Be the Consultant Your Clients Want to Mirror

Over the last several years buzz words like authenticity, compassion, courage, empathy, and kindness have all made their way into thought leadership blogs and articles. The premise is that leaders who demonstrate these characteristics are more likely to be successful and have better team and organizational outcomes. At the foundation of these ideas is the fact that none of us want to work for or with people who do not demonstrate these and other basic characteristics for effective human interaction. There is something that draws us to others who engage with us in the same way that we would want to ideally engage with others. This is one of the underlying components of Flawless Consulting. As an internal or external consultant, we have to engage with our clients in an authentic, courageous, wholehearted way. This, in turn, creates the environment for our clients to engage with us in that same way.

I love neuroscience, and when I saw that there was actually a scientific term for this, I was intrigued. It is called mirror neuron activation. Mirror neurons are cells in our brains that react to external stimuli that promote mirroring behavior or emotions. A familiar example of mirror neuron activation is when we smile at others, who in turn smile back at us.

Our behaviors and emotions are contagious.

As internal and external consultants, we set the tone for the interaction. It is our willingness to be authentic, speak to the truth, and hold ourselves and others accountable for executing promises that set the tone for what is expected in the consulting relationship. We cannot ask for what we ourselves are not willing to give. As consultants, we have to be mindful of what we bring to the consulting table for our clients to mirror. Are we bringing authenticity, courage, and trust—and thus mirroring these behaviors in our interactions with our clients? Or are we bringing our hidden agendas, self-interest, and airs of cleverness to the conversation?  As internal and external consultants, we set the tone for the interaction. It is our willingness to be authentic, speak to the truth, and hold ourselves and others accountable for executing promises that set the tone for what is expected in the consulting relationship. We cannot ask for what we ourselves are not willing to give. As consultants, we have to be mindful of what we bring to the consulting table for our clients to mirror. Are we bringing authenticity, courage, and trust—and thus mirroring these behaviors in our interactions with our clients? Or are we bringing our hidden agendas, self-interest, and airs of cleverness to the conversation?

Before your next engagement with a client, take a movement to check your mirror. Ask yourself the following questions to see what you might be mirroring:

  • How am I feeling about this meeting, this client, and this interaction?

  • What is my purpose for engaging with this client? Is it to be helpful, or to push my agenda?

  • What underlying thoughts or emotions might get in the way of us having a successful meeting?

  • What do I need to do in order to help me to build trust with my client and show up authentically?

  • What do I need to put aside or acknowledge mentally or emotionally in order to be fully present for this meeting?

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.



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.

How Does Flawless Consulting Apply To You and Your Organization?

When explaining Flawless Consulting to a friend outside of my regular consulting world, I like to highlight building authenticity and awareness in relationships. I want to highlight how Flawless Consulting and it’s structured framework lets work projects be approached differently and allows people to enter into projects more consciously. I appreciate these elements because they lead to a more effective project, with an opportunity for greater impact, by building the relationship along with technical expertise.

Yes, the Flawless Consulting® Workshop offers a consulting model for consultants to be better at what they do. But it is not only for consultants. It is for everyone. Why? Because everyone, regardless of their role, has the option of being more conscious of what work they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing it.

Many times in an organizational setting, we are assigned to a project. We may be the leader or an individual contributor. The project kicks off, members of the team share introductions, they briefly clarify roles and outcomes and then they dive in. The work begins and continues without a pause. Sooner or later, some varying degree of issues or group dynamics inevitably rises to the surface. These issues span from the level of leader engagement to the project approach, project tactics, team roles, or external organizational influences. The list could go on. You have been there, right?

The Phases of Flawless Consulting
Flawless Consulting Phases

The Goal of Flawless Consulting

The purpose of the Flawless Consulting Workshop is to slow down. It asks you at the beginning of a project to define the type of relationship you want. This helps you better navigate the work and discover more about why the work is being requested. Organizations constantly deal with competing priorities and an endless list of projects that urgently need to get done.

The Flawless Consulting Model helps project leaders think through the original ask to ensure that it is the right ask and the right approach.

