How To Think Like A Consultant


Marshall Goldsmith once wrote a book called, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” The premise was simple: the skills that got you this job, that lead to growth and some advancement, were not the skills that moved you into management and higher-level positions.

As a technical professional (for example, SEM, Media, Content, Metrics or development) you have a job because you know and build things that most others can’t. These skills pay the bills. But you might look around and wonder why some people are moving up the professional ladder faster than you are, that they are getting better assignments, more interesting projects, and more face time with clients. It may not be because they are technically superior, but because they can operate within a different mindset. They see and present themselves as a consultant who has expertise in a field, where you might be presenting yourself as simply an expert.

If you are on the accounts team at a junior level, what got you the job was your accountability, drive and fit. But you will need more (and more subtle) skills in order to succeed at higher levels. Those skills are assumed in an account director or client strategist. What makes them effective is the ability to think about the bigger issue, the ability to make clear connections between what we’re selling to the client’s needs, to think creatively on their feet, to not becoming defensive even when they are being attacked.

These changes are not obvious, especially from your perspective. But this mindset shift is a significant one. And it usually occurs over time as people make mistakes and stumble through. This document is designed to shortcut that process as much as possible. It doesn’t have every answer, but it should help you see the difference between succeeding where you are and succeeding where you want to be.

What It Means to Be a Consultant

Consultants are advisors. They help people understand and solve problems. Known for their expertise and grasp of subject matter, they aren’t locked into one solution and are comfortable surveying the entire landscape to uncover solutions no one’s thought of before. Being a consultant means earning the freedom to think and act at a higher level than “executor” or “order-taker.”

More often than not, being a consultant is adopting a different mindset. Florists helping people pick out flowers are consultants, designing arrangements that impress. Or they could have just sold you flowers.

Waiters can be consultants when they help people navigate the menu, make smart choices, and suggest additions or changes that might not have occurred to the diner. Or they could have just taken your order.

Any role can adopt a consultantive mindset, focusing on how to solve problems instead of getting a task done.

The more you think and act more like a consultant, the more respect you will get from clients and account teams. Engendering that respect will allow you to suggest more interesting solutions to work on better projects. It will ultimately help you grow your career, even if you have no dreams of being a consultant. These skills are career-agnostic.

Part One: How to Think Like a Consultant

Everything Starts with Why (and so should you)

You made a choice for the client. You recommended a media buy, or a design, or a social campaign or something. If the client doesn’t know as much as you do about it, they will quibble. They don’t like that word. They don’t like that font or that color. Someone told them once that Facebook was dying, etc. If you try and push back on their personal biases, you will lose (as they are the ones with the money).

Relying on your expertise alone isn’t going to be enough. Sure, you could force your opinion on them, but that will make them feel like they got railroaded into something. It might be a short-term win, but a long-term loss as that client will not want to work with you again.

However, if you start with the Why, you can establish the playing field and the ground rules before the client can take the field. What if, instead of just saying, “here’s the new design,” you said something like this:

So as we discussed, you are focused on trying to get technical professionals in four major cities to consider you as a potential employer. When we looked at what sites those people regularly went to, we saw a lot of blue, and we wanted to make sure that you didn’t blend into all those other blue sites. So we chose something that was brand-friendly, but stood out against Facebook and LinkedIn and those other blues.

Why does this work? First you are establishing a level of professionalism and expertise that has its own power without being snide or overbearing. Your expertise is not yours, but something that is in service of them. Second, you are showing that you made these decisions not based on your personal biases (blues that you liked, helvetica over arial, etc), but based on reasoning. Unless the client says, “No, I don’t want to differentiate my brand relative to these sites,” (which would be crazy), it’s going to be very hard to fight your decision.

Starting with Why stops the conversation from being you versus the client, but puts everyone on the same side. You are all solving a problem. This is your idea to solve their problem. Let’s talk about how this solves your problems. Once we establish that this could solve your problem, let’s talk about issues about this solution that we can consider. That’s a very different conversation, one you want to have.

