Consulting Fears

A recent Masters degree graduate in Organizational Development confides the following: “I’m preparing for my first encounter with a new client. I’m nervous. Even though I have my notes laid out with questions and talking points, I feel like I’m going to come across as inexperienced or inept.” She wonders what she can do to calm down.

Here’s the thing about issues like this:  While we could offer loads of advice, the problem is that heeding it while in an agitated state of mind is difficult.

I could start by saying the way to control your jitters is to prepare. To rehearse your lines. To guess at what your client will have to say. But I’m not going to. Because these are elementary. They’re givens. And it sounds like our young consultant is actively doing them.

I could say your client doesn’t want to see a nervous consultant. If you come across as shaky and unsure, your client will doubt and distrust  your abilities. So don’t let him see you sweat. That kind of advice is a lot like saying “inhale but don’t exhale.”

Instead, I’d urge this young consultant to keep in mind that anticipation is so much more unnerving than reality. The horrors and crucibles you imagine while you brace for a critical client meeting prove neither as numerous nor as acute as you prefigured.

Unfortunately, pointing this out is not terribly comforting when you’re anxiety-ridden. And therein lies the problem. All the logic in the world won’t pacify a person’s reflexive angst. In fact the only thing that will is the expected catastrophe that never arrives!

When what you dread fails to materialize, it’s a retrospective ah-hah. Over time, you learn from this kind of discovery. In fact, experienced professionals who reflect back on their early irrational apprehensions admit they feel silly for having been so weak-kneed in the first place!

There’s also this… not a happy thought but a realistic one: Sometimes discovering that your dread about an upcoming meeting was unwarranted may not subdue your next bout with the next new client. This is because dread is learning disabled. It can be contained, but it’s slow as hell to learn.

Sort of makes you sympathetic to the timorous tremblers in life, doesn’t it? Makes you realize that guys like Caesar and Coolidge were on to something:

Julius Caesar said, “As a rule, what is out of sight disturbs men’s minds more seriously than what they see.”

And Calvin Coolidge once said, “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”

Finally, try to remember this: Anticipatory nervousness speaks volumes about your high expectations, sense of responsibility, and resolve to perform admirably. Believe it or not, it actually increases your chances of conducting yourself with skill and aplomb. In an odd way, our Master’s graduate should be welcoming her butterflies.

 

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“Personal” Client Relationships

A colleague has just asked me some questions about this sentence in my last blog: But what’s also valuable to a client about employing an external consultant is that the relationship is uncomplicated.

Her questions had to do with keeping client relationships uncomplicated when they’ve gone on for 10, 15, even 20 years: “Some level of personal relationship is inevitable in these circumstances, isn’t it? Sooner or later, the boundary gets crossed? Is it best to not let consultant/client associations get personal for this reason?”

I think the questions reflect a misunderstanding of the boundary.

The fence-line in a consultant/client relationship is there to preserve the consultant’s impartiality and unflinching candor, and to assure that a dissolution will be simple and clean if it becomes necessary. Now why assume a personal connection will damage the fence? When the parties to a consulting engagement  also enjoy each other’s company, their ties will be more robust, but that doesn’t have to complicate the consultant/client covenant.

I, for one, would never discourage clear-headed, mutually respectful people doing business together from broadening their relationships – so long as they don’t think they’re forging some kind of soul-mate friendship that can transcend their work context. If they understand this inescapable (and desirable) constraint, there’s a significant benefit to giving their interactions more range and depth.

When a work relationship evolves in a personal direction, it can be a great help to the consultant’s work. In personal moments, you can learn so much about a client’s professional motivations, vulnerabilities, and aspirations. And the client’s faith in your expertise and motives can deepen. How much more intelligent and surgical the consultation can be as a result.

Consultants and clients are bound to develop personal attachments over time. No harm, no foul so long as they understand the work context – so long as they can honor the fence-line.

About now you might be asking:  Yeah, but can the ideals of objectivity, forthrightness, and simplicity really be honored when a consultant and client share a bottle of fine wine, golf and fish together, reveal intimate secrets, and develop a genuine fondness over the years?

From decades of personal experience, I’d say, absolutely. If that fondness is genuine, both parties will make damn sure nothing goes on between them to contaminate their arm’s-length professional roles. And if they can’t – if their association ceases to be disciplined by their professional obligations to each other – then the principled thing would be to dissolve the business relationship.

