You want to be a consultant. Do you have the right stuff?
By: Greg Pennington, Ph.D.
I have had the privilege of co-facilitating a presentation at the annual Consulting Psychology Conference and at the APA National Convention for the past several years on transitioning into consulting. One frequent question has been “how to I know I have the right stuff?”
There are several well-researched and thoughtful references you can consider to answer the question. These include the Society of Consulting Psychology’s Guidelines for Education and Training in Consulting Psychology. Another resource is the Liebowitz and Blattner article “On becoming a consultant: The transition for a Clinical Psychologist”.
There are also more personal ways to answer the question that vary depending on each person. I am convinced there are early indicators for each us that suggest whether we have the right stuff. You have probably felt, thought and behaved in ways that served as previews of having the right stuff to be a consultant. Here are five questions I have asked of my self and others:
(1) Are you fascinated by people? – It may be a simple question and an obvious answer, but there are at least a few psychologists and students of psychology who are not excited, intrigued, fascinated by people. Perhaps it starts with whether or not you actually respect others and have the capability and empathy to really imagine why they feel, think, and behave the way they do. Remember the Child Psychology studies that asked children to describe what they saw from one side of the mountain and then imagine what a child on the other side was seeing? Can you see from another person’s perspective? Are biographies and autobiographies on your list of favorite books? When someone says, “Yes! You understand what I am dealing with!”, you just may have some of the right stuff.
(2) Can you be a sponge? – Listening skills are important. They include passive listening skills where you observe and absorb what is going on. Think you could have been an anthropologist, willing to take in what surrounds you, while listening for patterns, and seeking to understand what is reinforcing the behavior you see? Are you the one in a group who can honestly answer the question: Why on earth did they do that? When someone pours out their story to you, without you saying much along the way, and then shares, “It was helpful to have you just listen to me,” perhaps you have some of the right stuff.
(3) Can you probe and persist? – I want to be a sponge and also want to poke and probe. When I am asking more questions than I am offering conclusions, it feels like effective active listening. It is helpful to have a point of reference from which to ask my questions. Though my grad school advisor’s suggestion that sometimes “therapeutic ignorance” – the notion that what you don’t know may actually be beneficial – is worth leveraging, it is important to know about context. How do you gather information for context? Do all your close friends and colleagues look, think and feel the same? Do you read what your clients read? Do you also read and prepare in advance? What types of questions do you ask? How much input do you gather before you have to offer an opinion or solution? When someone says, “that’s a good question. I had not thought of that”, you may have some of the right stuff.
(4) Do you want to make a personal difference? – I have gotten feedback most of my life about how well I connect with others. Few high school and college classmates are surprised I went into psychology. All my family members think the same. Consulting involves contact and connecting. For me, that means I have to take things personally and expect my clients to do so as well. I recognize this as my need for power or influence. My Clinical Psychology supervisor said the essential question was: what has brought this person to this place now? The companion question is: what difference will you make? Do you want the pressure and the power to directly influence the feelings, thoughts, and actions of others? If you are convinced you are working to “improve” others, and not to “prove” yourself, you just might have some of the right stuff!
(5) Can you describe your purpose? – Whether you are talking about your great purpose in life to make a difference in the world, or talking about what value you provide to an individual, team, or organization, can you put it into words? Can you put a price tag on it without hesitating? I have had an idea of my purpose for many years. For even longer, I was convinced that as long as it was in my head, and as long as I was acting in accordance with it, I did not need to put it in print or share it. Once I did write it out and share it, it raised my accountability level even higher. The commercial side of this is equally important. In response to my question of how do you know what to charge, my first manager in consulting said, “you charge more than what it costs and less than what it is worth”. Do you have a written personal mission statement? Do you have a professional mission statement? Do you know what the difference you make is worth? Can you say it without hesitating? You just might have some of the right stuff.
Consulting should be a personal passion. It is not worth pursuing unless you are willing to make a commitment to do so. The effort you direct toward it has to be intentional and ongoing. It is an up-close and full contact engagement full of sacrifice, reward and ultimately guided by finding an approach that fits for you. Do you have the right stuff? Depends on the questions you ask.
Greg Pennington, Ph.D.
Pennpoint Consulting Group, LLC
Society of Consulting Psychology