Ruminations on Influence

The heart of consulting, as Peter Block has so succinctly put it, is “influencing without direct authority.” That holds for those of us who work as external consultants as well as anyone in a staff role working internally. Therefore, it seems worth thinking about the source and process of influence.

Since I hold a master’s degree in “science” (yes, the standard deviations in our science are large), let me try a simple formulation:

Influence ƒ Expertise x Relationships

What I like about this formulation is that, if either value is low, our influence is low. And if either is “zero”—our influence is nil as well.

Let’s take a brief look at both. Generally, we get hired for our expertise either as internal or external consultants. There seem to be two corollaries around expertise:

  • I have to continually work to continue to develop my expertise. Just think about how emerging technologies like augmented reality and artificial intelligence will impact the field of OD.

  • I have to be able to explain how my expertise benefits the client I am working with. Those of us in OD love our models and theories. The client wants to know how our theories, applied to her organization, will help her run a better organization. In my view, “help” represents lower cost, more revenue, or improved customer service. We’ll have more impact when we talk in those terms.

  • Our expertise is one thing if measured by the standards of our training and discipline. It’s something else when the client perceives it as a business building asset.

Relationships most frequently represent the greatest opportunity for us to improve our influence. Consider some of the following aspects of self-management that affect the quality of relationships.

  • Can I talk to the client in terms of what’s important to her? Or have I fallen in love with my theories and models?

  • What is my attitude toward authority? Am I working out unresolved issues from the past? (As a confession, there was a point in my career where I made the boss “wrong” simply because he was the boss. Obviously, that got in my way.)

  • Can I accept the fact that, no matter how damaging the client’s behavior might be, he’s doing the best job he knows how? Or do I sit in judgment?

  • Am I willing to be open and direct with the client? Or do I get “strategic” and cautious with what I say?

A tool I learned several years ago that helps me in regard to the questions above is Chris Argyris’ notion of the “left-hand column.”[1] When a conversation doesn’t go well, the tool can be used to diagnose why. Here’s how it works. If you’re reflecting on a meeting or conversation that did not go as you wanted, take a sheet of paper and divide it into two columns. In the right hand column, write down what was said, trying to keep all the quotes verbatim without judgment or interpretation. In the left-hand column, write down what you were thinking but did not say. More often than not, those unsaid thoughts transfer into the actual conversation.

For me, the most difficult issues in managing a relationship has been at times managing myself, and moving from judgment to compassion and from wanting to look smart to wanting to serve. These are still tendencies. I’m still a work in process.



[1] I learned this concept while working in a training and development capacity at ATT from a consulting partner, Innovation Associates. Their work focused on Peter Senge’s writing in The Fifth Discipline, which in turn was strongly influenced by Argyris, who was then teaching at Harvard Business School.

Consulting Complexities: Some Thoughts on What to Do

The promise of consulting is a commitment to care and to serve. We promise to act in the interest of another, the client. This series of blog posts explored some of the complexities consultants face that interfere with our capacity to serve, even in the face of our best intentions. In this post, we begin to wind up with some thoughts on what to do.

We enter our profession because consulting is the work we want to do. As we succeed, whether as internal or external consultants, the pressure to get ahead pushes our attention from how to deliver quality service to how to build a successful practice. The tension between the two is inevitable. It is a paradox that has no simple answer.

Consulting also carries with it the possibility that customers will project qualities on you that you do not possess. In a sense, the client looks for hope where little exists. Seeking a consultant has an element of seeking a super-someone, be it man or woman. So there is a willingness from the client to demand and expect more than we may be able to offer.

In the face of these complexities, and all those explored earlier, there are some steps, or at least ways of thinking, that will at a minimum raise our consciousness about our contribution to the cynicism and doubt that infect the consulting industry. At best, we may find a way of working where the longing that brought us into the work can be realized.

Say No As Often As You Say Yes

Consultants should make their own decisions on which projects to accept. We should say no to projects as often as we say yes. There are many reasons to back away from business. Clients often want us to treat a symptom. They think training or restructuring will solve their problem, when it will only postpone resolution. Say no when the chemistry between you and the client is not good. Be careful when the client has expectations of you that you cannot fulfill. Say no to a five-dollar solution for a fifty-dollar problem.

Stay True to Your Worth

Stop measuring the success of your internal staff consulting work by the size of your staff, the volume of work you can generate, or the approval rating of top management. If you are an external consultant, don’t judge your practice by the sales volume of your business, return on equity, or margins. Setting high growth targets for your business will force you and others to take marginal business. It will push new services into the marketplace before they are fully developed. Your ambition will also be sensed by the client, and although they might say yes today, they will feel used over time.

Start measuring your work by the optimism and self-sufficiency you leave behind.

Consulting is fundamentally an educational and capacity-building function. You need to be economically self-sufficient, true, but that is not the point. You are successful when the clients feel more accountable for their own system, more able to learn by themselves in the future, more confident and powerful in creating an organization they believe in. These are qualitative measures, but they are knowable if we pay attention.

