Don’t Be That Consultant

So let’s start with a disclaimer. I absolutely understand that you may not be—or consider yourself to be—an actual consultant. And that’s perfectly okay. You may in fact prefer it immeasurably.

And yet… In reality, we are all consultants. We advise. We support. We advocate. We build deliverables. We justify plans. We sell the plans we justify. It’s all in a days work.

The question that needs to be asked and explored, though, is how we show up when we do that. How we appear. How we present ourselves.How we are perceived. How we persuade. How we position. And how pleasant we are in the process.

And here’s the thing. We ALL have a choice in that. And what we choose speaks volumes, for better or for worse.

Over the last few months, I’ve had a ringside seat in a number of contexts to see how consultants (external, internal and quasi-nebulous) show up in interactions around some of the most strategically significant decisions they are responsible for implementing. The experience has been eye-opening. In part, sadly, because it has been so inconsistent. And in particular, because I’ve seen a few situations where people had an opportunity to shine, and they completely failed to take advantage of that.

We should all be eager to find situations where we can make a difference and have an impact. Recognizing those and having the presence of mind to take advantage of them, though, is a very different proposition. A recent example was a telling one. In my work with a client, I had the opportunity to watch another consultant (an actual real, live, paid one) at work. It was instructive, but not quite in the way one might hope for.

At the start, things went as one might expect. Expectations were discussed, scope was agreed to, work began. But it was in the doing that problems started to emerge. Deadlines got missed. Expectations weren’t managed. Communication was inconsistent. And as deliverables got produced, and started to be reviewed, things went from bad to worse.

It became strongly apparent that there was a vast difference between what the client expected of the engagement and what was actually bring produced. That led to numerous discussions about what was being delivered, what was missing and what needed to be done to address the issues—which was a pretty extensive list.

Early on, the consultant seemed to be making some effort to bridge the gap and deliver to the client’s expectation. Over time, though, the consultant got more and resistant to making more changes. They argued that requests that had been discussed many times were out of scope. They asserted that they weren’t responsible for aspects of the work, and that it was the client’s job to do. Some requests they seemingly ignored. And others they eventually came back and said they couldn’t actually do at all.

The problem with all of the above is that everything that was being asked for could in fact be done. There was nothing that was being asked for that was so significantly complex that it was technically impossible. There was work, yes. Unquestionably, the consultant underestimated the work to be done. Early choices they made as shortcuts came back to bite them. There were a couple of instances of “I wouldn’t start from here if that’s where you want to go,” but those again were consequences of previous, ill-considered choices. Addressing them would have involved back-tracking, re-work and more than a few mea culpas.

Arguably, this is why we plan. This is why understanding requirements is important before we get into the heavy lifting of designing and doing. And this is why checking in and validating expectations is important, and doing so on a regular basis can be helpful. Getting it right up front is how we avoid being very, very wrong later.

That’s not the object of this story, though. It’s part of it, certainly, but taking the time up front is the easy process stuff that we should already understand. The larger issue is how we show up and engage with our clients while we do the work. And how we should approach situations at the beginning, and during, and particularly when things go some—or a lot—sideways.

Because where this consultant in particular dug themselves a great big hole was in how they responded. They started at defensive (which is understandable and human, but not necessarily helpful). Then they got to resistant. And eventually they went all the way to hostile, with occasional forays into passive-aggressive. What started as a difficult but potentially recoverable situation became much, much worse.

And that’s the thing. Unrecoverable situations rarely become unrecoverable just because the work didn’t get done well, or process didn’t get adhered to. It can get there, of course, but it typically doesn’t start there. Recognizing an error, acknowledging the error, taking ownership for the error and figuring out how to make it right goes a long way to overcoming any initial barriers, roadblocks or performance failures.

Doing that well, ironically enough, best starts with a smile and a sincere acknowledgement. Recognizing that there is a gap in expectations, accepting that, and starting with something like, “Thanks for bringing that to our attention. We don’t like to miss things, and it seems like we’ve done that here. Let’s look at the problems and figure out what we need to do to address them. We want to make this right.” Pull off something like that with a smile—and make sure you’re actually sincere and well-meaning when you do it—and you will typically defuse the most tense situation, and will usually get even the most irate of clients to step back and be reasonable.

