Consulting Leadership: How To Lead Your Firm & Clients

The Importance Of Consulting Leadership Skills

Why is it important for consultants to develop their leadership skills?

According to Gallup, being a better leader is critical for increasing employee engagement. And higher employee engagement means…

  • Successfully achieving your KPIs, goals, and key metrics,
  • higher profitability,
  • higher productivity,
  • higher quality products & deliverables,
  • higher retention rates,
  • less absenteeism.

If your business were a ship, you as the leader are the captain.

You’re the one responsible for setting the destination and leading the team to that destination.

Whether you’re leading a team of 2 or 20, you’re still the leader.

Leadership is leadership, no matter what industry you’re in. And leadership begins and ends with the leader: you.

As the leader of a consulting firm, your team is looking up to you. It’s your responsibility to take ownership of the business and make sure you are showing up as the best version of yourself as often as possible.

You can have a great team, but if you’re negative, it will affect everyone else on your team. People aren’t going to want to be around you, and they’ll leave.

Or, if you’re full of doubt and don’t believe you can accomplish what you set out to achieve, you’ll have a tough time attracting A-players.

Before you start hiring employees or any team members, the most important aspect of leadership is how YOU show up: your actions, thinking, and beliefs.

So, whether you’re an independent consultant or you already have your first few employees, begin practicing your leadership skills now.


You can start by leading your clients.

Like your team members, your clients also look to you to take them to their desired future state.

They’re investing in you because they trust that you can lead them from where they are now to where they want to be.

Don’t just complete the consulting work. Lead the engagement. That means taking ownership of the project and delivering the result that your client expects.

Now that you understand the importance of leadership in your consulting firm, I’ll break down several characteristics of successful leaders.

Characteristics Of A Consulting Firm Leader

What are the characteristics of an effective leader for a consulting firm?

Having led Consulting Success® for over 13 years — and having interviewed hundreds of consulting firm leaders — here are a few best practices.

1. Empower & Support Your Team

When you’re leading a consulting firm, it’s more about empowering and supporting your team rather than trying to do everything yourself.

The central question for you becomes: “how can I make sure the team is empowered and supported to create?”

Some leaders will shift away from doing client work completely. Others will decide they want to keep being involved in the client work and delivery..

I still work directly with select private clients. But I’ve hired an amazing team of experts that support our clients inside of the Clarity Coaching Program — many of whom can do a better job than I can.

When you’re leading your firm properly, your clients will continue to get amazing results without you being the one who serves them directly.

And because you’re building an effective team, it means you’re able to make a great impact and help more clients.

2. Make Sure The Right People Are In The Right Roles

Do you have the right people? And are they in the right role?

If you have an A-player in the wrong role, they might feel like a B or C-player just because they aren’t in the right spot.

Or, you might just have the wrong person. Gallup found that companies choose the wrong candidate — one who doesn’t have the right skills for the job — 82% of the time.

Your responsibility as a leader is to put people in roles where their inherent traits contribute positively to that role.

If someone is not a good fit for your business — and your mission & values — then you can’t “fix” the person.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to make quick decisions about firing someone who will drag the team down.

3. Understand How Each Team Member Operates

As you hire more and more people, you’ll come across different personality types and temperaments.

For example, you might hire a technical person who tends to be quiet and doesn’t speak up much. Or, you might hire someone who’s very talkative, but struggles with organization.

These traits aren’t inherently good or bad.

Your responsibility as a leader is to put people in roles where their inherent traits contribute positively to that role.

This is where personality assessments like StrengthsFinder, MBTI, Predictive Index, or DISC Assessment can be helpful.

Ask each individual on your team how they operate and how they’d like to be supported.

Everyone is different, and you want to help each individual thrive.

4. Determine The Vision, Mission, & Values

As the leader, you’re the one who determines the firm’s vision, mission, and values. Of course, you’ll get feedback from your team, but you make the final call.