This is where authentic dialogue and strong relationships come in handy. It is also what the workshop helps you practice. In the end, your client (your boss, manager, or peer) is thankful because they now have more information they need to proceed. This saves organizations time and money, which is never arguable. It also builds trust, one conversation at a time. This ultimately contributes to the type of culture that enables employees to thrive.

Flawless Consulting is for Everyone

On the surface, yes, this training might look and feel like something strictly for consultants. In fact, it really is for everyone! After learning and practicing the concepts, you will leave refreshed and ready to go back to your current organizational challenge with new ideas and ways of being.

When I tell friends about this training, they always seem intrigued. In some sense, I think everyone can relate. They like the idea of forming deeper relationships and doing more meaningful work. I’m grateful to help build this capability inside of organizations. I also look forward to continuing to share these core concepts from Peter Block. If you’d like to know more about how this training could help your particular organization, please reach out to us!

Consulting Complexities: Flawless Consulting Concepts Here to Help

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, but are there Flawless Consulting concepts that can help?

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.

Here are some Flawless Consulting concepts that can help you.

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

One of the most important Flawless Consulting concepts, or ways of thinking is this. 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.

Flawless Consulting Concepts is grow at your own pace. a man looks at two paths ahead
Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

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.

Fast Training is like Fast Food

How often have I been asked, “We can’t take 3 days away from work for a workshop, so can you cut it to two days?”

There’s a lot of pressure to “cut the time AND cover all the material AND include practical exercises to build their skills”. If it’s a three-day workshop, people want it in two. If you reduce it to two days, they want it in one!

Here are my favorite reasons as to “WHY we can’t do a three-day workshop…”

        5. “Our people can’t take 3 days away from work for training; they’re too busy.”
4. “Three days costs too much. We’re trying to contain expenses”
3 “Other people only take 2 days.”
2. “We know there is slack time in any workshop. The first day is usually slow.”

And my # 1 favorite reason, “Why we can’t do a three-day workshop”, is…

        1. “Our people are intelligent, experienced, fast-paced, multi-taskers who get bored easily.”

Let’s face it.  We’re all addicted to speed… we’re all too busy!

While there is some truth to all the reasons listed above, we can’t condense the time and still do everything.  The question is, “Do we want to teach content (short lectures with some Q & A) or equip learners (practice the skills)?

If we shorten times, something gets sacrificed.  Let’s think about what we lose and what it costs.  I see three things that we sacrifice when we shorten workshops.

The first and most impactful is practice. Flawless Consulting workshops emphasize practice, individual and team, in a safe environment. Practice lets people know quickly how they’re doing.  You have someone to coach you and offer suggestions.  You get to try various approaches to see how they work.  Without practice you are less likely to use the skills you’ve learned.  And practice usually gets cut when we want to shorten a workshop.

Next, we limit relationships.  Flawless Consulting workshops have people working in pairs, trios, and small teams  We want people to work together, to build teams and networks yet we give them few opportunities to actually meet and talk. In a one-day workshop, we just begin to recognize people and then it’s already time to go.

And last is contemplation time.  Flawless Consulting workshops build in “time to think, ” individually and collectively. As we think, questions emerge and possibilities occur.  We begin to learn.  Without contemplation, we tend to stay in our old mode of thinking and very little changes.

So, what’s the cost of reducing the time? The training may end up being superficial, lacking depth with little change occurring.  Without practice, people usually lack the patience and confidence to try something new.  The result?  The experience is seen as a feel-good or entertaining time with limited value. The money and time spent are wasted.

 I’d love to hear your stories. Drop me a note. Let me know how it’s going.

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.

It Takes Courage to be a Flawless Consultant

Flawless Consulting Skills offer a different approach to consulting conversations! When participants learn about some of those skills, they tell me that “You can’t do or say that in our culture; you can do that in your organization, but here, it’s just not acceptable.” I hear the same thing from people in Barcelona, Chicago, Dublin, Istanbul, Tokyo, or Vienna – all across the planet.

What is it that we can’t do because of their culture?

We would like to talk about our wants, raise tough issues, offer alternatives, or deal with resistance but the risk feels too great. We feel that neither certain individuals nor the culture is ready for a different conversation. Our desire is to have Clients that see us as valuable, competent, and relevant.

