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Episode 164: Episode 164: Seven Keys to Becoming and Exceptional Consultant—with Rob Berg

Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. On this episode, we're going back to the basics. So there are some basic keys that make all the difference when you're becoming a consulting and when you're ultimately building your consulting business. I brought on author and consultant, Rob Berg. He wrote the book, The Courageous Consultant, which I just loved.

We get into some of the basics that make or break your ability, not just to have a thriving consulting business, but also to have a fulfilling consulting business, doing work that you truly love with folks that you really want to do it with and having a life that is enabled through being able to do that. So we're going to dig into what some of those things are and how to apply them practically in your consulting business so you can take it where it wants to go. So let's get started. Hi, I want to welcome to my show today, Rob Berg. Rob, welcome to the show.

Rob Berg: Hi. How are you doing Deb?

Deb Zahn: Very good. I'm so happy to have you here. So, let's start off, tell my listeners what you do.

Rob Berg: What do I do? I've been in consulting for about 30 years, and I'm currently partner and the director of the operations and technology consulting practice at Perr&Knight. We're kind of a boutique consultancy with about 150 employees. In addition, I'm an executive coach and I coach consulting professionals as well.

Deb Zahn: That's great. You also, I'm going to add author because of course, one of the reasons we're talking today is that you wrote this fabulous book. You want to say a little bit about what it is and why you wrote it?

Rob Berg: Yeah, the book is called The Courageous Consultant. Why I wrote it was I wanted to kind of distill 30 years of experience, good and bad, into some pithy lessons for folks who wanted to get better at what they did as consulting professionals. So, the book kind of gives you a little bit of background on me and how I kind of took this journey in consulting, which I'll call unconventional at best, and then kind of really important things that I have been able to decipher from my experiences over so many years in the profession.

Deb Zahn: That's great. We're going to highlight what some of those things are today. We're not going to give everybody everything because they’ve got to read the book.

Rob Berg: Yeah, there you go.

Deb Zahn: But we're going to go into a few of those. I actually want to just start where you started in the book because to me it showed a profound understanding of consulting, which is to start with the question know who you are. So for the folks who haven't paused to think, "Wait a minute, who am I?" Why does that matter? Why start there?

Rob Berg: Because by first knowing who you are and understanding that you're able to bring your own sensibilities to the work that you do. If you fail to do that, you are a paint by numbers dilatant. I mean, you're not a consulting professional who's infusing their work with their own sensibilities. Clients want your unique perspective. They don't want an algorithm that can deliver a result or solve a problem. They want, forgive me, great minds to come together with their unique perspectives.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. If there's anything I've heard, including from clients who have been on this show, is they're done with the cookie-cutter, off the shelf, same suit, different consultant kind of version.

Rob Berg: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: Because they don't experience their problems as generic. They don't experience their aspirations as generic. So, they're not actually looking for generic consultant.

Rob Berg: That's exactly right. I refer to this expression, I think was Maslow who came up with it. It was like if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And you run into consultants, and I use air quotes when I use that term, who approach their work that way. They go in selling a framework or selling a bit of advice which may or may not be appropriate given that unique circumstance.

Deb Zahn: I love it. So if I'm a new consultant or I'm a consultant who's never asked that question, "Wait, who the heck am I?" what types of things would you encourage them to examine to be able to answer that question thoroughly enough?

Rob Berg: One tool that I found really useful is from the VIA Institute on character. It is a survey it's a quick, free 10 or 15-minute survey that helps you to identify among 24 different values or what they call character strengths, those that rise to the top for you as an individual. So some of them may be like honesty or integrity or appreciation for beauty and excellence. There are 24 of them and we all exhibit all 24. We all have all those colors within us.

But each of us has a unique fingerprint, if you will, what they term your signature strengths, which would be the top three, four, five character strengths that emerge from your survey. When you infuse your work with that value, with those values, it becomes more fulfilling and it becomes more a reflection and expression of who you are as an individual. So that's the first place I would certainly start out.

Deb Zahn: I love that because I have seen other consultants end up with a business and therefore life that they didn't want, doing work that they didn't want because they never said what matters to me most and who am I and how do I then infuse that in my choices that I make.

