Business leaders use employees, contractors, and suppliers to meet current commitments to customers, partners, and shareholders. When they need to make a significant change in the business, however, they often seek outside help from a consultant. A consultant is a non-employee who provides advice and assistance to bring about positive change.
In this article we will examine four ways that leaders use consultants and discuss advantages and drawbacks for each. The four consulting roles are as follows:
1. Consultants as implementers of a client-devised strategy
In this role, clients provide relatively narrow goals and constraints, and the consultant’s role is primarily to implement a predetermined strategy. The client benefits from the consultant’s knowledge and expertise, but only to a certain degree. The consultant is really just a contractor in this instance, and may not be positioned to help clients realize it when their strategy is not the right one.
Seeking outside assistance with strategy execution can certainly be fruitful, but my advice is for leaders to use this approach only when they are 100% certain the change strategy is the right one, and have benefited from working with another consultant who has provided feedback and outside perspective. If at all possible, leaders should try to make implementers part of the initial strategy formation.
2. The consultant as an analyst and provider of an “expert opinion”
As providers of an “expert opinion”, consultants are (at least initially) limited to developing a report with findings and recommendations. The recommendations often amount to a change strategy for the client to implement. Unfortunately, such a report is often developed without active client participation. Leaders and staff members are relatively passive participants and merely provide input; they are not part of performing the analysis or developing the recommendations.
It is not uncommon for the consulting firm to view the report as an opportunity to generate more business, hoping to be engaged to implement the recommendations. They may even structure fees accordingly, and develop the report at a loss. Clients are aware of this, and stakeholders on the client side may view the report with a certain amount of cynicism. Also, because the client has not participated in the development of the report on an equal level, there is little accountability for implementation practicality.
Getting an expert opinion can be legitimate when leaders themselves feel that they do not have sufficient understanding of the problem area, or want to develop additional strategies and options in order to make better decisions. The expert opinion should not be used to develop a single scenario, however. It should provide leaders with an improved understanding of a problem or opportunity, a set of options for what to do and how, and pros and cons for those options.
Quantification is a must for problem/opportunity analysis, options, and trade-offs. An expert opinion can enhance a decision-making process, but it does not relieve leaders of responsibility for carefully weighing options before choosing, and afterwards, being able to explain and justify how they came to a decision.
3. The consultant as a substitute leader
Consultants like to be regarded as “trusted advisors”, and love it when leaders give them lots of latitude to “make changes happen”. Unfortunately, leaders sometimes rely too much on the consultant. They become passive, and sink into the background. This is especially common when potentially unpopular changes need to be made, or when a leader is not positioned to communicate with subordinates in a trusted manner. The following YouTube clip from “Charlie’s Angels” demonstrates this in a tongue-in-cheek fashion:
In this scenario, client executives are nowhere to be found. They have empowered the consultant and the staff to generate and implement ideas, but they themselves are not involved in the process. The result is often that when the consultant is gone, the leaders (or middle management) will at some point feel compelled to reassert their influence and reverse or veto some (or all) of the changes. The staff will soon lose their temporary illusion of empowerment, and leaders will go back to complaining about how people seem passive and how they don’t take initiative.
I recall reading about a gruff Lean sensei (coach) ordering client managers and staff around and making abrupt changes, which were poorly understood and implemented with a certain degree of resentment. It made me think of clichés from martial arts B-movies, until I realized that even I have been guilty of this in the past (see below). It is so tempting to let the consultants take the wheel, because they are obviously better drivers, right? The problem is that this does not transfer knowledge, skill, and courage to your people.
4. The consultant as a trusted collaborator and guide
The healthiest way to use a consultant, I believe, is for leaders to work with him or her as a trusted collaborator and guide. In such a relationship, the leader wants outside perspective and ideas to help bring about positive change. He or she is prepared to learn and grow in the process, and views change as something that starts with the leadership, not just something that affects employees.
Consultants should bring perspective, wisdom, knowledge, skills, and a proven framework for diagnosis and bringing about change. The actual implementation of change strategies, however, is best done by client executives and staff themselves. This ensures buy-in and crucial input on what will and will not work in practice. Consultants should seek to transfer knowledge and skills related to situational diagnosis, problem solving, and relevant remedies to the client. Additional involvement should focus on coaching, helping the client’s organization implement and adopt the changes.
Credibility and accountability
Leaders and consultants gain and lose credibility with each other as a result of their actions. An implementer usually has less credibility with the client than an expert advisor, while the trusted collaborator and guide enjoys the highest degree of credibility.
Credibility is more easily lost than gained, but sometimes consultants voluntarily allow themselves to be demoted. In one scenario I learned about recently, a very capable IT consulting firm came in as a “hired gun” to provide an expert opinion on software development practices to a Fortune 1000 company. They soon found themselves becoming deeply involved with implementation and running a large software project, but somehow they and the client no longer saw eye to eye with respect to how the project should be run. Unfortunately, it was no longer possible to get the client to listen to ideas on how the project could be managed better. The consulting firm was stuck in an implementer role, and the project was behind schedule and desperately needed to be rethought.
In another scenario from some years ago, I recall one client with whom I thought I had a trusted collaborator relationship beginning to view me as the outside expert instead. The shift was gradual and subtle. Big changes in the client’s business environment were beginning affecting the organizational changes we were working on. However, no one had stepped back to acknowledge this. The client’s leadership and middle management found themselves swamped with new challenges. While seemingly committed to the engagement’s original goals, they were in fact emotionally withdrawing from their responsibilities in the engagement.
I gradually found myself being too forgiving of their failure to acknowledge that the basic assumptions behind the engagement needed revisiting. Irritated, I begun to act more like a substitute leader, pressuring middle managers and executives to stick to our agreed-upon deadlines, show up for key meetings, and ensure that their people were signing up for the right courses. I eventually ceased working with this client, having concluded that they would not be able to realize business value from our work together. In this scenario, both sides lost perspective, but the consultant failed to hold the client accountable for being an equal partner in the change process.
Establishing and maintaining the mutual trust and credibility required for a trusted collaborator role requires real work for both the client and the consultant. Consultants and client executives should meet on a regular basis to review the engagement, the premises behind it, and discuss all the surrounding business issues. These meetings must be more than status reviews; they must be in-depth conversations in which the consultant contributes as a coach and provides fresh perspectives.
I am a strong believer in client executives themselves having skin in the game, committing to read articles and books, and participating in key activities in the change process. Lasting performance improvement requires leadership direction, understanding, and participation. A crucial role for consultants should be to help leaders change and grow themselves. Only with such change will leaders succeed with a change process, secure staff participation and ownership, and strengthen their own credibility as leaders.
Finally, not every consultant out there is capable of working as a collaborator and guide. Leaders need to ensure that a consultant really can act in that capacity. Before engaging, ask to speak with one or two recent clients about what the consultant is like as a guide and as a collaborator. Business outcomes are necessary, but not sufficient. Ask instead what they, personally, learned from working with the consultant, and how that has affected their work. If they don’t have much to say, chances are the consultant was viewed not as a guide, but as an implementer or provider of an expert opinion. If organizational change did take place, but the leader you are speaking to was not involved much, chances are there was little collaboration.