All of that starts with an innate desire to be helpful, and caring that the results actually make a difference. And I want you to read that sentence again, because there are two statements in it that are absolutely fundamental, hugely significant and often overlooked.

Let’s start with helpful. Seemingly benign concept, being helpful. I mean, let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to be helpful? On the face of it, no one. At least, it’s not something that is going to be argued or opposed explicitly. But let’s talk about actual behaviours; let’s talk about what helpful specifically looks like in real life.

At its core, helpful starts with “yes.” That doesn’t mean, “Yes, I’ll do whatever you want.” I’m describing helpful; I’m not describing doormat. But it does mean, “Yes, I’ll explore what it is you want, and make an informed assessment of what’s possible, what I can do and whether or not that contribution would be meaningful to you.” That’s a statement that starts a conversation. It’s open. It’s welcoming. There are qualifiers. Once explored, I might not be the one to help you. Or the best one to help you. But I’m completely and absolutely willing to have the conversation first, and sort the rest out afterwards.

And yet, what I very often hear described—and see—in organizations is the opposite of helpful. I see people—and organizations—lead with “no.” The conversation starts with not being able to do that, and then needing to get argued and pushed into grudgingly being willing to take a look. Or—worse—the conversation starts first with, “You’ll have to fill out this form first.” These are strategies not to help, but to delay, discourage and deflect. They are designed—sometimes intentionally—with making it harder to ask for help.

The helpful I’m striving for in the context of being a consultant is about finding a solution that works. And in particular, the measure of success is finding a solution that works for our clients. That might take more work; in fact, it often will. And that’s not just okay, that can be a very good thing. Because what we’re trying to do is find ways to make it easy for our clients to do what they want to do. If we can make it easy, they get more value. And the more that we make doing that look easy for them, the more and more valuable in their eyes that we become.

Which goes to the heart of the second part of the sentence that I had you read (because I didn’t forget about that part). It said, “Caring that the results we deliver actually make a difference.” That’s not a difference to us. That’s a difference to our clients. Which means success, regardless of what that might be, gets judged on their terms. If it doesn’t work for them, then it doesn’t work.

That’s a hard thing to take on, whether as a consultant, as a project manager or as a person trying to get something done. It makes things very subjective, because it deliberately and explicitly frames success as being in the eyes of our clients. But it always is, and it always will be.

Where people get discouraged by that concept is that they feel it means that they have to try, and try, and try again. And that they have to keep on trying until they somehow, magically, get it right. Which starts to feel less like a consultant, and more like a trained poodle being prompted to jump through a never-ending set of hoops. Discouragement seems inevitable, and failure virtually guaranteed.

That is very probably, in fact, what was going through the consultant’s head in the scenario that I described above. They likely had the mindset of “We’ve already given you what we think you asked for. You’re not happy. So what, now we have to try again? And again? And again?”

My problem with that mindset is two-fold. For starters, success isn’t about jumping blindly through hoops and hoping for the best. What success does depend on is having a clear sense of who your client is, and how they work, and what an actual better solution for them will look like. It’s about practical empathy, being able to put yourself in their shoes, understanding what they need to do, and being able to envision something that would be meaningfully better for them. Not perfect, but meaningfully better.

My second problem is that it isn’t about what the consultant thinks the client asked for. It’s about responding to what they actually asked for. And it’s about being able to help guide them through a conversation in which they might not even know what they can ask, or whether what they want is possible. It means getting in their head, understanding their reality, and exploring what a better reality for them might actually be.

Success is subjective. Success does depend. And what success most depends on is the perspective of the people that use the solutions that we deliver. Which means most importantly understanding, being able to define and then being able to produce what will make a meaningful difference for them. It also means accepting that what works for one client is going to be different for the next one. Success isn’t about finding a magic cookie cutter, and stamping out the same solution over and over again.

There is absolutely a scenario where the consultant we started with could have rescued a problem project, and made themselves invaluable in the eyes of the client they were working with. And it would have started with, “It’s been fantastic that you’ve been as honest as you have been with your frustrations. Let’s work through them, and figure out what solving them looks like.” It would have started with an attitude of being helpful, and genuinely wanting to listen. It would have started with, “Yes.”

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