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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