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The Consultant’s Severability

Let me further explain the point I made in the last post about a consultant’s “severability” – why it’s so crucial to effective consulting.

A consulting relationship is not based on its value to the client alone. It’s based just as much on its arm’s-length simplicity. Put another way, it’s based on the unspoken “easy come, easy go” rule. That may not seem intuitive to you, so let me elaborate.

First and foremost, when a client engages a consulting firm or an individual consultant, it’s to purchase expertise. The consultant offers in depth knowledge of a technical subject, or peddles some sort of organizational improvement package, or sells valuable marketplace contacts and connections, or brings needed capacities or skills that the client doesn’t have in house. Pretty obvious so far.

But what’s also valuable to a client about employing an external consultant is that the relationship is uncomplicated. It’s much easier to initiate and terminate than relationships with corporate partners, full-time employees, regulatory overseers, large customers, and so forth. In other words, from the client’s perspective, an association with a consultant is disposable – by design. It can end as soon as the goods are delivered. It can end if the goods aren’t delivered to the client’s satisfaction. And it can end for pretty much any other reason too.

It’s natural to think consultant/client relationships are sustained by the consultant’s value alone. In fact in some cases, the value is so great that the client becomes dependent, even indebted to the consultant – as if that all-important fence-line has been breached. You’d think this type of relationship is immune from dissolution.

But it’s a fiction. Even in such intertwined relationships, if ever the client becomes inclined to walk away, the client can walk away… with ease. So even the consultant who appears to have a “permanent” affiliation with an organization can be consigned to oblivion in a moment. And that’s exactly what the client finds attractive about the affiliation.

When a consultant understands that he is and must remain an outsider, he offers both expertise and severability. And he’s that much more valuable for it.

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Consulting in the Invisible Spotlight: Q&A Follow-up

Question: Your answer in the last post raises another question.What happens when you consult to an organization for a long time? Eventually, you become more integrated into the workplace, right? Sort of like moving from outside looking in, to being part of the inside looking out?

Answer: Let’s put it this way: If ever we become “part of the inside looking out,” we’ve made some really egregious and irresponsible mistakes in the consulting relationship!

Our professional value has always been and will always be that we’re “apart”… not “a part.” This is a distinction we can’t stress enough. The invisible fence-line between client and consultant is so crucial to maintain, and it’s our most basic obligation to maintain it.

It’s true, over the course of longer term client relationships, we become less remote, less peripheral. We become intimate outsiders. That’s inevitable. Our credibility and trustworthiness naturally deepen as we gain more knowledge  of the organization, work with more people, and help solve a wider array of problems.

But no matter how familiar we become with our clients’ people and business, we have to remain outsiders. The boundary can never be breached. The consultant/client relationship depends in the most fundamental way on “outsiderness.” Why?

1. Objectivity. To be an outsider is to have no dog in the fight. This is critical to preserving our impartiality, integrity, and worth to the client.

2. Liberty. Outsiderness grants the liberty to speak truth to power. This freedom is lost entirely the moment we’re enveloped in the web of internal pressures and politics.

3. Severability. An outsider can be retained and dismissed without complication. Believe it or not, this is central to the consulting relationship. It must be easy for the client to retain our services and easy for the client to terminate those services. By keeping the boundary impregnable, we achieve this convenience for our clients.

The moment our outsiderness is adulterated – the moment we become “a part” instead of “apart” – these three relationship attributes are sacrificed. And that’s the kiss of death in this line of work.

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Consulting in the Invisible Spotlight: Q&A

Question: As I read this blog, I find myself thinking about the consulting you do as much as the management problems you describe. I wondered if there was a time you can recall where your initial diagnosis about what made an organization perform well or get stuck in the mud turned out to be just plain wrong?

Answer: What a fascinating and unexpected question! Well, my answer may seem evasive, but I think it’s the truth:

It’s rarely our charge (or our preference) to make “declarations” about what makes an organization perform or not. While we’re occasionally asked to make “organizational assessments,” far more often we’re asked to:

  1. Help individual managers work through their challenges of the day by seeing their obligations and options more clearly;
  2. Mediate individual and departmental relationships that have gone awry because of things like territoriality, misunderstanding, incompatible habits and routines, or truant leadership;
  3. Facilitate difficult discussions among parties with divergent interests who must make a decision, solve a problem, or plan a strategy together.

