I had a client who used to shake her head at the credibility given to consultants, and mutter about how “the monk from the farthest temple” was always received with the greatest respect.
I think about that line often as I consult to clients, and I thought about it again reading The Troubling Flaws in How We Select Experts in the Washington Post.
The piece wanders a bit, mixing up staff and consultants, and even takes a side trip through online dating, but he poses a fundamental question: “what’s the value of bringing folks in from outside when the answers are often already known by internal leaders who have a more intimate understanding of the business and its issues?”
A fair point. Here are three rules I try to live by that answer his question.
1. Don’t Be Captain Obvious – In the discovery phase of most projects, there rapidly emerges the clear outlines of both the problem and the best solutions. And we’ve all sat through presentations by consultants that go no further than that, where the collective responsive is “Well, duh!” The challenge is to go deeper and get to the underlying issues. If everyone is clear on the problem and the solution, then why haven’t they acted? What are the organizational and cultural issues holding them back? Here’s where a good outside consultant adds value, by identifying the barriers to progress and strategies to actually address them. Helping a client overcome their own structural barriers will leave them equipped to prosper long after you’ve gone and your beautiful PowerPoint has faded from the screen.
2. Speak Truth to Power – The Post article argues that it’s irrational to value the opinion of outsiders who aren’t known and trusted. But too often being known and trusted makes it harder for internal leaders to raise the hard issues, challenge management, and identify problems. An objective observer, accountable only for his or her own integrity can do something that no insider can, and that’s speak truth to power. Recently I was facilitating a two day strategy session with a client and his Board. At one point, as I pressed the client to make some hard choices between priorities he responded: “I really hate you right now. I know you’re right, but I really hate you.” I took that as one of my greatest professional compliments. First, I’d created an environment where he felt comfortable saying that, and second I’d forced him to confront the conflict in his own strategy and make some very hard choices. His own staff couldn’t have done that.
3. Raise Up, Don’t Beat Down – Done right, a consulting project empowers internal leaders, and they come away with true ownership of the recommendations. But too often it’s done wrong. I had a client who referred to the team of external consultants as “Team Smarty” and I’d cringe every time I heard it, because of the implied put down to their own senior leadership. Instead, remember those internal folks who had the intimate understanding of the problem and the solution? Be sure they’re highlighted to senior management. Put your own ego aside and give them all the credit they deserve. And for the folks that aren’t quite so swift and aren’t quite up to the task? Your silence speaks volumes.
If you can be the monk with wisdom and humility, your visit will be welcomed and will bring value to your client.
And as for online dating………………..I got nothing!