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Introduction to Consulting Mastery: the Ability Myth

This article is an edited extract of a chapter in Cindy Tonkin’s Consulting Mastery: The Ability Myth

It sets out the basic idea of the Ability Myth – one of the key insights of the book.

If you’re interested in the ideas discussed in this article, you can buy the book


Why are some consultants constantly busy, while others with similar knowledge are under-utilised? The skills required to master consulting are not limited to the technical knowledge of an area, but include self-promotion and marketing skills as well as the basics of getting along with clients and understanding how they think. Masterful consultants are not just technicians, they are also effective with people. They know and understand human nature sufficiently to transfer their technical expertise, offer advice which sticks, and create lasting change.

This article is based on Cindy Tonkin’s second book, Consulting Mastery first published in 2003.

Why being good is not enough

“What’s your edge?” I asked Peter, a strategic planning consultant. “My organisation does the best job imaginable. We’re more professional, we’re better educated and we’re more intelligent”. Whoops, I thought, welcome to the ability myth. We believe if we are the best technicians in our chosen field, the best at translating out clients’ needs into actions, then we will be successful in business.

That’s the myth.

If it were the case, how then do so many mediocre performers manage to run successful consultancies? Why is it some of the busiest consultants have only one tool, and use it to solve every problem? Why are business school professors so knowledgeable, and sometimes so impractical?

Take John, for example. A potential client invited him to put in a proposal on an IT job. He took a brief. He got all of the facts, he asked probing questions. He did his background research, and put in an excellent proposal which would revolutionise the way his client did business.

John had made one fatal mistake, however. While gathering evidence and information, he had neglected to speak kindly to people. He had bulldozed a few members of staff who weren’t as fast thinking as he was. He was condescending to a key manager who had the ear of the decision-maker. So the proposal went to another consultancy. Not as innovative, with less grip on the facts, but who had built rapport with all levels of the client, who had taken the time to make sure every encounter was a positive one, at all levels of the client organisation? They didn’t necessarily “crawl”, they were just decent human beings.

What John didn’t know is commonplace for the master consultant. Every interaction counts. Every client makes choices based not just on rational elements but also on cultural and emotional fit. So other factors intervene before ability.

Consultants who don’t understand the formula end up the best-educated and most under-utilised consultants in the world. Those who do understand it attract clients, business and a life that exceed their wildest expectations.


How the myth works

The myth works this way.

The consultant with the most ability won’t necessarily get the work. Not unless they deal with two other factors first – availability and affability. Sit back and understand what makes the consulting industry tick.

The ability myth in the medical fraternity

My brother-in-law is an excellent surgeon. He explained the ability myth to me first. He told me how clients (patients, he calls them) use three principles to select their medical service provider. These are, in order, availability, affability and finally ability.

Think back to the last time that you looked for a new doctor or dentist. When I recently chose a new GP, I asked friends to recommend good doctors. I looked in the yellow pages, I went for a walk in my area looking for the plaques saying “doctor”. I looked for someone in my local area, and then for ones that were open at hours when I’d be likely to want to see them (i.e. I looked for who was available).

This is the availability principle.

Then, I took my various minor complaints to a few different GPs. The doctors or receptionists who were rude to me; those who forgot my name; those who didn’t credit me with any intelligence were instantly crossed off my list.

In short, bad bedside manner, and I wasn’t interested (this is affability).

Finally, I asked around friends and relatives within the medical field, to check out that the person I liked was in fact reputable. It was fortunate that she was, because I had already ruled out quite a few because of their lack of people skills (affability).

This is the ability myth in action.

The ability myth in consulting

So it is with consultants. Whether you’re a good consultant or not, if the client does not know you exist, you’re ruled out before you get to first base.

If they do know you exist, but they don’t like you, because of arrogance, a values clash, or just the colour of your shirt, then you don’t get past second base.

Third base is knowing what to do to fix their problem or deliver their service.

This is ability.

Most competent consultants seem to think that ability matters most.

Master consultants know all three are important.

Let’s put a little more meat around the bones of these three A’s – Availability, Affability, Ability.


First base: Availability

The first base in the Master Consulting game is Availability.

Two things are essential for the client in using your consultancy services.

Firstly, they need to know the service exists, and secondly they need to know which consultants provide those services. Many great ideas have died through lack of a market. Not because the market wasn’t there, but because the market didn’t know the idea existed, or that consultants existed to provide it.

The availability issue trips up many exceptional consultants, especially ones who are newer to the game.

I recently worked with Davida, who was leaving an internal consulting role in a large multi-national consultancy to set up as an independent consultant. Although she clearly had all of the abilities she needed, and her affability was high, she was ignorant of how to attract business. In her previous job people had come to her (every consultant’s dream!). She started with the basics of getting her name in the yellow pages, getting business cards, and registering with a few agents. The next steps were more difficult though.

She didn’t like having to trawl for opportunities, building relationships to create clients in the long-term. She didn’t like networking without any specific outcome other than to get to know her clients and their industries. She didn’t like being one of the unwashed many approaching HR managers and Chief Executives, and being treated like a salesperson. It took only one job offer to tempt her back to the corporate life.

