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.
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.