A Guest Post by Jeff Kavanaugh
It may be the most important real world skill in existence, but young consultants lack it in droves.
And it’s causing them to forfeit promotions, compromise their health, and in some cases, lose their consulting careers.
The “it” I’m talking about is critical thinking.
Up until the last couple of years, I’d say that 97 percent of the hundreds, if not thousands, of college students who I’ve interviewed and hired are missing these skills.
It’s not their fault. They were never taught critical thinking skills in high school or college.
What Is Critical Thinking
Our clients are awash in too much data. There’s too much to analyze, too little time to accomplish their to-do lists, and too many pressing problems that need immediate solutions.
This is why they hire you.
A serious situation arises that threatens their business and they need a way to fix it—stat.
Critical thinking helps you to:
- Analyze only relevant information
- Interpret the data into real, actionable solutions
- Present your findings
- Evaluate the success of the solutions
Let’s say your consulting firm tapped you to solve its growing problem of burnout in young consultants—which, by the way, is a real issue facing many consulting firms.
Using your critical thinking skills, you’d undergo the following process:
Instead of grabbing every piece of data on burnout you can find, you’d prioritize what you need. You’d ask: what is the real problem, and what does the client really want?
In this scenario, your client wants fewer cases of burnout among young consultants. So, your task is to collect only the information that pertains to your client’s goal.
Once you have collected the information you need, then you have to look at it from every angle, logically and rationally, to uncover the best solution, or your top three to five solutions.
As you’re pouring over the data, you’re looking to make connections between ideas.
Now, as you’re sifting through the information, you’re likely to find many causes of burnout and you’ll develop a host of solutions to fix the issue.
Just keep in mind, your client is paying for the singlebest solution that solves their problem.
Let’s say you identify a lack of critical thinking skills as the top precursor to burnout among young consultants.
This leads to your conclusion: if the client provides more critical thinking training for their young hires, then the rates of burnout will decrease.
Critical thinking is also useful when it comes to presenting your findings in an organized, clear way. Remember, this isn’t about scoring an A- on a paper.
Senior executives have very little time to analyze and interpret the information you give to them.
That’s your job.
You never want to dump mounds of information on senior executives like Derrick was prone to do.
Instead, you want to use your critical thinking skills and The Pyramid Principle to craft a compelling case for why senior executives should act on your recommendation.
Ultimately, senior leaders will make the final call. Sometimes they’ll go with your recommendation, sometimes they won’t. All you can do is position your recommendation well with a perfectly thought-out presentation.
Once the client has decided on one of your recommendations, you have to measure the results. You have to be able to tell what’s working and what’s not, and then to make adjustments as you go.
In the case of burnout, let’s imagine that your leader went with your top recommendation.
Young consultants are now receiving critical thinking training. Your job is to collect data on whether this course of action actually reduces rates of burnout.
If it does, that’s terrific, you’ve done your job.
If it doesn’t, that’s okay too. You can adapt and change directions as necessary.
How Critical Thinking Prevents Burnout
The above example, wasn’t made up, it’s quite real. I watch far too many young consultants burn out.
People without critical thinking skills fail fast, but people who eek by with mediocre critical thinking skills suffer most. Sure, they climb the ranks, but they pay a steep price:
Their mental, physical and emotional health.
Anyone who succeeds under false pretenses knows they don’t legitimately belong. This knowing weighs on them. It’s like carrying the weight of a huge lie around.
They’re more comfortable working like a robot—deciphering lots of data and information and taking direction from other people.
When they get into management positions, they start micromanaging their teams, all because they’re scared—as they should be—of the truth escaping.
Add to this the punishing schedule of consulting, the long hours and days traveling to a client’s office, the stress of the job, and the time spent away from family and friends.
This is a lethal combination. It’s no wonder young consultants are succumbing to burnout at higher rates than their older colleagues.
Their inner world would flip quickly, if they learned how to think critically. Those feelings of stress, because they can barely keep up, would vanish.
Instead, they’d feel invigorated for the job, challenged—in the best way possible—to find a solution to a client’s problem.
Why Academia Is Failing Students
Our country’s learning system is based on memorization, repetition, and task completion. Critical thinking, you’ll notice, is not on that list.
But as a consultant, your clients demand more in-depth thinking that drives results.
Thankfully, elite colleges and universities, like Stanford and the University of Texas (where I’m an adjunct professor) recognize this gap in students’ learning.
Most graduates leave college as “idea majors.” They excel at generating random scenarios, and coming up with ideas.
Unfortunately, they also fail in their ability to think through a real world problem, and come to a logical end that says, “I recommend we take this step, or steps, to fix the issue.”
In the world of consulting, this is what we do—we frame a real challenge that poses a serious threat to our clients. Then we offer them at least one, logical, rational, and well-thought out solution.
It’s a solution they can take action on immediately that will drive to a result.
This process isn’t optional. It’s required.
The way this gap in education plays out in the workforce is rarely pretty.
Why My Smartest Recruit Was My Worst Consultant
The guy was quantitatively brilliant. His brain worked like it was powered by an advanced CPU. But colleagues and clients found him impossible to deal with.
Put simply: he confused people.
He dumped loads of data onto client’s desks, gave them countless options, and then told them to pick which one they preferred.
You can imagine how clients responded to that approach.
When I spoke with Derrick about my concerns over his lack of critical thinking prowess, he looked at me like a deer-in-the-headlights.
It’s a stare I see too often from the technically-gifted but results-challenged consultants.
His head bobbed up and down as we spoke, but I knew he didn’t understand. I was right. Almost immediately, he returned to bombarding the clients with mounds of data.
Needless to say, he didn’t last long at our firm.
It was a real shame too. He had the brain power and intellectual ability to achieve much more. His potential was wasted because he never learned how to make decisions.
He never learned critical thinking skills.
My Best Hire Had An Art Degree
If, like your peers, you came out of college without well-developed critical thinking skills, don’t despair.
You are not destined to go the way of Derrick, nor are you condemned to go the way of the burned out director.
Instead, you can follow the path of Libby.
Libby was a new hire to our firm, a music major who graduated from one of the Seven Sisters schools, a group of liberal arts colleges in the Northeast.
Compared to the rest of her cohort, people believed her education and degree was a handicap.
Right away, she struggled—a lot. She worked long hours, bordered on burn out, and felt frustrated over her lack of progress at the company and mediocre performance scores.
In short, nothing about her new job was going right for Libby. Before she could complete her downward spiral, I invited her to join my team.
Almost instantly, I diagnosed Libby’s problem: the lack of critical thinking skills.
So, I taught her some concepts and gave her tools to get the left side of her brain firing.
Like a bat out of hell, Libby began solving complex problems for clients and wrapping up projects. She raced up the food chain at our firm with amazing speed and ease.
In just a few years, Libby rose so high that her cohorts, the ones who labeled her as handicapped, all worked for her.
Last I knew, Libby was enjoying a thriving career, was happy assisting clients in solving their problems, and confident in her work as a consultant.
How To Develop Your Critical Thinking Skills
There was no magic, mystery or a sudden miracle that caused this transformation. In fact, Libby lacked the hard quantitative and analytic skills of her peers.
But she did have a proclivity towards notes, rhythms, and sound that helped her to become laser-sharp in her critical and detailed analysis of the world.
Plus, she was open to learning. All it took was a bit of guidance and direction and in no time, Libby’s mind became set on a repetitive cycle of: analyze, interpret, and evaluate.
If you want to dive deeper and hone your critical thinking skills, I’ve written a thorough breakdown of the pillars of critical thinking.
It’s never too late to learn, or improve, your critical thinking skills.
Also published on Medium.