Idea in short

Effective leadership skills are vital to consulting success. Usually, consultants are outsiders to the client organisation. They are often called upon to initiate change within the client organisation. Most clients inherently resist change, particularly when it is triggered by an outside party. In the absence of such resistance, consultants can create flawless solutions to client problems. Yet, for engagements, such as this change initiative, to be successful, consultants should demonstrate effective leadership skills at every client interaction.

Power is the ability to influence others to achieve objectives. Correspondingly, it can be deployed positively or negatively. Leaders and managers leverage power to influence others to achieve outcomes. In engagements, consultants should understand the distribution of power among the stakeholders. The kinds of power they wield depend on their personality, role, level in the organisation, personal values, and company culture, among a range of materially important factors. Client stakeholders’ power dynamics tends to heavily influence their decisions, transactions, and engagement outcomes. The usual power forms the consultants should be aware of or exercise are described below.

Legitimate power

This is traditional power. It is the type of formal authority a stakeholder has due to his / her relative position in the organisation. Because that person is the Vice President or CEO, they can call the shots and make decisions. Usually, legitimate authority is based on a role. When a person loses his / her position or title, this power is simultaneously lost. Hence, this is a weak lever to persuade other people. Organisations constantly restructure themselves to stay competitive and in the process, recast roles and accountabilities. A key stakeholder, who once wielded considerable legitimate power, may suddenly no longer possess it. Therefore, consultants should not solely rely on stakeholders with this form of power.

Information power

You gain information power when you know something others want to know. This information could be anything from casual, water cooler gossip to scarce, specialised subject matter knowledge. As a consultant, information power is a singular tactic to boost your influence on an engagement. You can build this upper ground regardless of your role or level in your consulting firm or client engagement. To maximise your information content, you can reach out to your Alumni network, interact with industry experts, read literature others aren’t reading, listen to podcasts, follow Thought Leaders on social networks, etc.

Through such dedicated activities, you’ll acquire information that rest of your team / stakeholders doesn’t have. Just remember to strategically deploy your information assets. After all, consulting is a knowledge-based industry, and as the saying goes, Knowledge is Power. You don’t want to give it all away for free. You need to keep cultivating sources that others don’t. Ensure that your information sources are reliable, accurate, and relevant. Sometimes, the relevance of information depends on timing. Make sure that you consider the temporal relevance of information in your engagements.

Expert power

This form of power is based on in-depth information, knowledge or expertise. People who have more knowledge or experience than other members of their team exhibit expert power. For example, an specialist with 20 years of experience in a niche field has expert power. In practise, client stakeholders often regard consultants as highly intelligent. They trust consultants’ abilities to solve challenges on their behalf. For example, a client may engage your firm to value a target for acquisition. Or, a client engages your firm to build specialised software. In such scenarios, clients expect their consultants to demonstrate expertise.

Correspondingly, you should be extremely knowledgeable on the subject and demonstrate special abilities required for successful delivery. Building expertise is no easy feat. Research shows that it takes deliberate practice (at least 10, 000 hours) to excel at something[1] a.k.a the 10,000-hour rule.

How you build expertise depends widely among individuals. Some scenarios require academic studies, while others mandate practical experience. Carve out a niche for yourself by seizing opportunities that come your way, expand and impart your knowledge, and leverage these to build up and showcase your expertise. However, remember that building expertise alone is not enough. Clients and peers have to recognise your expertise and acknowledge the need for your specialisations.

Reward power

A stakeholder with the ability to reward others (e.g. through raises, promotions, compliments, etc.) has reward power. This power form is based our intrinsic inclination to do things well in exchange for something we value. Sometimes, a reward may fail to deliver enough perceived value to its recipient. Such a scenario weakens this power form. A shortcoming is that rewards often need to be bigger than the last time to have the same effect. Furthermore, employees can become satiated by the rewards. As a result, such rewards will lose their effectiveness.