In situations when we do make more formal, organization-wide “diagnoses,” the nature of the data we collect and the way we collect it are almost safeguards against being wrong. Here’s what I mean:

Certainly we bring our own organizational ideologies and values to these assessments, but our findings aren’t dominated by them. They’re dominated by the combined impressions and observations of the very people we collect the data from! And we always visit every corner and layer of the organization to get a wide-angled picture. So in this sense, it’s hard to be “just plain wrong.” That would mean we fundamentally misheard what many people had said to us.

In our line of work, doing a good or bad job is less about being right or wrong and more about being adept or inept, insightful or unobservant. On a good day, we artfully help an individual or group break through their impediments. On a bad one, we fail to grasp those impediments or the people contending with them, and as a result, we leave the situation no less entangled than it was when we began the consultation.

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Take a Quiz about The Invisible Spotlight!

The senior executives of an organization I’ve consulted with for many years convene every two years to update their corporate strategic plan. Unlike so many strategic plans – which are cobbled together just to comply with fashion or some requirement and then are promptly shelved – this organization actually uses strategic priorities to discipline its decisions about portfolio management, customer service, and corporate branding.

The executive group meets for an intense, two-day retreat. Nothing is left under the table. The group discusses corporate philosophy; financial performance; customer demographics; the economic, political, and regulatory landscape; internal organizational structure; day-to-day business practices; even conflicts and confusions among the executives themselves. It is always a remarkably forthright dialog and debate. And invariably it results in entirely fresh ideas and initiatives when they’re needed or a spirited recommitment to the company’s existing trajectory when it seems prudent and smart.

The unvarnished give-and-take is made possible by the number of people in the room. There are eight executives and myself as the facilitator. But what’s unusual is that individual executives have come and gone over the years, yet the retreat “ethos” doesn’t change. The tradition of constructive candor holds sway over the individuals who participate, no matter who they are or where they’ve come from.

This year, for the first time in a decade, the organization has a new Chief Executive Officer. In fact, he joined the company just one month before the scheduled retreat. One of his first acts was to declare that the retreat be attended, not only by his direct reports, but by their direct reports. Suddenly the number of participants went from eight to 26!

I’ve just returned from the meeting. I saw first-hand the impact of this change on the conversation. I also heard what an entire staff was whispering about their new leader and his first big decision. Now if you’ve read The Invisible Spotlight, and if you’ve been following this blog, you should be able to take some educated guesses yourselves about what I heard and saw.

Why don’t you give it a try? Drop us a line. Take some guesses. How do you think this expanded management team reacted? How did this retreat compare to prior ones? We’ll gather your thoughts, post them here, and compare them to what actually went down.

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The Invisible Spotlight: An Appreciation

We’ve received an overwhelming number of comments since beginning this blog. They’ve come from all over the world! Needless to say, we’re both flattered and encouraged by your response.

You’ve asked thoughtful, challenging questions about the management role; you’ve offered kind words about our ideas and writing style; you’ve reported on how our thoughts have been helpful to you in your work; you’ve even complimented us on the design of our website. We especially appreciate those of you who’ve invited us to purchase auto insurance, home mortgages, and sex-enhancing medications. Exactly how these products and services are related to the task of managing people, we’re never quite sure. But they do make us laugh.

We thank you for your interest, your loyalty, your intelligent reflections on managing, and your concern for our performance in the bedroom. We will continue to blog and look for you to tell us what would be most useful to write about. Be back soon….

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The Invisible Spotlight: Finding the Time

Over the years, we’ve worked with a number of managers who insist they have no time for thinking about how they manage people. They’re too busy putting out fires and responding to time and performance pressures.  They’re fond of saying, “The only people who step back and contemplate are academics and consultants.”

The thing is, the most respected managers step back and contemplate too. Even in the crises. They believe a conscious, purposeful approach to managing their relationships is an integral part of their job, not a distraction. These managers control their impact so their employees’ contributions aren’t undermined by mindless, ineffective management!