Grow on Your Own Terms

Accept the fact that the work you have chosen will most likely and appropriately remain a boutique business. Professional practice is the point, not the size of the practice. For external consultants, decide how much money you need to live on and how many days you are willing to work, peg your rates to that equation, and avoid conversations with other consultants in which they will ask how busy and successful you are.

If there is more demand for your services than you can handle, give the business away. Build a network of people who do what you do and whom you respect, and send the business to them. Don’t take a finder’s fee, or talk about mergers and partnerships that are driven by economic opportunity. If this seems bizarre and counter-cultural to you, it means you are on the right track.

Telling It Like It Is

Many years ago, I was introduced to what is now one of my favorite books, Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute. I was intrigued by the title and mostly curious about the term self-deception. What is it—and do I have it?

In simplest terms, self-deception means that we do not see ourselves and the people around us as they really are. The authors of the book explain: “It blinds us to the true cause of problems, and once blind, all the ‘solutions’ we can think of will actually make matters worse.” As a Flawless consultant, it’s a truth I’ve seen played out all too often.

Critical to the success of our consulting relationships is the ability to “tell it like it is,” and that often means sharing with a client how they have contributed to the problem they’ve hired us to solve. Often, we are asking them to take responsibility for something they have been unwilling or unable to confront.

So, how do we as Flawless consultants challenge our clients to see themselves, the people around them, and the problem as it really is?

It’s called feedback—and through our experiences, we’ve learned there are specific criteria which must be followed if you want the feedback to be heard, accepted, actionable, and most of all . . . matter.

Flawless consultants use specific, descriptive, clear, and simple language. They are non-judgmental but deliver the feedback assertively. We actively encourage reactions to the feedback to surface doubts and reservations so that we can support and address any concerns the client may have with moving forward. We also identify the client’s contribution to the problem that is within their control, and inspire the will to act by showing the impact on the business, others, and the client themselves.

Often, the anxiety we feel in giving difficult feedback is our own, not the client’s. Saying it can be much harder than listening to it. However, our goal as Flawless consultants is always to get the client to act on the underlying issues. Doing so will require us at times to indeed “tell it like is” so that our clients can see a clear picture, free of self-deception, so that the problem can ultimately be solved.

Consulting Complexities: Promising Magic

This post on how giving our clients what’s popular instead of what works ultimately undermines consulting effectiveness continues our series that looks at what interferes with our capacity to serve, even in the face of our best intentions. It speaks to both internal and external consultants––and to their clients––about the tensions between doing what is fashionable and providing genuine service.

Remember reengineering? It is a good example of an idea that became the rage and consultants that made promises to the point they were unsustainable. After a good run, the work fell of its own weight. We might say that the clients did not adequately implement what the consultants recommended, but that argument is too one-sided.

The idea that organizations should be structured according to a customer-driven work process rather than by discipline-driven vertical silos makes sense. It is a way to break up the bureaucracies that made organizations unable to give customers a unique, quick, anytime-anywhere response. As the methodology became more and more popular, it reached a point where whatever change we had in mind was called reengineering. Every department thought it was reengineering itself. I even heard individuals say they were in the process of reengineering themselves. The energy was more about becoming part of a movement than about becoming better. Reengineering became synonymous with restructuring and was sold by the large accounting and consulting firms with promises of a 30 to 50 percent return on the investment.

The bloom was soon off the rose. A large fashion company spent $600 million in consulting fees alone to restructure itself and bring up-to-date information technology to its business. After years of investment, a leader of this company acknowledged publicly that the effort had not been successful and eventually 2,500 employees were reassigned, retired, or laid off to help, in effect, finance the venture.

The dark side of reengineering threatened our whole profession because the promises made to sell the work either were never fulfilled or could finally be achieved only by eliminating jobs on a wide scale. In fact, many of the clients of reengineering projects soon began undoing their efforts because they found the concept unworkable. Some even sued to get their money back.

Reengineering is a good example of two complexities consultants still face: how we take advantage of what is in vogue and how we pursue covert purposes. When an idea is fashionable it becomes, almost by definition, a cosmetic solution. When consultants offer a service primarily because clients want it, we have chosen commerce over care. If we were strictly a business you would say, “What’s the problem? Customer is always right. We only gave them what they asked for.” Being also a service function, though, means that something more is due to the client.

Clients have a right to expect the consultant to decide whether what the client is willing to buy will deliver what the client really needs. If the client manager asks for a service that will not help, or may even be harmful, then when does the consultant say no and turn away the work? It is a tough thing to do, especially for internal consultants.

The other complexity that doing what is in vogue brings to mind is that consulting risks becoming a form of double-dealing––for example, when force reductions are packaged as organization improvement. In the case of reengineering, who could argue with restructuring for the sake of the customer? Organizations went through a long process of interviews, redesign teams, and extensive selling and training for the new system, when the real net result of the effort was the elimination of jobs with little real change in culture or function.

When I reflect on the complexities consultants face, the most surprising one is the willingness of line managers to follow the fashions and buy what is popular.

Whether it’s core competence, embracing mistakes, Six Sigma or whatever, many of the largest consulting efforts never deliver on their promise. Once the fashion parade begins, though, there is no stopping it, and we consultants participate and profit from it.