Beyond starting with the Why, as you move through the solution, you need to clearly and obviously communicate how every decision ladders back to the Why. Every slide of the deck, every line of the report, every media recommendation needs to clearly link back to the Why. It will likely feel redundant, but this is how you keep the client focused on the goal, instead of letting their own biases get in the way.

Exercise 1

Step 1: Take a recent deck (not a reporting deck, but something in which you are making a recommendation). Slide by slide, write why this information is necessary to know or learn in the notes field. Anything that doesn’t have a Why is filler.

Step 2: Present this deck to someone you trust. For every slide, you must start your script or voiceover with a Why. If you don’t start your slide with a Why, or a Why that connects to the audience, your friend gets to throw a balled-up piece of paper at you and you have to start the slide again.

If you find you have problems finding a Why for each slide, start each slide with the phrase “In order to…” It’s a crutch and it sounds strange to say over and over, but it will force you to start with the Why.

Eliminate Uncertainty

Look, you understand your subject matter, whether it’s design, writing, media, content, social or SEM. Most people don’t. When you suggest an idea or a strategy, assume that they don’t understand at least some part of it. This means that what you are presenting is some unknown or incompletely understood thing. This creates uncertainty in the mind of the client.

Uncertainty kills things. If you aren’t sure about what the map says or where you are going, you stop. Uncertainty keeps you from making decisions. It keeps you from buying something. It keeps you from moving. Would you buy a manual transmission car is you were uncertain you could drive a stick shift? How much easier is it to buy a book written by an author you are familiar with than with someone you don’t know?

Uncertainty is all around us all the time. And if it’s all around you, think how much is around the exec you’re pitching. (Spoiler: uncertainty increases exponentially as someone moves up the ladder. There are shelves of books on the subject.) So someone who can eliminate the client’s uncertainty will get listened to, will get trusted in a hurry.

The clearest way to destroy uncertainty is to go back to the Why. Even if they never understand what you’re recommending (because it’s too technical or too complex), if they understand the Why, they will be able to communicate it to their bosses and eliminate their uncertainty.

If the doctor prescribes medicine and you don’t understand its mechanism of action (how it works in doctor-speak), you might not take it. But if the doctor reminds you that taking it will fix your issue, you are far more likely to take the medicine. And if the doctor then gives you a ten-second description of how it works, that likely increases even more.

So focus on eliminating uncertainty. Don’t skip over explanations. Show clearly how this connects to everything else. Explain how taking this action leads to a result they want. Explain what the back-up solutions are. Be crystal clear how this connects to the strategic objective.

It may seem obvious to you, but it isn’t to them. Show that you’ve thought through the thing and they will trust you more and more.

Exercise 2

Take a strategy or recommendation deck. Find one thing you are recommending. Ask “Why?” and write down the answer. Ask “Why?” again and answer the question. Ask “Why?” one more time and answer it again.

Show your answer to someone who doesn’t know the technical details behind what you do (a friend, or a co-worker on another team) and ask them if they understand why you are making this recommendation.

Provide perspective based on data, experience and/or argument

We know what we know. It makes sense to us. But it doesn’t make sense to others who don’t live it. This is the curse of the subject matter expert (of which you are one): what is clear to you isn’t clear to others because they haven’t spent as much time working with or thinking about it as you have.

When you make a pitch or try and explain why to do something, you just can’t say, “because.” Or “trust me.” You wouldn’t buy a car because someone says “trust me” so don’t expect your clients to. You have to explain why your idea is right.

If you have data (ours, third-party, etc) use it. It’s really hard to argue against data. But you don’t always have data.

So then use experience. You’ve built a bunch of campaigns and solutions. Collectively, we’ve built thousands. So tell a story about how we did it this way for another client and how it was great.

If you don’t have any of those, you have to make an argument. Do I have data that job descriptions don’t work? No. I just know it because I can explain my reasoning in a way that connects to what the exec cares about most. When you’re at a stage where you have to make an argument, you WILL get push back. But you are expected to defend your argument, so do so. Just don’t be a jerk about it.

Establish trust

Not to be trite, but trust is simple. Do what you say you will do and do it without errors to the best of your ability. Repeat. Trust will come.