You’re also responsible for ensuring the vision, mission, and values are clear for the entire company. You’re setting clear goals to work towards, and helping the team achieve those goals.

5. Be Visible & Get To Know Your People

Being a leader is about getting to know your team on a personal level.

Your people aren’t just “workers” — they’re individuals with intricate personal lives. Thus, it’s important to get to know them on a personal level.

What are they thinking about outside of work? How do they spend their time? What’s their family up to?

The more that you know your people, the more they will feel known and respected as a human being — and as a friend.

6. Always Be Open To Feedback

When you hire great people, be open to their feedback. Some of the best ideas will come from your team. That means you want to create an environment where your team is comfortable sharing ideas with you.

Then, with your team, you can decide which ideas to prioritize and pursue. Ultimately this will be your decision. But you should always welcome and consider the ideas your team provides.

Sometimes, you might not think a team member’s idea will work — but you’re willing to experiment and find out. Allow them to own the decision. But, create a culture where people feel good about sharing ideas and experimenting.

7. Regular Communication

Communicate with your team frequently and often.

So many failures — both in business and in life — stem from a lack of communication.

As the leader, strive to be the best communicator. Your team members will appreciate it.

You should establish this as a value and way of operating that everyone in your company follows. Strong communication. Consistent communication.

8. Support The Culture

Ultimately, you want to create an environment where smart, talented people enjoy their work. That means they’re at the edge of their ability: doing challenging, rewarding work that’s within their ability. You want every team member to feel like they’re working on projects that they feel proud of.

When you’ve created this environment for A-players, you’ll feel unstoppable. That doesn’t mean everything will always go your way. But, over the long term, you’ll build a thriving consulting practice.

Next, I’ll share a consultative leadership model that will help you put this into practice.

Consultative Leadership Model

One of the key roles of a leader is to determine the vision, mission, and values.

Where do you want the company to be in 3-5 years? That’s your vision.

Some people will talk about where they want to be in 10 years and beyond. That’s fine. But I prefer to focus on 3-5 years. We live in a rapidly changing world. You have much more control and clarity into the next few years than you do a decade plus.

Once you establish your values, vision, and mission, the next layer down is annual planning: what you’ll do for the year to make significant progress toward realizing your mission and vision.

After developing the annual plan, you’ll define your quarterly plan: what you and your team will work on for the quarter to achieve the annual plan.

Next, take your quarterly plan and work with each direct report and team member on your team to figure out the outcome, measurables, and reporting that they will be in charge of.

Each team member should be clear on these three areas. They include:


What does success look like?

The outcome is the result that people are in charge of driving.

What people do on a daily or weekly basis should support the quarterly outcome. And the quarterly plan should support the annual plan.


How do you know you’re on track?

Once you’re clear on the outcomes you’re trying to achieve, the next step is determining how you measure that.

For example, it might be something like launching a new training portal.

The question becomes: what are the different actions or steps required to launch that portal successfully?

There might be 12 specific steps to achieve that. So, to complete the training portal in the quarter, your team must complete 1 step per quarter.

Each step should be something measurable. They keep your people accountable and ensure the team is headed in the right direction.

When you agree on the outcome and how you’ll measure success, you don’t have to micromanage because your team leaders are owning their specific outcomes. It instills self-accountability.


How will you report on your progress?

Once you’ve defined what success looks like, and you’re measuring that you’re on track, your team can report on their progress to you or whoever they report to. Typically, this is done on a weekly basis.

This can be a quick email reporting what they’ve accomplished this week, and how their progress is coming along.

With weekly reporting, you prevent your people from missing deadlines.

By reporting their progress, they’ll figure out on their own if they need any extra assistance or resources to meet their deadlines.

Setting up a leadership model like this is a prime example of one of your key responsibilities.

This framework is especially important if you’re leading a distributed team like we are.

Only 30% of US employees are engaged at work.