Consultants make a living by giving legitimacy to a manager’s efforts to sell an idea internally. Or to play the bad cop in pushing unpopular decisions, rationalizing cutbacks, implementing get-tough, back-to-basics strategies. It is the timidity of our captains of industry that drives these uses of consultants, but we need to own the nature of our participation.

The Crucial Contract

One of the most important lessons I have learned in my years as a consultant is that a project’s outcome, success, or failure is highly connected to the contract set up with the client. Everything comes back to the contracting phase. Were you crystal clear on the scope? Did you agree to openly share feedback with your client? Did you ask for what you need to be successful? Do you feel like this is the right client to be working with?

One of the things we teach in Flawless Consulting is how to effectively contract with your client. The outcome of this preliminary phase is to generate an agreement about what the work is, how the work will be executed, and what underlying client relationship is needed. When this is done well, the end result feels really good. As a consultant, you feel seen, validated and set up for success.

What separates a good contracting conversation from a Flawless contracting conversation?

Whereas a good contracting conversation hits all the bullets on your agenda, a Flawless contracting conversation is characterized by depth and authenticity. It connects the players a personal level. It confirms the initial organizational issue. It allows both parties to vulnerably ask for what they want. It creates a level playing field where the consultant and the client can lean into each other for support. Sounds pretty legitimate, right?

Many times I have walked away from a contracting conversation and have felt good. It was easy. I hit everything on my agenda and the client was amiable. After reflecting, I start to think that maybe it was too easy. Did I really dig deep with the client to better understand her level of commitment? Did I address any noticeable resistance? Perhaps I contracted for giving the client feedback, but did I inquire into how that feedback should be delivered? An effective contracting conversation is thorough, relational, professional and at times edgy. Lean into the edge but maintain professional credibility.

I challenge you to go there and to model the type of relationship you want to have from the very beginning. Don’t sell yourself short during this seemingly easy, but critical step of the process. Be the bold consultant that you know you are. Get on your client’s level. This allows you to be a true strategic partner in the effort and it sets you up for success. Remember, contracting is crucial!

The No-Judgment Zone

Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher, speaker, and writer said, “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” It’s an ability we talk about often in Flawless Consulting when learning how to deal with resistance in our client relationships.

Observation is the action or process of observing something or someone carefully in order to gain information. It is a statement based on something one has seen, heard, or noticed. Evaluation is altogether different. It is the making of a judgment about the amount, number, or value of something—an assessment. The time between observation and evaluation is seconds but the impact can be monumental.

At any point in our consulting process with a client, resistance is likely to happen. Dealing with such resistance may not be easy, but we’ve learned it can be simple. The key is leveraging the difference between observation and evaluation.

First, let’s talk about what resistance may look like in a client.

Some examples may include silence, interrupting, changing the topic, asking excessive questions, checking the time, stone-walling, arriving late, leaving early or even proclaiming, “We’ve always done it this way.” When hit with these various forms of resistance, it can be very easy to jump immediately into our own evaluation of what we believe their resistance must really mean. Flawless Consultants learn to come to a full-stop of our innate jump to judgment.

We do this by understanding what is behind the resistance and seek to get to the heart of what’s really going on.

Resistance in clients is often a sneak peek into their own harsh realities of the challenge they are trying to overcome.

There may be a real fear of being vulnerable to the consulting process, making a commitment, or even the fear of losing control. Resistance then is an open door to discovering critical aspects of what could be an underlying problem that should be addressed sooner rather than later. There may be a real fear of being vulnerable to the consulting process, making a commitment, or even the fear of losing control. Resistance then is an open door to discovering critical aspects of what could be an underlying problem that should be addressed sooner rather than later.

We use five skills to help navigate these murky waters.

1. Give two good-faith responses. In other words, give a “resisting” behavior a pass for the first two times. If you see your client take a quick look at their watch, don’t automatically read too much into it. If the behavior doesn’t continue, it wasn’t signaling resistance.

2. If the behavior does continue after at least two good-faith responses, name the behavior simply and directly. Here is where the difference between observation and evaluation becomes critical. Simply state the observed behavior and come to a full stop before moving to evaluation.

For instance, a client continues to look at their watch. A Flawless Consultant would say, “You keep looking at the clock.” If you say, “You look distracted,” you’ve moved pass observation, into evaluation and well into judgment which can quickly derail a conversation and make navigating the resistance even more difficult.

3. Once you’ve named the behavior, be quiet. Let the tension rise and allow the client to explain what the behavior means.

4. Give support to the underlying concerns by listening curiously, asking questions and seeking to understand.

5. Return to the business of the meeting or something new, depending on the underlying concerns. Let it go and move on.

Ultimately, resistance gets in the way of dealing with issues that affect the work. If we, as consultants, don’t manage the resistance, we may never really get to the deeper issues. We can help clients be more direct by showing them what they are doing by being clear and direct about our observations. It’s with this “look in the mirror” that we hope clients will say “why” they are doing it. No evaluation. No judgment. After all, it’s their “why” to tell.

Beverly Crowell is an experienced facilitator, speaker, thought leader, and author specializing in the areas of business operations, organization, employee and human resources development.