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A consultant’s access to a mix of industries, companies and experiences creates a rich knowledge of how the world works. Executives, often isolated within their organizations, come to crave these expansive views of the outside world.

Authored with Kevin McDermott.

Not long ago we interviewed someone we were thinking of adding to our consulting roster. She was smart and well-credentialed. She had lots of war stories to tell, every one of which ended with herself coming the rescue of a slow-witted client. She was the hero of every engagement.

We passed.

Assuming the client’s intelligence ought to be basic for anyone who adopts the “consultant” role. Long-term relationships require a kind of intimacy, an intimacy rooted in mutual respect. From that comes credibility, and from credibility comes access, enabling consultants to do their best work.

Ask any consultant whose been at it a while and they’ll tell you the best use of their time is to work for a portfolio of sustaining clients rather than a hundred one-off projects for different clients. Consulting projects should have a beginning and an end—a finite fee for a finite deliverable. Consulting relationships should sustain and evolve.

Trust is all of it

Clients turn to consultants when they need something they don’t already own. Perspective, for example.

A client’s perspective can be clouded by preoccupation with the near-term, by habits of seeing that have grown so familiar that they are endorsed (often invisibly) by organizational culture. Employees have formal relationships with their senior teams, producing a certain reserve. Even top executives need peers to spar with.

Consultants can bring an outsider’s way of seeing, and that can keep clients balanced and unemotional. That helps identify the right questions to ask, which can reframe difficult conversations.

As outsiders, consultants bring—or should bring—objectivity along with their expertise. They might be at greater liberty to say things and ask questions that could be hard for someone employed by the client organization. Consultants are in a position to push boundaries and ask, “What if?”

Asking questions is a forcing mechanism for developing a clear view of the operating environment. How does the client explain the value it offers? What are its goals and how will it achieve them? What’s working? What isn’t, and why?

Consulting often feels like a kind of extraction process. For clients, the extraction may reveal things about their business and about themselves they did not even realize they knew.

None of it is possible without trust.

The virtue in variety

The nature of the consulting life is variety. The virtue in variety may well be the secret to making client relationships work.

A consultant’s access to a mix of industries, companies and experiences creates a rich knowledge of how the world works. That sort of knowledge encourages a habit of looking at patterns across businesses and situations. It’s a habit that builds a library of analogous (sometimes incongruous) case studies that can be drawn upon to reframe problems and inspire answers. Clients, immersed in close-up perspectives of their business, come to crave these expansive views of the outside world.

In between projects advisors should be doing exactly that—advising—helping clients frame their problems and brainstorm solutions. That’s how a relationship is nourished. A good consultant treats every interaction as important, not just when the meter is running.

Recently we were role-playing with one of our colleagues who was headed into a pitch meeting with a senior-management team the next day. She had the right facts but she was searching for the right tone.

“They’re looking for someone they can talk to,” she said. “I want to come across as a peer.” That’s confidence, not presumption.

And by the way she nailed the pitch. Because she approached her client as a partner.

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