The Realities of the Consulting Role


The tips, techniques and advice of this blog are all directed at developing consulting excellence. However, you won’t win them all. There are and have been some truly extraordinary business leaders and consultants in the world, that have accomplished feats through brilliance, tenacity and excellence in many areas. They still crash and burn every once in a while.

One of my favorite business people that I was introduced to in the late 80’s was Sir John Harvey Jones. Sir John is credited with the spectacular turn around of the giant ICI chemical corporation in the UK. A turn-around from near bankruptcy to producing the most profit of any UK corporation in history. My favorite Sir John story is the first company meeting after he took the helm of ICI. Employees from all over were invited to attend an outdoor conference at the ICI headquarters. There was a pond in front of the headquarters where Sir John ordered the placement of acrylic blocks just inches below the surface. At the start of the meeting Sir John walked past the speaker’s podium and walked to the centre of the pond, appearing to be walking across the surface of the water. He yelled through his mike. “This is what we are going to do. We’re going to perform miracles with this company. Miracles in research, miracles in production and miracles in sales to the world….” to a standing ovation. He passion was contagious, his drive unyielding and he inspired thousands to one of the most dramatic business turnarounds in history. His knighthood was well deserved in my opinion.

BBC had the idea to leverage Sir John in a BBC series called “The Troubleshooter”. The idea was for Sir John to repeat his performance at ICI except this time in front of a camera and for other iconic British companies. Could he consult to them and make them more successful?

The answer was yes except for one, the Morgan Car Company. This engagement brought to life the potential challenge you face as a consultant on every project. Can you be successful if you are constrained within the client’s own values, processes and motives?

Sometimes there is a misalignment that will be fatal to the engagement. In the case of Morgan, one such misalignment was that Sir John after viewing their manufacturing process determined that some automation in the process would allow them to reduce costs, increase production and drive top line and bottom line growth for the company. Morgan on the other hand felt that the hand-built nature of the car was its largest selling point and any change at all could destroy the magic that had kept the car company going for decades and decades. An impass.

I have worked on engagements where what the client stated they wanted and actually were prepared to implement were almost polar opposites.

  • They “wanted” collaboration tools but would not allow a collaboration team site to work on documents
  • They “wanted” to empower the end-user but would not let them have access to data
  • They “wanted” lights-out data centre operation and cost reductions but wanted to keep every headcount in place.

In some cases clients attend one too many vendor presentations, engage in the process of implementing a solution and have no plan to really address the consequences of the solution. So the consultant may be off on mission impossible. So if you hit the wall what can you do?

First of all the consultant/client relationship is more persistent than a single project/engagement. A fatal mismatch in objectives will terminate the project and may terminate the relationship. One thing is certain, if you can’t fix the relationship, you certainly cannot fix the project.

  • Recognize that success is most likely when you both work together
  • Both acknowledge that the quality of the relationship is crucial to the success of the assignment
  • Make a discussion of the relationship a part of the initial contact with the client
  • Discuss with your client specific examples of effective client behavior
  • Agree with your client how to monitor the relationship
  • Be willing to invest both the time and the care that this relationship will require
  • Do not ignore the realities and do not leave it to chance. Raise the issue and talk about it.
  • Talk through the misalignment.
    • decide on a realignment or
    • decide to stop

In the case of Sir John he made a number of attempts to influence, cajole and persuade Morgan to listen but was never able to get the relationship to a point where he could have the discussion openly with Moran with mutual respect.

The reality of the consulting role is that sometimes you won’t win on a project, but you don’t ever need to lose the client.

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1 Response to The Realities of the Consulting Role

  1. Pingback: Infinite Shades of Grey – A year later and a little greyer | Infinite Shades of Grey

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