Rob Berg: Yeah, absolutely. I've been guilty of that. It was kind of my own, like I said, it was this unconventional journey. I was writing business plans back in the '90s when I first started out and it just became grunt work. It was great. I would eat when I got a business plan job. It was wonderful. I've probably written 60 or 65 business plans from the '90s into the early 2000s and began to hate it. So I went on a new kind of voyage of self-discovery to figure out, "OK, well, I like giving advice. I like writing. I like the analysis part. I like a lot of the pieces here, but how can I apply that in a different way?"

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Oh, I love that. So, you go from there in the book to the basic skills. Again, I love that because there are certain skills that I think every consultant should have or cultivate in some way. So share a couple of those. What are a couple of the basic skills that you think are so essential to kind of doing this right?

Rob Berg: Some of them are academic. I mean, I think I start in the book with control your calendar. Our angst and in our desire as young consultants, which I am no longer a young consultant, but in our desire to get work, we allow our clients to dictate when and where we should show up. That kind of subverts the whole idea of being a consultant. It's controlling your own destiny and controlling your work life. So figuring out a way to make sure that you establish an expectation with your client, that you in a very polite manner that you control your calendar.

I use the doctor analogy a lot throughout the book. I mean, do you tell your doctor, "I need you to be here at Wednesday at 4:00 for my physical"? You don't. Consulting professionals should think of themselves as any other professional in that regard. Project management, kind of related. Knowing that project management is not just taking, setting appointments and getting people on a conference call, there's a real skill to it.

You don't need to be a PMP or go through the rigors of project management training, but you should know the fundamentals. You should know the project management triangle, the scope, schedule and resources and how to balance them. You should know about dependencies and critical paths, things like that. I find that to be a universally useful skill, regardless of what your line of work is.

Deb Zahn: It occurred to me, I can't imagine doing a proposal and not having thought through those things. So even before you get a chance to manage them, you darn well better think through what that's going to look like so that you have the right scope, you've got the right timeline, and you actually can price it correctly.

Rob Berg: Absolutely. Not to mention, run it, you know within that, right?

Deb Zahn: Oh, then that.

Rob Berg: Yeah, yeah. Then finally I find it useful, and maybe this is me having a hammer and problems look like nails to me, but knowing how just to model a process, a working process, a workflow, the basics there, so you can see the handoffs between people, the decision points, the start points, the endpoints and look for opportunities to run things in parallel or to eliminate steps or combine steps or automate steps. But getting that first lay of the land when you're consulting with an organization, again, regardless of what their objective is, I find that to be a very useful skill, let's sit down and let's map out how you do things today and let's look for opportunities to improve.

Deb Zahn: So if folks don't have these today or they have maybe a little bit, but not enough to apply them effectively, how would you tell them to get those or cultivate those?

Rob Berg: Don't do what I did. I pounded the pavement for years and traded meals for books in order to learn a lot of this stuff. Again, we're going back 25, 30 years. Today, there are plentiful resources. Udemy, Coursera, LinkedIn learning where you can pick up these skills for next to nothing. It's amazing the amount of knowledge that's available to anybody for a relatively small cost.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. No, I would agree. Back in the day, I've been consulting for 12 years and even back then, there was you went to classes.

Rob Berg: You went to classes, right.

Deb Zahn: Or like in-person and that's how you learn things. Yeah. So yeah, much more today. I'm going in order only for the first three, and then we're going to jump to a later one. But the one that made my heart sing the most is basic qualities. That resonated with me so much because I do think consulting is a helping profession and qualities matter. So what are some of the qualities that you think are essential for consultants to have.

Rob Berg: Stealing from Peter Block, who wrote a phenomenal book called Flawless Consulting, which is required reading for any consultant, be authentic. This is a theme that's woven throughout the book. Bring yourself to your engagements, be authentic. Your clients don't want you to sugarcoat. They want to hear the truth, as difficult as it may be, to communicate the truth. They also want, as I've said earlier, they want you. They want your unique sensibilities. That's key. Integrity, clients have BS detectors and…

Deb Zahn: Because they've paid for it before.

