In consulting, analytical expertise is expected, but strong writing skills set the bar. In this article we speak to Eileen Harrington, consulting industry veteran and marketing communications expert, about the unique challenges facing consultants when it comes to writing, and some practical tools and approaches toward improvement.
As I talk with HR and training managers planning for this fall review season and budget cycle, writing training programs are coming out on top of the 2018 learning and development agenda. In discussing plans for next year, one Manager of Training and Development at an economic consulting firm put it this way:
“Our work environment is extremely fast-paced and focused to the end product: if an employee cannot write well from the very beginning, they will be quickly passed over for someone more efficient who can turn around work quickly. This can be a real problem. If an employee develops reputation risk early on in their career, it’s hard to reverse, and that becomes a retention and engagement issue. ”
And many other conversations go like this one, as more and more organizations recognize the clear linkage between business writing skills and a competitive, engaged workforce.
Consulting firms, in particular, view aptitude in written communications as a tangible competitive advantage. Indeed, in consulting the people are the product, and their ability to represent the firm’s brand through consistently accurate, thoughtful, and high-quality work is essential to the organization’s success.
To take a thoughtful look inside the consulting world and the competitive advantage of strong writing skills, we pulled in Springboards writing coach Eileen Harrington, consulting industry veteran and marketing communications expert, to talk about her experience in senior roles at Analysis Group, McKinsey & Company, and Hill Holiday.
In the Q&A below, Eileen shares her experiences working with consultants, discussing the unique challenges they face, and how important it is for them to master writing well early in their careers.
Q. You’ve worked extensively with consulting and other professional services firms. What’s the benefit of your experience?
A. In 15+ years in management and economic consulting firms, I’ve gained a lot of insights into the consulting culture. At one top firm, I worked very closely with a VP to help him formulate outreach to potential clients as part of his business development efforts. It was really key that I understood the culture of his firm as well as that of the potential client – my experience allowed him to trust my recommendations for communications strategy, content, and tone.
Q. For you as a coach, how does the relationship work at the firm level?
A. I’ve partnered with a consulting firm’s HR, professional development, and management teams to make sure they support the coachee’s objectives – in one case, for example, a VP wanted to establish a new practice area to broaden the firm’s client base. Once we all agreed on a strategy, I helped him author articles for industry journals and write content promoting industry expertise for the firm’s website. This benefited both the individual consultant and his organization, which is really important: in consulting, the individual’s brand and the firm’s brand must align. In every communication, every consultant has the opportunity to enrich the reputation of the firm…or damage it.
Q. When have you seen writing quality have a negative impact?
A. I remember a consultant team that spent weeks crafting a proposal for a potential client, only to attach it to a hastily written and confusing email, which sabotaged the entire effort. At another firm, an expert report, which was prepared for use in litigation, contained incorrect punctuation and sloppy grammar. That cast doubt on the credibility of the entire report, and its authors.
Also, consultants are often expected to develop thought leadership content as part of their firm’s reputation building. Being published is a distinctive accomplishment that sets a consultant’s CV apart and, at top firms, is often considered a “must” for promotion to partner. But getting an article into venues like the Harvard Business Review, Forbes.com,Law360, or leading industry journals is highly competitive, and requires a clear understanding of audience, style, tone, and narrative structure.
One high potential VP I worked with wanted to co-author an article with an important client. It was a terrific marketing idea, but the draft he wrote and sent to his client was disjointed, rambling, and just badly written, and the whole effort ended up getting scrapped. The client relationship was damaged, as was the consultant’s reputation and career trajectory. He ended up leaving the firm within the year.
Q. Why is writing well sometimes so challenging for consulting professionals?
A. Consultants work in very fast-paced environments, striving to meet deadlines and high standards. Under time pressures, they skip or shortchange the QA process, or hit the keyboard before they’ve structured their thoughts. Without a framework, ideally a written outline, it’s easy to get disorganized, be redundant, or even contradict yourself. Lack of adequate preparation is the most common problem I come across when coaching writing.
Second, although professional services firms benefit from an increasingly diverse global workforce, some non-native speakers of English aren’t given adequate training and support. My experience coaching for Springboards has made me aware of how critical it is to recognize and respond to the unique challenges these employees face not only in writing, but also in navigating the cultural nuances of language and interpersonal communications. Worrying about their verbal and written skills can erode their confidence and hold them back in competitive work environments.
Q. Once you’ve assessed the need, how do you approach writing development?
A. I focus on nailing down a few core processes with which to develop the major points, structure them properly, and support them with appropriate detail, before moving in a logical flow to a conclusion. I use real work assignments to focus on “the basics,” and also on the style and technique appropriate to the project. Comparing a “before and after” assignment is also really useful. But the method always has to align with the approach and style of the firm, and with the needs of the intended audience. Some consulting environments favor a linear writing style that builds piece by piece to the answer/conclusion, while other firms stress leading with the answer/recommendation and then presenting the thinking that led to it. I’ve found that consultants trained to write in a highly analytical style for client work can be at a bit of a loss when it comes to creating more perspective-based content for thought leadership efforts.
Q. With so much automation on the horizon – including artificial intelligence applications – will the need for consultants with strong writing capabilities disappear?
A. Of course not! Sure, smart software can generate a pretty good report with limited human input, and there are tools that auto-produce charts and presentation slide content. But consulting is a relationship-based profession, and a huge premium is placed on communications that are articulate and thoughtful, not just technically accurate. How well you write directly reflects the clarity and logic of your thought process, your knowledge of the content, and your attention to detail and accuracy. These qualities are absolutely critical to success as a consultant, and can be learned and improved with coaching. But I don’t think they will ever be duplicated artificially.
AN INSIDE LOOK AT WRITING COACHING
In Springboards' writing programs, Eileen and other team members offer the following method when working with our consulting clients --