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There is nothing quite like meeting a stranger at a cocktail party and responding to the inevitable question, “What do you do for a living?”, with “I’m a consultant”. You can see the pictures of charlatans, snake oil salesmen and other vermin coming into their head. It usually is a short conversation. Why? Well, “consultant” is nondescript. And, many folks have had underwhelming experiences with consultants. Hence, the old definition of consultant as being one who takes your watch, tells you what time it is and then sends you a bill for the trouble.

So, I thought I should address the questions: Why consider a management consultant? When and how might one add value?

Pre-Conditions for Effective Consulting

To lay the framework, it is important to understand that the condition of the client, primarily the CEO, strongly impacts the value a consultant can add. I will often ask CEOs in a get-to-know you meeting, “what keeps you up at night?” This question attempts to identify that there is a gap between where the organization is and where the CEO desires it to be. From my experience, when a CEO doesn’t see a gap, i.e., isn’t kept up at night, the meeting and our relationship will be short.

Long ago, I interviewed a CEO of an internationally-known research organization and the response to the question was “Nothing. I have hired the best researchers and I simply sprinkle them with water ($) and great things will happen”. My role as the consultant is to probe a little deeper: Are you applying the right amount of “water”? Which researchers can get you the greatest harvest from that water? What external factors might impact the size of that harvest? Are the systems that support those researchers all they can be? In this instance, there was no thought or concern given to these questions. That was our one and only meeting.

It is ironic that the best CEO’s question themselves and always see a gap. It is rather like the famous quote of Coach Vince Lombardi, “We will be relentless in our pursuit for perfection. We won’t ever be perfect – but in the process we will achieve greatness.” Give me a client with that mind set, and I will get you some real results.

If a leader has certainty regarding the strategy to close the gap or fix the problem, then there really is no gap. The leader simply needs time to implement what is known in order to get there, and a consultant at this juncture can add little value. Rather, it is not knowing or not being able to confront (i.e. face and handle) what you do know that creates and continues a long term gap, and that is the sweet spot where a consultant can add real value.

To this end, we use a diagnostic tool that identifies and gathers the issues that prevent a highly aligned, effective organization – i.e., a tool that clearly identifies the gap. It continues to fascinate me as we have used this tool over the years that when we separate out the CEO responses from the rest of the leadership team and staff, the CEO very often sees a mirror image. That is, the workforce sees the earth as round, while the CEO sees flat. There are a host of reasons for this, but this condition poses real problems for the organization. Without the ability to clearly see the causes for unsatisfactory performance, one can’t fix them. The gap won’t be closed.

Situations where consultants can add value

value of using consultantsSo, first and foremost, the leader has to see the need for help, a gap he or she can’t close. Then the consultant can begin to add real value. There are a variety of circumstances in which a good consultant can help the CEO to “close the gap” and add meaningful value to the organization. Among them are the following:

  1. Outside facilitation: In this situation a leader is looking for someone to run a meeting or retreat so that all participants, him or herself included, have an equal voice. In other words, the gap is the need for neutral, unbiased facilitation. That is an exceptionally difficult role for someone within the organization to play. Organizations also use outside facilitation services to enable strong stakeholder engagement and consensus in a process or decision-making session, particularly when stakes are high or emotions strong. Through facilitation, the consultant adds value by assuring that all the different voices are heard and understood, and that consensus is made possible.
  2. Product or process design: In this situation, a leader is looking for help in the full design of a process in order to achieve desired outcomes or close the gap. This is often the case with project planning/management, strategic planning, process improvement, design of a training or onboarding program, team development and the like. The leader can typically define the clear end goal of the process, but needs a consultant to create and deliver the process and tools that will get the organization from here to there successfully. The consultant adds real value by creating a process in which the goals are met while the team learns new skills and theory.
  3. Discovery: In this instance, the leader has a gnawing sense that something needs to be different, but is not sure what to do, what is missing or even what is wrong. The client sees a gap between where they are and where they want to be. It may be an aspirational gap (“I want to be a market leader”) or a nagging problem (“growth is stunted and competitors are grabbing market share”, “I can’t retain talent”, “performance is not improving”). The dissatisfaction with the status quo becomes the catalyst in which effective consulting can take place.  The consultant adds value by helping the leader identify and clarify what is missing, then by creating the tools and processes to fill that gap.

Evaluating Whether Value Was Added

In the end, to assess whether you got snake oil or real value, look to whether you received one or more of the following:

  1. New information on causes of unsatisfactory conditions, i.e. clarity on the gap
  2. Alignment of team/organization to a strategy, agenda or solution
  3. Increased morale resulting from staff seeing that leadership understands and is addressing real issues
  4. Greater certainty re. a plan of action resulting in execution of the plan vs. thinking about it
  5. Tools that enable individuals/groups to be more effective with less time spent
  6. A problem solved
  7. A process improved
  8. A strategy for growth effectively executed
  9. Improved cooperation leading to better performance
  10. Improved execution on efforts to change

Thoughts or questions? I would enjoy furthering the conversation. Send me an e-mail to get started.