Rob Berg: They've paid for it before. They inevitably know their business better than you ever will. Because they've been living it and breathing it and depending upon it for their livelihood. So understanding that and being deferential to what they have built or what they are in the process of building is critical. I think that takes a lot of integrity, not to spout out your advice, your Stanford MBA information that you're desperate to share with people. Keep that back here. You're going to need it later.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I know you've written other places about the focus on the client. So if you're just dying to tell someone who you went to Stanford, or I got to say I went to UC Berkeley…so Goo Bears! But if you're dying to tell people that... For folks who don't know, there's a rivalry, which is why I had to say that. But then you're turning it into about you. I know you've talked about orienting towards the client. What does that look like practically in an engagement?

Rob Berg: It's the toughest thing we have to do. Most of us who are good at what we do are lifelong learners. We're eager to share our knowledge. I mean, it's just a fact. That's who we are. It's how we're made up. But the toughest thing to do is just shut up and listen. Let the client drive. I learned this from my coach training. I mean, that's where it really came to the fore. Just listening, listening with intent, not listening to respond.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. As opposed to waiting until they stop talking and then you're going to say your next thing, which is what I see a lot of consultants do. Sort of practically, folks can cultivate those qualities. Again, so I want to get down to if somebody's thinking I'm a horrible listener, how do I get better at that?

Rob Berg: Practice. I mean, just practice. I was a horrible listener. I mean, just admittedly. There's another book there, I guess, every mistake that I've made and having had to take the feedback you get and take it to heart and get better every day, get better. But practice is how you learn how to listen.

Deb Zahn: For some folks particularly when they're trying to display the qualities that they may have and trying to show up in the way that they want to, the nervousness, the mindset issues of I'm not worthy or whatever version shows up for them, how do you think through managing those if it gets in the way of doing this the right way?

Rob Berg: Yeah. It's a conflict, right? On one hand, you have to be humble, but you have to be deferential to your client. On the other hand, you have to be confident. What I tell young consultants in my practice is you know more than you think you do. Take that into the meeting with you. You know more than you think you do. Just be confident. That simple bit of advice seems to get people set right when they enter those situations.

Deb Zahn: Got you. Well, so one of the other situations that calls for confidence is another thing you talk about in the book, which is one of your keys is provide value not hours, which is I talk to folks that I coach and are in my membership a whole bunch about that. I was doing it earlier today, which is your value is not your time. Your value is the transformation. Talk about that because that's a tough one for a lot of new consultants that wrap their heads around, not charging hourly or even consultants who've just thought, "Well, of course, I charge hourly, I'm a consultant." So why and then how do you make that shift?

Rob Berg: It certainly takes confidence. You will have far greater earning capacity if you don't tie your earnings to the number of hours you have available to work. We all have a finite number of hours. We have an infinite number of ideas. I have on occasion said to clients, "If I'm sitting in The Bahamas sipping a margarita and in 10 minutes come up with an idea that saves you $3 million a year, will you pay me 150,000?" "Sure." That's it. If I was charging hourly for that, I'd get 50 bucks.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Or it might not even pay for the margarita.

Rob Berg: Exactly, exactly. Right. Depending on the resort you're at. Yeah.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, yeah, yeah. What I see people get stuck in is that, but it only took me 15 minutes, it only took me a half an hour. The example I like to use is, right, so way back when I was much less seasoned than I am today, something that I do today might have taken me four hours because I didn't have the chops. I didn't have the experience. I hadn't seen a bunch of it before to know how to adjust it. Fast forward now, if I can do it in an hour, are you suggesting I get paid less than someone who is much greener than I am? Of course, that's absurd.

Rob Berg: Yeah, of course. I share that old story in the book about the manufacturing plant and the machine that went down. The boss at the manufacturing plant called in the expert and the expert came in and tapped on the machine here and tapped on it over there and then tapped it just right and the machine came back on and it took him five minutes. He presented an invoice and it was for whatever, $250 back then. This was like in the 1920s. So a pocket full story, of course. The boss said, "$250. It took you five minutes. Can you give me an itemized invoice?" It was like five minutes tapping the machine, $5, knowing where to tap, $245.

