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When to Run from a Consultant

Back in October of last year, in an article about the importance of asking the right questions and not assuming that you have the answers, I recounted an experience in a Delta Sky Club where I witnessed a disturbing conversation among a group of young consultants from one of the “top tier” consulting firms.

Yesterday, in a conversation with one of my InnovaNet partners, I was reminded of another experience, in a similar venue, that hit much closer to home. I thought I would share it with you.

Let me set the stage …

The year was 2002.

The place was the Delta Sky Club, née Crown Room, on Concourse A of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. More specifically … a private conference room within the Sky Club.

Some background … I had been hired by two companies, one based in Pennsylvania and one based in Florida, to lead them through a strategic planning process and ultimately to help shepherd them through a merger. They were, collectively, our client.

Because of Atlanta’s geographic location between the two companies’ headquarters and given the fact that the airport was a major transportation hub, we frequently met there for strategic planning sessions.

On this particular occasion, the leaders of both companies had flown in early that morning. Accompanied by one of our senior team members was a young consultant, new to our team. An MBA from one of the “Ivies” and sterling credentials from one of the largest three consulting firm in the country made him an ideal member. Let’s call him “Bill” (with apologies to any Bills who may happen to read this and take offense to being singled out).

At this early juncture in the engagement, we were helping the two companies work through several critical issues, determining how they would work together going forward. Should they merge? Or would it make sense to form a much closer strategic partnership than they currently had? Or perhaps a joint venture? Bill’s instructions were to sit on the sidelines, take plenty of notes, actively listen and learn as much as he could about the way we engaged with the client.

The morning was going very well .. that is until a mid-morning break. Bill and our client stayed in the room. My senior team member and I stepped out briefly to get coffee and discuss where things stood with the work in progress. We had asked many questions, both for our edification and, more importantly, to elicit ideas from our client. My experience over many years is that, through the course of discovery, solutions begin to organically arise out of a collaborative process of engagement and discernment. We certainly didn’t have the answers, but we knew the right questions to ask. And we were working through the issues.

As we walked back into the room, Bill was standing at the white board, marker in hand, solving all of our client’s problems, giving them the answers (at least from his perspective) that they needed to hear. In a mere five minutes he had hijacked a time-tested process in favor of a formulaic, “by the book” methodology that is, too often, emblematic of a “big consulting firm” mindset.

To recover control of the process, I quickly called for an additional five-minute break. Taking Bill out of the room, I asked – “What were you doing in there?” His reply was “That’s the way we did it at ‘X’. I reminded him of my instructions at the outset of the meeting and ensured him that, if he expected to continue as a member of our team, he would need to play by our rules.

We returned to the room and resumed the work at hand with Bill on the sidelines, as originally instructed, listening and taking notes. No damage was done. The client understood. We moved on to the ultimate success of a merger that, to this day, continues to deliver stellar returns for the combined company.

But the lessons from this experience were clear. It’s not about formulaic methodologies. It’s not about having answers.

As I pointed out in the prior article:

Our role, if we are professionals and true to our calling, is to work alongside the client to facilitate the collaborative development and implementation of solutions. More often than not, the solutions reside within the rank-and-file client organization already, not our “consultant” minds. Our job is to help the client identify solutions and put effective, actionable plans in place to execute. This is not an insight that comes naturally to most consultants, especially those relatively new to the game. Rather, it usually results from years of hands-on client interaction and experience.”

“Now, please understand that I have no problem, per se, with young MBA consultants. What I do have a problem with is a mindset that we, as professional advisors, have the answers and that all the client needs to do is listen to us. We don’t. And they shouldn’t.”

It’s about knowing the right questions to ask, asking them, learning from the client, and working with the client to derive solutions collaboratively. Every client deserves that.

In closing, you may wonder what happened to Bill. We decided that he was not a good fit with our business culture and collaborative client approach … and we let him go. I don’t know where he landed, but hope he learned about the importance of asking questions, listening and dispensing with formulaic methodologies and an “I have the answers” mindset.

At InnovaNet we will never, ever, assume that we have the answers. And you should run from the “expert” that gets the answers from a book, a course or predetermined assumptions.

For over thirty years, Mike has been actively involved, as a coach, entrepreneur, scientist, business executive and management consultant, in the areas of executive leadership, organizational development and change management, strategic planning and execution, and financial analysis. He has provided strategic, operational and financial leadership to small and medium-sized firms, as well as Fortune 500 companies and large government organizations, in a broad range of industries. Mike holds BS and PhD degrees from the Georgia Institute of Technology and has had additional training in finance and accounting, strategic planning and management, leadership development, and succession planning, from various top-tier institutions.

Mike Cobb

Mike has provided strategic, operational and financial leadership to small and medium-sized firms, as well as Fortune 500 companies and large government organizations, in a broad range of industries.

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