Building trust is simple, but it takes time. Just follow these three steps over and over again.

  1. Set and meet deadlines
  2. Meet expectations
  3. Be accountable

Once trust is established, you will have the freedom to suggest bigger and more creative ideas.

Uncover problems and offer achievable solutions

If your client says “I want to be as important as NASA (or Coke or Google or Apple),” your client is clearly dreaming (unless they are Boeing, Pepsi, Amazon or Exxon). But this kind of dreaming is a way for you to understand what your client’s motivations are, what their desires and dreams are, and what direction you can drive.

Instead of saying, “obviously, you’ll never be NASA, so let’s not bother,” you could show why NASA is that big, what they did to make themselves grow, and what lessons you can leverage to grow the client.

By focusing on what can be done (and being smart about how it helps), you can solve more client problems creatively.

  • Ask better questions
  • Don’t lament what’s not possible
  • Focus on what you can do

See the whole board

To someone with a hammer, all problems look like a nail. This kind of subject matter expertise is helpful for hammering nails, but sometimes you really need a screwdriver. Or a wrench. Or some glue. A smart consultant knows that there are solutions from a wide variety of places.

Chess players don’t get locked into protecting that rook or that knight. They see the whole board and use all the pieces.

(For West Wing fans, here’s this:

Most client problems can be solved with content. Or social. Or promotion. Or interaction. Or research. Or strategy. Or messaging. Or branding. Or targeting. Don’t be so focused on shoe-horning your content solution that might be best served by media. Or vice versa.

A consultant knows that regardless of how a problem was presented to them (“This is a media issue” or “We’ve got a branding problem.”), it’s rare that that’s really the problem. But looking at the situation with a wide open perspective, you can find root causes to the issue. A consultant is less concerned with curing the symptom as they are to curing the disease.

Also, when in doubt, take a step back. Understand the whole problem. See the whole board.

Exercise 3

Find a request from a client. In five minutes, write down every possible problem that request was trying to solve (unless it is stated in the request). Then spend fifteen writing down every possible way you can think to solve that problem without leveraging your expertise. Feel free to consider non-agency resources or skills.

Understand their perspective

  • Why did they make that decision?
  • What do they value?
  • How would they describe it?

Sometimes clients are pains. Sometimes they just don’t know. Sometimes they make strange seemingly irrational decisions. While some might be crazy, usually people act in a rational way, even if it only makes sense from their perspective.

The more you understand how they see things, and where their perspective is rooted, the better you can help them and solve their problems.

How people respond or approach a problem is a function of how they perceive the problem. This is true of clients and this is true of you. If clients came to this from an imperfect understanding, educate them. If they come to this because their boss passed it to them, make their problem your problem. This kind of thinking leads to making your client your partner rather than an adversary.

Exercise 4

Can you think of a recent product or a business decision in the news that you disagreed with? (For example, Apple Watch release, Google’s restructuring into Alphabet or Microsoft discontinuing the XBOX). List all the reasons why company execs made that decision. List all the environmental, contextual, organizational and competitive factors you can think of that impacted that decision.

Be an effective communicator

Simply put:

  • Over-communicate on email
  • Get to the point on the phone or in person
  • Listen
  • One of the best ways to understand what your client wants is to actually listen to what they’re saying instead of waiting for your turn to speak

Maximize opportunities

Everyone wants to change the world, but today you only get to change this social strategy. It’s not going to blow anyone’s hair back, it’s just how it is.

But you could see this social strategy as a task you have to accomplish or an opportunity to set the stage to do interesting work later. You could see it as a chance to establish your expertise. You could see it as a means of testing an idea you had. You could see it as a means to have a conversation that helps you get something done.

This is your opportunity. You can’t change the world with it, but you can get closer to it if you try and maximize each opportunity that comes your way.

Exercise 5

Go through your emails and find the last three client requests from the same client. Pick two and re-write responses that focuses on setting the stage for a larger request, higher level of service, or even pitching a more expensive solution.