However, when you collaborate with your team to define…

  • what success looks like,
  • how success will be measured,
  • and how they’ll report their progress.

…your team will feel ownership and take accountability. And they’ll feel engaged as a result.

Instead of you telling them what to do, you’ll work together to define the work they’d like to do — work that moves the business toward your destination.

As a leader, you ensure that the work your team is doing helps the business achieve the quarterly and annual plans.

Consulting Leadership in Action: Stories & Examples

How do you put all of these leadership principles into practice?

Here are some actions you can take today to better lead your firm:

  • Giving and taking assessments so you can better understand yourself and your team members, and putting people in roles that fit their personality
  • Avoiding a top-down managerial style where you’re telling your team what to do.
  • Asking your team if they are doing work they enjoy or if they are doing work they don’t enjoy.
  • Surveying your team to ask about how you’re doing as a leader and gathering honest feedback about how you could better serve them.
  • Implementing the Outcome > Measurables >Reporting consulting leadership model.

Many of the clients in our Clarity Coaching Program have gone from solo consultants to leading a firm of employees and contractors.

Here’s what Tony Velasquez, founder of Angelus Advisors, says about what he does to lead his firm:

“Consulting leadership is about how to lead, inspire, motivate, encourage, persuade and influence your team and clients. Effective leadership requires communication skills as well.

Leadership for me is a very genuine skill that I focus on during team and client projects. I need to influence by example, enthusiasm and eagerness by directing my teammates and clients (who are also part of my team during a given project) to achieve a desired outcome (e.g. implement a new ERP system / an organization wide system implementation).

I communicate daily my enthusiasm, eagerness and gratitude (Just say Thank you to someone daily!) to people who are on my Angelus team and people who I just met on the client teams; in order to lead the team in timely decision-making and project tasks.

It is difficult to lead individuals who you just met but if you communicate effectively; they become part of your extended team / family (similar to Consulting Success) and then the team can focus on success!”

Instead of you telling them what to do, you’ll work together to define the work they’d like to do — work that moves the business toward your destination.

Here’s what Erin Mies, one of the leaders at People Spark Consulting, had to say about consulting leadership:

“#1: Leadership means having the courage to see, notice, and listen – to clients, to team members, and to others – and to have the courage to ask the tough questions and give clear, meaningful feedback. That courage means that we may find ourselves in a position where we are sharing uncomfortable feedback at times. That courage, though, is well-intended to help that client or team member grow – that’s where the results are!

#2: When we begin an engagement with a client in our HR Assessment, all of the work and stakeholder interviews result in a Findings discussion with them. In these discussions, we talk about things that might be holding the business back, and it can be uncomfortable. These are small- and mid-sized businesses, many are family-owned, and have great histories. It’s deeply personal, and we recognize that. The best compliment we hear from these discussions are comments like “It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, and I know it’s what I need,” or “I could tell I needed to do something, but I didn’t know where to start.” From there, we help the client build a plan forward in a way that’s authentic to them and aligned with their true goals of the business. Without courage to uncover and share this info, though, our foundation is flimsy at best.”

And here’s what Ed Leighton-Dick, founder of Kingfisher Technologies said about leading his consulting firm: 

“The key to leadership is realizing that you’re leading human beings, each of which is a complex individual with hopes, dreams, needs, and flaws. They need your praise, respect, and trust. They need to know that when things inevitably go wrong, you’ll have their back and will treat them with compassion. If you give them that, they will choose to follow, and that’s what makes a leader.

I recently attended a retreat with representatives from a client who had been experiencing severe problems with some key systems. Instead of spending time trying to deflect criticism and assign blame, as happens in so many meetings of this type, the group of leaders that were assembled focused on finding common ground and determining solutions that took everyone’s needs into account. We made more progress in that meeting than any of us thought possible and left with a viable plan.”

If you intend to grow beyond the solo firm model and make a bigger impact, then investing in your leadership skills is the highest ROI move you could make.

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