she must have seen something in me that led her to invest a substantial amount of time in mentoring me and teaching me the most intricate details of her domain. I'll forever be grateful to her for the way she pushed me to learn more and excel in what was one of my earliest consulting roles. Her expertise was in Finance; she was a certified accountant herself. Suffice it to say, she knew her sh*t.
But… Fact #2: she wasn't exactly easy to deal with. Ana was a tough cookie, to say the least. She had an iron will and, because she was exceptionally competent at her job, she often came off as rather arrogant.
Once, during a casual office gossip session, someone asked me straight up what I thought of her.
I paused, gathered my thoughts, and then delivered my verdict:
"Ana is brilliant in her field. Her mastery is unmatched in the firm. We're hard-pressed to find someone with her depth of knowledge. However, I don't think she's a particularly effective consultant".
Bear in mind, she was my boss, so that statement was quite audacious coming from me. But I knew I was right.
The truth is, she really wasn't a great consultant.
In this industry, when you're striving for excellence, you have to see your domain expertise - your hard skills - as the necessary foundation for your general consulting abilities - your soft skills.
They go hand in hand because, as you climb the ladder and deal with senior clients, bigger teams, and more complex projects, how you handle interpersonal relationships becomes far more critical than the GAAP principles you can recite in your sleep.
Ana, unfortunately, was quite rigid in her approach - probably a result of the harrowing experiences she endured while growing up. Spending your youth in a war zone isn't exactly a picnic, and I acknowledge that it can leave lasting scars.
I was young, but somehow, I had the maturity to see through this when I worked with her. I got along, never raised a fuss, swallowed my pride when necessary, and soaked up as much knowledge as I could from her. She was quite generous in sharing her expertise and I was eager to learn, so it worked out well for the two of us.
I firmly believe that if she had managed to smooth out her rough edges, she could have had an exceptional career.
At one point, she got headhunted for an Associate Partner role at a Big4, and she accepted it with great enthusiasm. She unquestionably had the domain expertise to excel at that level. However, I had my doubts about her readiness in terms of sophistication and soft skills for the new environment and role.
Predictably, her stint in the new position lasted just over a year, and she ended up being counseled out. I'm pretty sure she rubbed everyone the wrong way: that kind of attitude doesn't bode well for long-term success. She transitioned into freelancing and unfortunately, she never had another shot at a Big4 role, a goal she had earnestly aspired to achieve.
So, what can we learn from this story?
Being an expert is a necessary condition if you want to elevate your profile in top consulting firms. But it's not sufficient.
You must learn how to convey that knowledge without coming across as condescending and patronizing.
You need to develop the ability to listen to your team members, even when their ideas may not immediately sound brilliant.
You must acquire the humility needed to collaborate with your peers and admit when you're wrong.
Ana was undoubtedly an expert, but she fell short in other essential aspects. This took a toll on her career.