Have an intention and direction

You’re not just “doing stuff.” You are trying to achieve something. Do you know what it is? Stephen Covey called it “beginning with the end in mind.” It’s the idea that you don’t start something until you know where you want to take it. That social audit: Is it a task you have to check off or do you want to show how embracing LinkedIn will grow their audience? Is that post filling up space or meeting some contractual obligation or is it supposed to get that 32-year-old analyst to think about the value of work/life balance?

Intention also helps establish the Why. If you know the why, it helps you make decisions as you complete the project.

Exercise 6

Go into your sent emails and find the last ten that were sent to clients. In one line (for each email) write down what your intention was behind the answer. Be honest. Were you just answering a question or providing requested info? Opportunity lost. Were you attempting to push the ball back in their court? Were you attempting to educate the client so that they better understood something?

Persuading Hippos

Hippo: Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO)

You will spend most of your work life fighting HiPPOs, people who make more money than you, and thus have more important opinions than you. They aren’t right, but they have more weight behind their ideas.

Don’t take it personally. Just understand that part of your job is to get the HiPPO to see your solution as the best solution. Remember, the client hired TMP (and you) because we have expertise that they don’t have. Even though they’re paying the bills, they shouldn’t be telling you what to do.

One useful strategy is to show how your strategy aligns with the HiPPO’s desires. If the HiPPO wants to be a social media star, you will help them do that as you grow the account. If the HiPPO wants more visuals, you can offer them as you deliver more focused content. If the HiPPO wants to win that award, find a way to show how your idea will increase that likelihood.

Part Two: Tactics to Help You Sound Like a Consultant

…even if you don’t always feel like one

Do your work

It all starts with the work.

If you didn’t do the work, there’s nothing to present or talk about. But you need to know that you did the work and the work, whether it’s what they expected or anticipated, is solid. Trust yourself and your team. Also, reach out to anyone on the account team who will be on your call. Give them the head’s up. Let them protect and support you. The more they understand the work and how it helps the client, the more they can do to help sell it with you.

Set your frame

You are the expert*. Don’t be smug. Don’t be cocky. But know that you know what you’re doing and you know what to do. Clients and other people on your team are allowed to push back. They are allowed to challenge your assumptions. The more they do that, the more they hope to learn from you. It’s cool. Just be the expert. [Experts to try to emulate: Winston Wolf, Tim Gunn, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock), Leslie Knope or Ann Perkins (Parks and Rec)]

Smile. No, really.

This isn’t a fight. This is a collaboration. You have ideas, they will respond. They have ideas and you will respond. This is how it goes. Smiling before you speak or before you dial the phone will help you get in the right frame of mind.

Yes, this is the stuff they teach entry-level sales teams and it’s hard not to see it as hokey or stupid. But it really works.

Who are you?*

Never just start presenting. Either be introduced, or introduce yourself. It establishes your authority and credibility. Also, it will help clients and other understand your role and responsibilities. Don’t just say your title, tell them what you’re going to be doing for them upfront — even if the account team has done that already.

Who are they?

Know your audience and what they want to know. Yes, you could do 20 minutes on the intricacies of Google bots or link redirection, but if the audience doesn’t need to know, skip it. Know what they are here for and give it to them.

What are you here for?**

This is crucial. Tell them what they are about to hear in one sentence. Tell them what you are here to help them understand. Focus them on you and your work. Your job is to help them. Explain to them how you are about to help them.

Describe the context

Are you reporting the last week’s worth of material or the last 300 days? What did you look at? Why does it matter? What Does It Help The Client Solve? (This all goes back to the Why.)

Do it to it

You know what I love? Short meetings. So do our clients. If you can distill an hour’s worth of stuff into five minutes, you will be the client’s best friend. So trim out anything unnecessary and get to the point.

Shut up

You WILL get into a spot where you feel like you have to tap-dance. Don’t. Don’t over explain, don’t give a million examples, don’t try to bluff your way out of a spot. Presenting is easy: Know what you want to say, say it, then stop saying it. The second you catch yourself talking to fill space (and we are all guilty of that), shut it down.