As consultants, you need to understand what reward form motivates your client stakeholders. For example, if one of your stakeholders is a young parent, schedule meetings and / or workshops at a time convenient for them (e.g. late mornings / early afternoons, so they can drop off / pick up their kids at school). This will not only ensure their full participation, but also their buy-in for your recommendations.

Likewise, you could coach junior client stakeholders on management, analysis, soft-skills, etc. during an engagement and embed them in the critical activities. Subsequently, they can train more experienced or tenured employees post-engagement. This will increase their stature in their organisation, which is an excellent relationship-building strategy.

Understanding their intrinsic motivations and preferences could help you indirectly reward them for expected behaviour, enlist their support through permitted mechanisms, and co-ordinate efforts to a successful delivery.

Coercive power

Coercive power is the opposite of reward power. A stakeholder that can punish others has coercive power. The threat of punishment can persuade or dissuade certain actions, sometimes with unintended consequences. The objective of coercion is achieving compliance.

Consultants should be cognisant of this power form among client stakeholders. A large part of consulting entails meetings, workshops, and similar client interactions. Much of the inputs that consultants gather are through formal and informal information exchanges. Depending on their empowerment within their organisation, stakeholders may share or withhold crucial information for the fear of retribution.

Correspondingly, the information client stakeholders share with you may colour your evaluations. Therefore, you should understand both, the power distribution and punitive actions among client stakeholders for a comprehensive analysis and recommendation. You may also have to re-engineer communication channels, install control mechanisms, vet the shared information, etc. to perform proper due-diligence during an engagement. These may be such activities as, 1:1 sessions with client stakeholders, off-site meetings, Gemba walk, anonymous surveys, etc.

Referent power

Referent power is about who you know. Usually, those with referent power have many connections or a large social network they can leverage. Someone with referent power may be close to a stakeholder with legitimate power. Team members that respect and regard those with referent power may willingly endorse the decisions the referents make. According to an article published in The Journal of Values-Based Leadership[2], referent power:

can lead to enthusiastic and unquestioning trust, compliance, loyalty, and commitment from subordinates

Often times, consultants care called upon to execute certain transformations in lieu of the client stakeholders. As a result, you inherit referent power, which comes with a great deal of responsibility. In this scenario, you should follow through on your commitments to gain clients’ trust and respect. When you agree to deliver something by a certain date, make sure you do so as promised.

However, when you do drop the ball on something, be transparent about your shortcomings. Describe what measures you’ll undertake to set things right. Don’t try to sweep things under the rug in a futile attempt to save face. To establish referent power, your relationship with your peers and client stakeholders needs to extend beyond the current engagement. Spend some time with them and show interest in their lives. Get to know them as persons, not just as client stakeholders or colleagues. Start to forge a more solid and true bond with them.

Charisma power

The capability to lead and influence people is essential for consulting success. Consultants without formal leadership roles find themselves increasingly in situations where it is key to deliberately influence people, teams, divisions or the whole client organisation. As consultants, you evaluate the existing situation or status quo at a client organisation. Then, you assess the constraints to implement a new vision. Subsequently, you formulate and articulate the new goals and vision. Finally, you demonstrate how the organisation can achieve these goals.

To summarise, a successful engagement concludes with your articulation of the vision. This stems from your ability to communicate credibly. In turn, this credibility comes from your approachability, trustworthiness, and knowledge. In short, you should demonstrate charisma. Furthermore, you should leverage powerful content in your message to increase client buy-in. As a result, you gain influence through powerful and appealing vision.

The last thirty years witnessed a proliferation in research on charismatic, transformational and visionary leadership styles. Interestingly, charisma trumps the other leadership forms. Correspondingly, these leadership forms are collectively referred to as neo-charismatic leadership [3].


Consultants don’t have to manage the work of others to demonstrate leadership skills. By acquiring the leadership skills enumerated above, consultants can demonstrate leadership in almost any setting. Demonstrating leadership qualities makes you a more effective consultant. It also gives your client confidence that you have the necessary skills to successfully drive change and implement solutions.

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