In a recent Acumen (GIBS Business School’s magazine) there was a pretty scathing piece on consulting with the heading: Consultants or Insultants? The author’s basic premise is that aside from a limited number of tech projects, no self-respecting executive can ever justify the use of expensive consultants and that more often than not they only do so to have “backside coverers” and shift responsibility for tough decisions.
“… they are buying a formulaic outcome – what is dressed up as “best practice” is often a cut-and-paste job forced into a trademarked template with not much more than a change of logos on the PowerPoint slides from the previous client.”
Having worked for two of the “big 5” consulting houses, this rings very true … but also not. Most of the consultants I worked with were well-intentioned and really wanted to make a difference to their clients. What usually stood in the way of that were the sales/account managers who over-promised and utilisation-based business models. In consulting, nothing is worse than being “on the bench” … except maybe having consultants reporting to you there.
In my time as a consultant I was often sold to a client as an “expert” senior consultant on a project that required skills I knew nothing about, just to get me off the bench. “Fake it till you make it” is not the consulting mantra for nothing.
However … I still firmly believe that companies need an external perspective, and that consultants can add enormous value. I’ve often wished that I could find a different word to describe what I do, but haven’t found one yet (unfortunately “advisor” has now also been tainted). As an independent consultant, I get to choose who I engage with, and how I do it. If I have to summarise what I believe leads to success it is:
1. Focus on relationship: many of my biggest projects came from relationships built over years of regular coffee conversations with no overt agenda other than the relationship.
2. Be confident in the value you can add, but don’t be the “guru or expert” – I may know a lot about complexity, narrative, agility etc, but I don’t know the client’s context and I can certainly learn as much from them as they can from me.
3. Focus on partnering, co-creation and enablement – don’t try to build a dependency on you. Clients can see through that.
4. Don’t oversell and don’t pretend to know everything – “I don’t know” is a valid answer and being honest builds trust
5. Practice what you preach … e.g. if I say “meet the system where it is” then I need to “meet this system where it is”; I can’t change how others think, if I don’t model what that looks like myself.
6. Be generous – I don’t have a timer running every time a client calls for advice. It can never be “all about the money” … which takes us all the way back to number 1 … relationship.
I’d love to hear from other consultants what some of their principles or heuristics are. Feel free to leave a comment!