We worry that using some of the Flawless Consulting Skills may disrupt the organization. Our experiences bias our thinking. So, we keep it safe. We do what the Client wants us to do. We don’t raise tough issues. We say “Yes” when we want to say “No.” Better to keep things comfortable. We “live with it”, blaming the culture and hoping that things change in the future.

Yet, we created the culture we complain about through the conversations we have with each other. If we want a different culture, we need to change our thinking, and change our conversations!

What does it take to do that? Courage!

Courage is about owning the choices we make and owning the results of those choices. It means taking a risk to deepen a relationship. It means tough conversations about unspoken issues.

Courage–the foundation of Flawless Consulting–is being authentic. It is about talking in simple, direct words with compassionate, respectful tones. It means having tough conversations, listening to others’ concerns, and being slow to give advice. Courage is offering choice and freedom. It is a precious gift to give others.

So, what do you do to act with courage?

1. Ask yourself, “What’s keeping me from trying these skills?”

  • What are others doing that makes me cautious or concerned?

  • When they do that how do I respond, what do I do?

  • What response do I need to choose to change the conversation?

2. Practice! This will build your confidence.

  • Even if you think you already use the skill or think the skill is inappropriate, take advantage of the time to practice in a safe environment–especially during the workshop.

  • Have a colleague practice with you.

  • Video yourself using your cell phone.

3. Start with friendlies!

  • Talk to a couple of Clients that you have a good relationship with and tell them you want to start using the skills and ask for patience as you try them.

  • Until you’ve had some practice and built your confidence, avoid trying them on your toughest Clients

4. Start using the skills with everyone.

…And if you choose not to use the skills, own your choice. Don’t blame the culture or others!

I’d love to hear about your acts of courage. Drop me a note. Let me know how it’s going.

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!

Consulting Complexities: Performance Management… Let Me Do It for You

This post on how the lure to set up programs to manage performance improvement 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 experiencing the tensions between doing what is popular and providing genuine service to a client.

In a culture in which profitability and efficiency are the priority, accountability becomes everyone’s favorite word. We think that there is a relationship between holding ourselves and others more accountable and increasing performance. If we can just tighten our accountability grip, the organization would deliver more. This illusion creates a market for methodologies and consultant services that promise better gripping power.

There are consulting firms that guarantee concrete results in return for a fee. If you don’t see the results, you don’t pay the fee. This is the ultimate in performance consulting. How could a consultant make this kind of guarantee? Simple. Take over that segment of the business that you promise to improve. The consultant becomes a surrogate manager, and the line management clears the way and effectively steps aside. The people in the unit live under the power of the consultant, and generally the consultant delivers on the “performance improvement” by instituting closer controls and having fewer people doing more jobs.

This is not really consulting. It is something we might call “in-sourcing”: bringing into the organization, on a temporary basis, surrogate managers who are willing to take a difficult stand, reduce head count, confront people in a way that the permanent, resident management is unwilling to do.

Even if the job needed to be done, the use of consultants in this way undermines the legitimacy of the consultant role. Consulting is no longer educational, advisory, or capacity building. Line managers cast the consultant in the role of the Serpent in order to protect their own good image with their own people. When we go along with this, it may be good for our business, but hard on the service dimension of the profession.

There are milder forms of performance consulting, the main problems of which have more to do with taking measurements than with taking charge. There is a widespread belief that anything you cannot measure does not exist. And internal staff groups are under more and more pressure to be more business oriented and return-on-investment–minded than in the past. Hard to argue with in theory.

The risk is that staff groups will no longer be in the business of cultural change or confronting the culture with its own blindness. Performance consulting will drive staff groups to be more like the culture that surrounds them. This will reinforce services that treat only symptoms and seek acceptance at the cost of some greater impact than the consultant or staff group has the potential to make.

There is great pressure for this, especially in the human resource area. The HR function comes under siege because much of its value is hard to quantify. In periods when people concerns are in remission, the push to “rationalize” HR almost leads to its elimination. There has to be a way for qualitative services to demonstrate their value without sacrificing the power of their unique perspective.