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Admitting That You Don’t Have the Answers … It’s Not Easy



What do you do if you overhear a conversation among strangers that is so egregious, that runs counter to your fundamental principles, that you have to speak up and say, “wait a minute … that’s not right”? However, you dare not do so lest you be accused of meddling in other people’s business.

This happened to me a few years ago. I remained silent, and others likely suffered as a result.

Some context is in order. At the time, I was working on a consulting project that required frequent travel through the Dallas / Fort Worth airport … and I occasionally had a couple of hours to kill in the DFW Delta Sky Club. On that particular Friday evening, I was exhausted after spending most of the week leading a series of problem-solving sessions with my client. I was ready to get home. A short respite, an opportunity to chill, was what I desperately needed. That said, my client was still top of mind, as is usually the case when I’m on the road. I thought through the particulars of the past several days as I sipped a glass of Pinot.

Sitting across from me were four well-groomed “twenty/thirty-somethings”, dressed in their perfectly-creased chinos, starched shirts and sport coats, and conveying an air of self-confidence that, honestly, didn’t surprise me given the venue.

I was absorbed in my own thoughts and paid these young men scant attention. Suddenly a single word, or perhaps a phrase, piqued my interest. As their discussion continued, it was apparent they were employed by one of the “top tier” consulting firms and like me, were headed home after an on-site client engagement.

What shocked, but honestly, didn’t surprise me, was their characterization of the client’s issues and their respective roles in providing advice (one thing that struck me was that they did not hesitate to identify the client by name in public, within earshot of several people including myself … but that’s a topic for another time). These guys were convinced that they, not the client, had the answers and the solutions for this engagement, and all the client needed to do was listen to them. After all, they were experts, likely holding MBAs from well-respected institutions and working for a “nameplate” consulting firm.

As they spoke almost disparagingly of the client, my first thought was that this apparent disservice was exacerbated by the steep hourly rates that would be on the next invoice.

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.

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.

A critical role that consulting firms should play is ensuring that such mindsets do not exist within their ranks or, at the very least, that younger, less experienced practitioners are mentored by more senior advisors who understand these fundamental concepts.

Every client deserves that. That’s why at InnovaNet we will never engage with a client without the active participation of a senior advisor … and we will never, ever, assume that we have the answers.