Key attributes of leadership for young consultants: how to advance your ability to lead

As young consultants we are continually striving to build our ‘toolkit’ of skills, some of which are easier to develop than others. In this article we will examine the intangible skill of leadership: identifying the key attributes required to be an effective young leader and the practical ways you can demonstrate and develop this ability.

Be Confident

Arguably the most fundamental attribute a young consultant must possess to be an effective leader is confidence.  However, there is a very fine line between displaying the fearlessness needed to take on any role and earn a reputation as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and the danger of portraying yourself as arrogant and naive.

When looking to develop your confidence, your ability to be decisive will strongly impact whether those around you will follow your leadership. If decisions are not made then successful leadership is impossible.  A Harvard Business Review [1] undertaken in 2013 concluded that ‘decisiveness is one of the most vital success attributes for leaders in every position and every industry’.

Katherine Beadle, a Director of Transformation and Change at Capita Transformation, believes that confidence is built over time and in order to build confidence you should get involved in everyday tasks that will teach you how to read your audience. She adds, ‘It’s the way you go about consulting that matters. You need to inspire confidence upwards, sideways, and down in leading a task – from facilitating a workshop, developing a complex excel model, to delivering a short presentation.’

If confidence isn’t something that comes naturally to you, there are ways to overcome this. An academic report [2] written by UCL in 2013 found that, ‘The conventional wisdom – that leadership is a skill – remains largely true’. Therefore confidence can be developed – just like any other skill.

Be Inspirational

While leadership is often linked with experience and having a senior role, Piers Linney, a former dragon on the BBC's TV show, Dragons' Den, points out that ‘experience is different to leadership. Leadership is about people. It's about motivating people to follow you where you want to go’. It is therefore the ability to inspire others that makes a leader and this requires a wide range of skills; the most important being the ability to establish a clear shared vision.

Harvard Business School [3] identified that inspiring leaders set high goals, proactively engage with their team or peers and encourage collaboration and innovative approaches. In particular, they communicate in an effective and assertive manner and they build emotional connections with their peers in order to motivate them.

Katherine Beadle suggests that ‘to inspire you, need to seek inspiration for yourself’. She therefore stresses the need to step outside the box to find inspirational role models, rather than only emulating senior peers.  For instance, rock stars, Michelin-starred chefs, football coaches, and start-up entrepreneurs are often the visible face at the forefront of a huge machine working in the background. They use their vision to ensure that their team delivers their vision.

Finally, she finishes by highlighting that coaches, mentors and role-models can offer some edge and intelligent opinions to help young consultants find and frame their leadership style without losing too much originality in the process.

Be Authentic

Authenticity is another key leadership attribute young consultants must demonstrate.  When contributing towards challenging client engagements, it is vital to establish yourself as a genuine and honest member of the team.

A fundamental aspect of authentic leadership is recognising that you are not perfect. When faced with situations where you feel out of your depth or in need of help, there is no shame in raising a hand. Being prepared to show vulnerability is a sign of maturity and self-awareness, enabling you to address your weaknesses and develop strengths.  

Katherine Beadle mentions ‘don’t be shy in working out how you can work with and lead others to solve complex problems. Then build this narrative into your CV and profile and ‘pitch’ for your next project.

Overall, as young consultants we should be constantly pushing ourselves and seeking opportunities to take the lead. In order to become valued and trusted leaders we must be able to inspire, be confident and be adaptively authentic.  In theory this may sound easy, but in reality it may be far from it. Addressing these intangible elements of leadership will complement the more tangible technical skills that we are also developing at the early stages of our careers. With an effective balance of the two you will find that colleagues and clients are more than happy to take your lead, irrespective of your age.

To summarise:

Young consultants striving to build their ‘toolkit’ in order to be effective leaders should:

  • Possess confidence – To display the right type of confidence, decisiveness will weigh in heavily on whether those around you will follow your leadership
  • Be inspirational – To achieve this have a clear vision, set high goals and encourage team working
  • Be authentic – recognise that you’re not perfect and be prepared to show your vulnerability as this will enable you to address your weaknesses and develop your strengths.

Overall, through applying these tools as young consultants we should feel able to actively and regularly seek opportunities to take the lead.

Written by Evangelia Deli, James Partridge and Lloyd Mayne of Capita Transformation.

Reference List

[1]: ‘Strategic Leadership: The Essential Skills’ Harvard Business Review February 2013

[2]: ‘Born to Lead? Leadership can be an inherited trait’ UCL January 2013

[3]: ‘What Inspiring Leaders Do’ Harvard Business Review June 2013

[4]: ‘The Authenticity Paradox’ Harvard Business Review  February 2015