Most people would argue that they know a bit about consulting. Frazer-Nash’s Garry Whitaker asks: what do they actually do? And why is it so easy to poke fun at them?
If you’re considering a future in engineering consultancy, there are just two golden rules you really need to know… one, never tell anyone all you know… and that’s it.
Like most professions, consulting has attracted a rich tradition of humour over the years – some would say, more than its fair share. Much of it is self-promoting; whilst some of it self-deprecating. Few in the profession haven’t heard the ‘how many consultants does it take to change a light bulb’ jibe (the answer… no one knows, they’re still at the feasibility stage); or the one about the junior consultant and the bear. The punchline is a mere Google away from this page now… but please don’t Google just yet.
The Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was deadly serious when it came to humour. He undertook a number of comprehensive studies into the idea of the joke, and its broader implications for the human psyche. Even today, over a century later, the motives behind jokes, the role of the players involved, and the various types and meanings are by no means things that the average tellers and enjoyers of jokes take into account when taking part.
This is mostly due to the fact that so much of the pleasure derived from telling or hearing a joke occurs in the unconscious, and understanding what processes make the joke humorous, is in no way necessary for the joke to be understood.
Understanding or being ‘in’ on only part of the story is a recognised basis of humour and comedy. Where the consultant is the butt of the joke, the punchline often plays on the knowledge that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what a consultant actually does. This misunderstanding can also apply to the specific character traits that make an individual suitable for a role in the consulting industry.
So, a great consultant, with a commitment to problem-solving and with insatiable curiosity as part of their DNA, may seem humorous to some. But they’re constantly thinking about what the real problem is (“what is the question?”), what’s causing it and how best to crack it. This is regardless as to type of issue: strategic, financial, people, programme management or implementation. They are unafraid to ask questions, typically high level to begin with, and progressively more incisive. And yes, they understand the value of their thoughts and ideas, and the commercial opportunities generated by them.
The wide range of separate skills areas, over 400 and counting in Frazer-Nash, makes it hard to pigeonhole the role of the ‘consultant’ to one specific activity
Most people would argue that they know a bit about consulting. There are a number of well-known organisations that are synonymous with the industry; and maybe you know a few people who are in ‘consulting’. But when it comes to their day-to-day work, what do they actually do? Unlike the legal or accounting profession, consultants in engineering and systems technology have a much broader spectrum of activity, making the ‘ A Consultant is’ statement hard to finish. Confidentiality plays an important part too – an individual solving problems for critical national infrastructure or the nuclear industry; working in national security; or helping to develop a form of valuable intellectual property that has the potential to fundamentally change people’s lives – they just can’t go into too much detail about what they’ve been up to.
Some of the truly innovative ideas, the ones that save money, time, resources and keep us all safe, rarely get the plaudits they deserve outside the close knit community that works tirelessly to deliver them. Yes, the individual goes home, knowing that they’ve helped make a real difference – but it’s not always possible to ‘shout’ about their success. For those involved, working in these areas can be very rewarding; whilst the sensitivities around what they actually do adds to the mystery surrounding the consulting profession.
Certainly, in Frazer-Nash, what an engineer does one week may differ significantly to a colleague or what they’ll be doing the week after. And the wide range of separate skills areas, over 400 and counting in Frazer-Nash, makes it even harder to pigeonhole the role of the ‘consultant’ to one specific activity. This huge range of potential areas is one reason why some people choose this path – the breadth of expertise makes for an interesting and varied career.
Enjoying what you do, while making a real difference to the world around you is important – a project’s success is down, not only to the expertise, procedures and processes that deliver successful outcomes, but to the team work and camaraderie between people who share a common goal. And yes, humour is part of building strong interpersonal relationships – something that’s very important to team Frazer-Nash as it’s at the core of our people-orientated culture.
These individuals share other traits too. They’re structured in their thinking – a vital part of problem solving. And they take pride in having a sound basis of judgement. They delve deep into their chosen subject and work to truly understand the problems, so that they can abstract the ‘golden nuggets’ that help solve the challenge in hand. They’re tenacious and determined, with the mental horsepower needed to see the project through. Being able to structure their thinking and communicate succinctly and precisely is vital, and, in this age of email and digital communication, a skill that is more important than ever.
Of course consultants also need to deliver on their commitments and adapt to a client’s changing demands. They are measured on their output and outcomes. This means delivering high quality work on time and to the agreed cost.
Consulting can offer you incredible experiences and career prospects, but it does also ask for a significant investment of your time and energy. Yes, you might be the butt of your friends’ jokes, but with the high level of job satisfaction and knowledge of a job well done, you’ll probably have the last laugh.
Garry Whitaker is Frazer-Nash’s Marketing Communications Manager. With 30 years’ experience in employee branding, public relations and reputational management, he has spent his career working with engineering and infrastructure specialists to help promote the stories of their achievements.