Yes, your value to your clients is the culmination of years and years of... It's not just years of experience because there are a lot of people who say, "I have 30 years of experience," but they really have one year of experience 30 times over. What's wonderful about consulting is that over a 30-year career, you've worked with hundreds of clients and thousands of individuals. So you really do have a depth and breadth of knowledge to bring to an organization that kind of a typical career path does not afford even the savviest executives.

Deb Zahn: That's right. So if someone is doing hourly today because they didn't have the pleasure of talking to us and were not on our watch, how do you help them figure out how to make the switch?

Rob Berg: Think about the business case. So what outcome your client wants and what that outcome is worth. That takes a little legwork. I mean, it certainly takes a little bit of doing and maybe a little bit of discovery that you're going to do gratis for your client. But once you come to an agreement on the value of the solution, then as I said, if you're offering them a fee that represents 10% of the value of that solution, they're going to be inclined to go for it. If you're just saying, "My hourly rate is $300," that can be open-ended.

There's nothing your client can wrap their brain around in terms of what it is going to cost to solve that, but if they say, "Oh, this is a million-dollar problem," and it's going to cost them a hundred thousand, that's a pretty easy decision to make, versus it's $300 an hour and maybe we'll get done in six months and maybe you all need to bring in four other people, and so.

Deb Zahn: Or maybe we'll need four engagements back to back and create dependencies.

Rob Berg: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: I know it can be tricky. If it's straightforward, like they're trying to increase X amount of revenue over X amount of time, it's a little easier to say, "OK, 10% of that is X." But if it's less quantifiable and it's more they're doing, and I'll give an example, they're doing a merger and most mergers fail. They don't always know that. I usually tell them that. They're worried about talent loss. There are some revenue considerations because they don't want to start hemorrhaging money on day one. They're usually concerned about two or three other things, only one of them is easily quantifiable. How do you help folks figure out how to tease out those more qualitative variables of value?

Rob Berg: I guess I would say that almost everything can be measured in one way or another. The way I talk about combating that in the book is just providing value in other ways, whether it's sharing articles, sharing frameworks, or sharing bits of information that can help them going forward in their business. That is when it comes to a particular intangible, I mean, even things like morale and certainly turnover, you can quantify those things. Certainly, turnover is easily quantifiable.

Productivity. There's plenty of studies out there on how more productive a happy and engaged workforce is than one that is not. It may be some amorphous percentage you're throwing out there based on other companies' experience, but it's doable. I mean, yeah, and it does take some homework and some creativity and some work, but you can demonstrate the value of the service you provide and take that qualitative outcome and convert it convincingly into a quantitative outcome.

Deb Zahn: I like that. I like the idea of, yeah, you might have to do some homework to see is there any literature out there that's telling you that talent loss in a merger usually results in X, then you got something to work with.

Rob Berg: That's exactly right. Yeah.

Deb Zahn: Oh, I love that. So now you touched upon this in terms of giving value away when you don't have a contract. I know so many consultants are worried about even what they put in a proposal like I'm going to give away my secret sauce and they are going to be able to take it and run with it. I've never worried about that ever in 12 years. So what's your take on that in terms of, and I know you talk about it in the book, why should consultants not be worried about that?

Rob Berg: If you have a secret sauce, you have a commodity, ultimately because it will be discovered because that company will adopt it and then another company you work with who will adopt it and then they'll share it with somebody else. That thing that was a unique selling proposition or a unique value proposition for your consulting practice will evaporate. So, there is no secret sauce per se, in my mind anyway, if you're a bonafide consultant, if you're a real consulting professional. You have to be able to, I don't want to say, think on your feet because I'm not always great at that, but you have to be able to synthesize a lot of disparate bits of information to formulate a solution for a particular client's situation.

It's bad form, in my opinion. Again, you're diluting your value by having a secret sauce, like this is our five-step method or this is our system for improving your bottom line. OK. I've had people come up to me when I had some entrepreneurial ventures and said, "Hi, what do you do?" at some networking event? He said, "I can take your business to the next level." I said, "You don't know who I am and you don't know what my business is." But he had a formula. So we exchanged cards and that was that, so.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, no. I did a recent podcast on the problem with formulas is that human beings tend to gum up the works.