Now exceptional managers aren’t constantly self-observant. They don’t reflect instead of producing. They don’t flout their time and performance pressures just to contemplate their navels. But they are ever-aware of the power of their position; they’re aware of the close watch their employees keep on them. Especially when the fires are blazing.

It’s also true that a real manager’s world inflicts periods of intense effort. These can leave precious little time for self-observation and self-improvement. Sometimes these periods are sustained. Sometimes weeks, months, even longer. But the turbulence always subsides. No manager is battered non-stop and forever – unless that’s the only way he knows how to function. Managers who understand the whole of their responsibilities use the time between crises to take stock. They have a private, “inner dialog” that helps them improve the way they handle their people in the next crisis.

It might be worthwhile to remember that your employees are watching you even if you’re not watching yourself. To see what we mean, keep an eye on the best managers in your own world… the ones who are held in the highest regard because they know how to both get through the day and inspire.


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The Invisible Spotlight: Your Employees’ Prayer

 

PLEASE HELP MY MANAGER TO BE GOOD AT HIS JOB…

Help him to be disciplined and in a good mood so we can get our work done without unnecessary distraction.

Grant him the patience to let us finish one assignment before he assigns another, the sense not to delegate the same task to more than one of us at a time, the understanding that making mistakes is how human beings learn.

Instill in him the maturity to recognize and give credit to the worthwhile ideas and efforts of others, the skill to speak in words that we can understand, and the foresight to let us know what he wants so we have a fighting chance to make him smile.

Give him the grace to get along with his colleagues, the presence of mind to speak well of us whenever opportunities present themselves, and the confidence to represent faithfully our abilities, contributions and needs to his bosses.

Help him to realize that his opinions of us as individuals and his thoughts about the organization as a whole are enormously valuable to us, and that we appreciate hearing the good and bad from him as early and as directly as possible.

And most especially, show him how to keep his insecurities and self-serving tendencies out of our relationship.

When it’s all said and done, please grant him the wisdom to fully appreciate that doing his job well has the most profound impact on our ability to do ours well.

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Wisdom from The Invisible Spotlight: More on Discovering your Impact

QUESTION: I just read your recent blog on feedback. You seem to find employee surveys and feedback instruments suspect. Yet in our organization, 360° evaluations for all levels of management are common. Could you elaborate on your jaundiced view of them?

ANSWER: I wouldn’t go so far as to say our take on these overpriced, overused, limited value instruments is “jaundiced.” Let’s just say we think they’re overpriced, overused, and of limited value.

Most feedback instruments are pre-printed questionnaires distributed to a manager’s superiors, colleagues, and subordinates. They include multiple choice and forced ranking questions and maybe some space for a personal comment or two.

The completed forms are software-scored, and the scores are compared to a pre-defined “database” of management characteristics. A “profile” of the manager is created by finding matches between the manager’s scores and the database characteristics. Then a “narrative” is generated based on the matches.

All very objective and standardized. These instruments can be comprehensive in coverage, the scoring is free of human bias, and the results let you compare one manager to the next.

Here’s the problem: The stock questions and response choices limit the profile’s depth and individuality. These instruments are designed with uniformity and ease of analysis in mind so they tend to be formulaic, sometimes bordering on a horoscope! 

They can’t get at the unique attributes and tendencies that an individual manager exhibits on a day-to-day basis in real life situations. The profile might, for example, classify a manager as “Verbal” and “Extroverted,” but it can’t know that he talks too damn much in meetings or has all the answers ready before the questions have been asked or communicates with an arrogant tone or dismisses ideas with which he disagrees. Furthermore, these packages typically can’t define an improvement strategy with any specificity.

If you really want to know how you’re doing as a manager, try foregoing quantification in favor of individualization and depth. Over 35 years, we’ve found that one-on-one interviews conducted by neutral third parties with a manager’s superiors, colleagues and subordinates will yield far richer and more detailed information. Confidential interviews – run either by a trusted, even-handed professional within the organization or from the outside – encourage people to speak more specifically, reflectively, and forthrightly about a manager’s strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, habits and impacts. When a profile based on this type of information is presented to the manager in an intelligent, respectful way, his or her ability and willingness to make day-to-day behavioral adjustments increase enormously.

So… jaundiced? Not really. Just realistic about what actually helps real managers have the most positive impact on their relationships in the unremitting glare of the invisible spotlight.

 

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