Growing up in South Africa, rugby was a big part of our culture and my own upbringing. Every schoolboy’s dream was to play professional rugby one day and not a day went by without playing rugby, watching rugby or planning to do one of those two things.
Fast forward 30 years and I am too old and fragile to still play the wonderfully brutal sport, but fortunate enough to still be a part of it here in Arizona as a referee. Refereeing has opened up a whole new perspective and appreciation of the sport to me, and each time I run onto the field I am challenged in a new and different way.
I am also amazed at the similarities between what I do for a living (consulting) and what I do for fun (and the sport I love). Here’s a few that may surprise you…
Know your role, your boundaries and your strengths
For my friends that don’t know much about rugby, you basically have 30 guys on a field trying to kill each other for 80 minutes while fighting over an oval-shaped ball!
As the referee it is my job to control the ensuing chaos by applying the laws (not rules) in a fair and consistent manner, and as the sole judge and adjudicator of the laws on the field and for those 80 minutes I know my role gives me the necessary authority to do just that. At the same time I also have to be keenly aware of my own limitations and experience, and do the best I can to facilitate a good game within those boundaries.
The role of a consultant is very much the same. You have to navigate the labyrinth of the customer’s corporate structure, their needs and requirements and also understand where your responsibilities start and end. Good consultants are able to move within this framework, understand their role and achieve the desired end result. It is much more than just writing code or being a good technologist.
Position yourself close enough to the action, far enough to have peripheral vision
A good referee in the game of rugby is able to get close enough to the ball to see any infractions, but far enough to not get in the way of play (and the players) themselves. You can imagine how difficult that can be with the “open play” concept in rugby, making it very unpredictable. Experienced referees are good at anticipating what is going to happen next by getting into a good position quickly and efficiently.
Consulting requires you to produce an outcome by using the right technology (in the right way) while also taking the broader strategic initiatives into consideration. By knowing your craft well (the technical part) and learning about your customer’s environment and objectives (the non-technical part), you’ll be able to position yourself in-between and give sound advice. The ability to see the big picture and how it can be implemented from a practical perspective is an essential skill to have if you want to be a valuable asset to your customers.
The most important thing that sets experienced and inexperienced referees apart is game management. In rugby that translates to how many times you can avoid blowing your whistle by communicating effectively and ultimately preventing some infractions from happening. This is much easier said than done, especially when a bunch of seriously big guys are trying to kill each other. But if you get it right, the game will turn into the spectacle it is supposed to be and not a chaotic mess with bodies flying all over the place.
Although not as dramatic, the importance of communication in consulting (or even our everyday lives) is grossly underrated. And as it is with game management in rugby, I have to continuously work on this skill even though I’ve been at it for a while. Communicating early and effectively, setting expectations clearly and maintaining transparency throughout are in most cases the difference between successful and unsuccessful outcomes.
If you want to be a great consultant, become an excellent communicator.