Rob Berg: Yeah. There are people. It is about people. It is a helping profession. That's so lost on so many.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Yeah. Because they look at companies, they look at organizations and they forget that there's human beings, group dynamics, all of that fun gooey, messy stuff that actually makes it interesting.

Rob Berg: Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: So the last piece that I want to hit on is the make it your own. Again, we hit upon that earlier of people in companies and organizations don't experience their problems and aspirations as generic. So they're not looking for a generic consultant. Why is it important to kind of still, if you take your consulting business and make it your own, what does that look like practically?

Rob Berg: What does it look like practically? I have to tell the story that I share in the book also about the knights of the round table and how Arthur had stood up and said, "We're not going to have our meal together until an adventure has occurred," as they put it in the day. With that, the grail showed up, but it was covered in a cloth. They couldn't actually see it. Then the grail withdrew and the knights assembled around the table, among them was Gawain, his nephew, who stood up and said, "We've got to go find that. But it would be a disgrace if we went as a group to go find the holy grail. We should each enter the forest where it was darkest, where there was no path before."

So each knight went off on their own to find the holy grail. So that story I thought was instructive because consulting should be approached the same way. You're going to learn a lot in school. You're going to learn a lot in some very, very good books that are out there. I mean, I highly recommend, as I said, Peter Block. Alan Weiss has written some very good things. Bob Schaffer has written a great book on consulting. There are several out there that I think are fantastic, but that's them.

Again, just like the profession, it's being able to synthesize all those ideas and all those tidbits from all those other folks and bringing your own sensibility to it, bringing your own spin on what it is they do. Picasso knew how to paint classically. So that was the schooling, right? That was the books and the classes and the degrees. But by the time he was 16, he was creating academically perfect works of art.

It was only after that that he went off into all those different directions, the blue period and what have you. The uninformed may look at a bunch of shapes on a canvas, informed people understand that those shapes on the canvas, those distorted figures have at their foundation a real knowledge of shadows and light and color and contrast and all those other things. So all of that stuff, you get your black belt and karate, that's foundational. It's everything that comes after that that is what is uniquely valuable about you.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Yeah. I love that. That brings everything together, which is obviously why you have it in the book is of knowing who you are, your skills, your qualities, and all of the other things you put in there in terms of your value, the value you offer, and then what's your version, which I love capping it off that way. So there is so much more in this book that I think is helpful for new consultants, consultants who've been doing it a while. Where can folks find the book? Where can they find you?

Rob Berg: The book is on Amazon. Again, The Courageous Consultant is the title of the book. I'm Rob Berg as everybody knows now. They can find me at perrknight,, and my email address is rberg,

Deb Zahn: Great. We will have links to all of that. I don't do Amazon. I will do an indie bookstore, but we'll have links to all of that in the show notes so folks can go directly to it. So I'm going to ask you my last question, which you know is coming, which is when you're not writing books and doing all this good stuff, how do you bring balance to your life, however you define that?

Rob Berg: Yeah. I think I'm a scientist at heart and I have a love of nature and I have a love of astronomy, believe it or not, so.

Deb Zahn: Oh, wow.

Rob Berg: Yeah. So I get to engage intellectually with nature in that manner and just look upward through my telescope. It's a very grounding avocation because you kind of really feel your place among this vastness, not to sound too lofty, but that really...When I'm having a tough day, there's nothing like looking at Saturn through a telescope, so.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. We call those you are here activities.

Rob Berg: Yeah. Great. I love it.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Which is this who you are, this is how you fit in, and holy moly, there's a lot. That's wonderful.

Rob Berg: Yeah, no kidding.

Deb Zahn: Well, Rob, I really appreciate you coming on the show. This has just been fabulous. Again, all your good information will be in the show notes, but thanks so much for joining me.

Rob Berg: Oh my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or if you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content. I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is one is if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

Deb Zahn: Then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it. Share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up. So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

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