Keep it straight

I know you are all lovely people. You are funny, sweet and strangely adorable. Clients mostly don’t care. Until you’ve established a relationship with these folks, save the jokes for internal meetings. This will help keep you focused on getting to the point, too.

Keep your cool

Yes, they will disagree and push back. Heck, they might even tell you you’re wrong. It’s okay. Even if you messed something up badly, obviously and painfully, it’s okay. Stop, get your bearings and fix it (or stop the meeting and ask to reschedule if it is really bad). We all screw up. It’s what you do next that makes you a hero or a loser. In general, don’t take anything said in a client meeting personally. If the client gets grumpy or if it feels like the account team is dismissive, it’s not you. It’s just directed at you. Just keep your cool.

Close the conversation

When you’re done, you’re done. Ask if there are any other questions. Re-iterate any open questions and set a deadline as to when you will have answers to them. Thank them for their time and pass the conversation off to whomever is running this call. Then get out.

*You know why you’re the expert? Because you have a team of fucking smart people around you and they helped you and will keep helping you. Together we are far better at this than any of our clients. But still, don’t be a jerk about it.

** Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with scripting this out ahead of time. Really. Not even kidding. Not even a little.

Advanced Communication Lessons

“I don’t know” is an acceptable answer

If you don’t know, you don’t know. Just let them know you will go find that out and give them a reasonable timeline for how long it will take to get the answer. If you don’t know, don’t say “yes” or lie. Just don’t. If it’s not up to you (you have to check with someone else to confirm), don’t say “yes” on their behalf. You might think it makes you look important, but it will end up coming back on you, I assure you.

Tell a story

Whether you are recounting the last week or last quarter, you can show the data or the solution, or you can turn it into a story. Personalize the data. Who did it affect most? How did it affect them. Those numbers aren’t just numbers, they usually represent people or people’s actions. You can pick out the a story to illustrate your point so that people remember it for far longer.

Fake it ’til you make it

If you’re sitting here thinking “All this sounds great but I still feel nervous/weird/crazy about my next client call.” Great. That’s normal. It can take time to build up confidence through taking risks and achieving positive outcomes. Until then, fake the confidence you need.


Template for delivering something via email

For use when sending something to the account team for review. Structure is:

  • Review and recap last conversation and get everyone on the same page
  • Set expectations for what is about to be presented (you don’t want them expecting a final copy if you are presenting a draft]
  • Remind the audience how what you are showing them will achieve the audience goals
  • Set next steps


As we discussed in our last conversation, there were some concerns that this piece of content wasn’t going to resonate with our target audience. We took that feedback and redrafted the content to focus more on the motivations of entry-level nurses.

By highlighting the opportunity to learn and for professional growth, entry-level nurses will see that this role isn’t making them a cog in a big machine, but puts them in a position to grow.

If you have any concerns with this new draft not resonating with this audience, please send them my way by Thursday EOD so we have time to adjust. Otherwise, we’ll be delivering this to proofing and them getting it placed into the template for final approval.

Template for presenting something via phone

See the structure above, but this time, you will be walking your audience through the deliverable, giving you an opportunity to highlight different elements and collect feedback as you go.

If delivering a deck, each slide should have a single point. Make sure that that point is clear to the audience as you move through the deck. Ask if they have any questions every 3–6 slides.

The most important message for each slide is the Why. Why did you do this? Why are you recommending this? Why will this work? If you nail the Why, the What generally works itself out.

Better Questions

In no particular order or grouping

  • How would you measure success?
  • If you couldn’t rely on X [Facebook, job descriptions, etc], how would you let people know you are a different kind of company?
  • If you met an interesting stranger today and wanted them to understand your employer brand, what story would you tell them?
  • What question haven’t I asked?
  • What would you like to accomplish a year from now?
  • What is the most important thing we should be discussing today?
  • What are your biggest priorities for the year?
  • Why do people stay at your company?
  • How do you know this is a problem? What are you seeing that indicates that the problem exists?
  • What would “better” look like to you?
  • What have you already done to try and solve this problem?



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James Ellis

James Ellis


The Employer Brand Nerd. Newsletter: Book: Talent Chooses You. Chicago. Coffee.