What does it take to be a tree consultant? In one sense, it depends on the role and the interaction that the individual has with the public. I am recognising that there are many arborists in roles where they are proving a consultancy and advisory role perhaps unware of this. Inspecting trees and providing recommendations for action, or none, is the fundamental basis of consultancy. We can then develop our technical knowledge and understanding through training and academia to enhance our skills.
However, I am beginning to appreciate another skill which is integral to being an effective and engaging consultant. It is a skill which cannot necessarily be obtained in the classroom, but can unlock much. This is the skill of mind set. If I wish to develop my skills and understanding, I will inevitably encounter new situations and scenarios where the solution takes me out of my comfort zone to explore fresh territory. Knowing how and when to apply technical knowledge and having the confidence to do this is key.
Dave Dowson, an arborist who has guided many in developing technical skills over the past two decades, challenges students to regard themselves as ‘the expert’, whether working as a freelance consultant, in local authority or formally commissioned as an expert witness. He encourages his students to attend examinations in formal work attire and to regard questions posed in an assessment as though they were from a client and not part of academia. This challenged me to have greater confidence in my ability. When I studied with him some years ago, he would remind me that I have the technical knowledge, it is how I apply it which is key.
I am one of the generation which was encouraged to pursue higher education back in the 1990s. I duly signed up for a new degree validated by Coventry University. I was trained in academia and the skills of passing examinations through the absorption of knowledge. Its’ practical application was another matter. It is all well and good to pursue such qualifications but one can leave the conveyor belt with first class qualifications yet have limited appreciation of their application. It is the development of practical skills and the ability to solve challenges which one may face which I am recognising equip the consultant. It is how one reacts to the unexpected that can define one’s skills.
In the absence of qualifications, it can be difficult for an arborist to demonstrate their technical knowledge. However, there is also the confidence to present oneself as the authority. I recognise this when I spend time with arborists who have the technical knowledge yet look to me for the consultant’s perspective not appreciating that they have the tools at their disposal. It is difficult to teach this skill. However, technical knowledge in and of itself is not sufficient. Some of those with the greatest technical knowledge are ill-equipped to pursue consultancy work beyond providing advise in response to questions.
There are those who are more comfortable working under the supervision and support of a senior colleague, even when they have the same, or greater, credentials. The ability to make considered recommendations and stand by them (unless the situation changes) and to be willing to explore new territory seem to me to be fundamental skills for a consultant. Also to be able to convey sometimes complex matters in an easier to understand manner, and to guide the client through the journey, and to be both comfortable in this role and recognised as such by one’s colleagues. Picture the scene: an officer receives a phone call from someone wanting to know why their tree is not being ‘topped’. The conversation included reference to bifurcation, the degradation of timber strength through fungal activity and the four CODIT walls. The person at the other end of the phone only called to ask why their tree wasn’t being pruned!
Feedback from clients is one of the truest ways to guide one on the quality of service, especially when the client concerned does not give compliments lightly. If they are not happy, changes may be needed. However, an endorsement from a client not given to compliments suggests we are doing a good job.
I was engaged as an expert witness in a case several years ago. My time in the witness box was one I’ll never forget and I felt stretched as I responded to a broad range of questions. How did I do? I wondered, reflecting later. It was only after the case had concluded and I received feedback that I appreciated the success with which I had negotiated the minefield of challenges I had faced.
To be an effective consultant operating at the more senior level of say the AA Registered Consultant, one needs to not only have knowledge but to be able to apply it with confidence and to enjoy such a scenario. This is not for everyone, but I, for one, enjoy guiding my clients on the journey and looking back with satisfaction of a job well done.
Have I ‘arrived’? I see plenty of road ahead. I continue to relish the technical challenges that I face, and I welcome the opportunity to sit at the feet of those who have walked this path before. To this end, I shall be attending the two day ‘Management’ course that the Arboricultural Association runs each year for those seeking to develop the skills of consultancy. It sounds a very full two days, and apparently, we are unlikely to see a single tree for the duration. I look forward to reviewing it and assessing how I have developed.