Now long time consultants may not have the same basic blocks as Davida had. And many of us are guilty of neglecting the marketing, promotion and general “getting out there” in favour of another technical training course, another dinner with friends, or the opportunity to curl up with a good book.

How do you, as a consultant, highly specialised or generalised, improve your availability factor, through advertising, branding, and networking?


Second base: Affability

Second base then is affability – bedside manner if you will. The client may call in a consultant to talk about doing some work, but if the consultant offends them or their gatekeepers, it’s a waste of both the consultant’s and the client’s time. Similarly if someone else is more affable, nicer, makes a better first impression, it’s “thank you for playing, and you go home with a consolation prize…”

The client cannot judge your ability, but they can have a darn good go at judging your affability.

One way of improving your affability is to select clients who work with your values, your ways of thinking or your model of the world. It always helps to do your own personal development and to understand what your ways of thinking are. The consultant with an un-examined life seems less able to understand their impact on the world.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming, sales skills programs, and personal coaching can also help.

How do you work consistently to understand your clients better? What do you do to consciously improve your affability when meeting or working with a new client?


Third base: Ability

Finally, at third base, is the ability issue. So many consultants think this is their edge, and they work on it. It’s safe, it’s easy, and there are many ways to do it – courses and books and all that jazz.

But the difference between a skilled strategic planner and a very skilled strategic planner is a definite moot point to the average client engaging a strategic planner. They’ll want to be able to speak to that consultant, they’ll want the consultant to understand their issues and be able to work them through the finer points of resolving and planning it. Whether the consultant who provides the service does so with more or less ability, they will never know.

The issue with ability is that it’s difficult to judge. A client may or may not have the ability to tell a good consultant from a mediocre one. Often even another consultant cannot say whether they could have done a better job in the same circumstances. Once a project is under way, a myriad of issues intervene – the staff, the management, the position, the economic and political climate. Each will have an effect on the perceived “ability” of a consultant. Even highly skilled consultants have had their less successful moments.


Stealing home: combining technical and tactical skills

Getting to home plate in the Consulting Mastery Game requires a very important combination of skills. I believe that consultants with no ability are eventually found out. All consultants must have some technical skill to be a consultant. And no one makes it to true Master Consultancy on a single-tool kit-bag. However, some of the most important skills that Master Consultants display are the tactical skills of client handling. Besides affability, these include things like taking a client brief, proposal writing, dealing with internal politics and arbitrary scope changes, identifying when the customer is satisfied (or not), and taking action on that.

Please believe me when I say that success as a master consultant does not hang on how good a consultant is in their technical field. It is important for the longevity of your business and for the business world in general that all consultants combine both technical and tactical knowledge.

In conclusion, I would offer you the diagnostic tool on the next page. Use it as a basis for creating your own marketing and communication skills inventory – for this is what availability and affability are about. This checklist is one of many in the appendix to Consulting Mastery.

Ultimately when all of the consultants in this world are running their business ethically, excellently and with the energy of commitment, the world of consulting can only improve. And the most able consultants will be those who recognise the importance of the ‘softer’ skills as well as the ‘hard’ technical skills.

Buy the book!

If you’re interested in the ideas discussed in this article, you can click here and buy the book.

Ability myth diagnostic tool

Are you falling for the ability myth? Work through this checklist to discover how much of your business future you are staking on your ability. To be working towards becoming a master consultant, you should be checking more than 1 box in each category.

Ability Myth Diagnostic

Testing Availability

Clients can find my consultancy by public means:


  •  in the phone book
  •  sponsoring their favourite events
  •  sponsoring their kids’ events
  •  via agents
  •  at trade shows

Clients can find me by electronic means:

  • on my own web page
  • via my society or professional association web page
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • linked in
  • blog
  • guest blogging
  • podcasting

Clients can find me through personal contact

  •  at seminars
  •  at networking functions
  •  via their colleagues
  •  via the IMC or some other association

Testing Affability

I know my clients’:


  • favourite topics and values
  • secretaries’ and advisors’ names
  • significant others’ names
  • executive team
  • birthday, and remember to celebrate it somehow

I know how to match my clients’:

  • perceptual filters
  • behavioural filters
  • motivational preferences
  • value styles

I know my own:

  • strengths
  • weaknesses
  • hobby horses
  • ideal client

I know my clients’:

  • highly personal performance indicators for this project
  • time, cost and quality requirements for the project, and the project drivers

Testing Ability

I am up to date in my own professional technical field. I:


  •  read books
  •  browse the web
  •  attend industry briefings
  •  attend trade shows
  •  attend industry association meetings

I have the professional qualifications required:

  • relevant degree
  • relevant client history
  • relevant certifications
  • up-to-date sources of advice, counsel and sounding boards

I have the requisite technical abilities to:

  • sell change
  • know myself
  • deal with the client’s identity issues/therapeutic issues