Each year I like to list out the key things I’ve learned in the beautiful, messy business of creative innovation services consulting where I’ve worked for the past 16-years. While there’s a great temptation to go deep on each learning, I’ve erred on the side of bite-sized brevity. Alas, I’ve found that my audience has an appetite for more, and added to my own craving to further unfold each topic, I’m going to try something new in 2023.
For each of my thirty learnings, I’m going to create a longer form piece that includes the learning overview, a personal vignette, and practical consulting takeaways that aim to provide a fresh and actionable perspective to ponder. With a visual or two, and a hearty dose of real world context, my hope is that the reader walks away with equal parts inspiration and validation. And maybe even a Duchenne smile.
Self-awareness is a must-have skill. Know what you don’t know and what your client or team(s) need to know. All roles and experience levels should continually refine this skill.
When I took my first job in the design services space at frog Austin in 2007, I knew next to nothing about consulting or services in general. Up until then, I’d only worked as an industrial engineer and later transitioned to business development in the software industry at Opera Software and Macromedia. I came into frog with visions of quickly mastering design services, not knowing just how complicated and humbling it can be. I had no idea what I didn’t know and made every mistake under the hot Texas sun.
Since then I’ve come to understand one thing quite clearly–that self-awareness is the one skill that anyone who chooses to work in consulting or professional services should strive to master. In my opinion, it’s not solely a skill–it’s an operating system for success. This is inherently a space where one has to deal with people of all types as well as a high level of disequilibrium, ambiguity, and constant change. Self-awareness is the skill that enables a consultant to consistently show-up well, manage the daily ebbs and flows with team members as well as clients, and avoid all the classic, often unnecessary, pitfalls.
As creative consultants, we operate in an extreme people + constraints + subjectivity business. Being self-aware largely comes down to honesty and humility. Coming to grips with your strengths and weaknesses and knowing when and where to lead, support, and ask for help. In consulting, there are countless situations that you’ll find yourself in with your team or clients. All those situations call for unique inputs and outputs that you’ll have to generate on the fly. Your team will depend on what you say and how you act. You’ll be judged on your performance, and people will develop a perception of you. You want that perception to be golden. This colors your reputation and affects how much people want to work with you in the future.
Our Chief People Officer, Melanna Carroll, and I recently discussed this topic. She explained, “When I need to hold a mirror up for myself, I work to create a psychologically safe space and then invite in targeted, specific feedback from stakeholders, colleagues, etc., with a growth mindset ready to learn from them. It’s easier to take in constructive or eye-opening feedback when it’s requested (vs. sent your way only when things blow up).”
Melanna makes some great points. Being self-aware is like constantly having that proverbial mirror up, being open to feedback, and enabling a continuous improvement loop.
Why learn “the hard way” when you can safely navigate through those minefields? This is where the deep humility comes in. Creative consulting is truly hard. It requires deft introspection and ego-management to show up better for your team and client every time. Constantly be thinking about all the ways to better communicate with your teammates and clients. The most important thing to remember is that people are different–and in our space you will deal with an especially broad spectrum. They’ll have widely different styles, cultures, and personalities. Learn to serve them in those unique ways and win the day!
In summary, here are some do’s and don’ts I recommend to sharpen your self-awareness:
- Do ask for constructive feedback from your peers and boss, and even your client if you have a close enough relationship.
- Do think about not sending that email, chat, text, or slack if there’s a chance the recipient won’t receive it well. At least re-read and/or re-write a couple times to be sure the tone and content is appropriate. A phone call or face to face interaction may just work best.
- Do be honest about what you (or team members) don’t know, and be a good listener (especially with your client). Acquire the knowledge or insights you lack.
- Don’t assume anything or leave things unsaid. Live in the details.
- Don’t misunderstand your role in a certain situation. Communicate well with your team to agree on who does and says what to get the outcomes everyone needs.
- Don’t ever stop learning to be more self-aware!
Stay fresh everyone!