Secrets of a Veteran Consultant

top secret cover sheetAfter many years of professional consulting — serving stakeholders from the server room to the board room — I moved into management and encountered fresh perspective. I learned things that I wished someone had told me early in my career. I became a stakeholder and ate the proverbial dogfood. And along the way, I learned things that are worth sharing. I hope these “secrets” resonate with someone (as I believe they would have resonated with me 20 years ago).

The simplicity and candor of these secrets may surprise you...

Leaders and managers in organizations wear many hats. While not an exhaustive list, they are the visionaries, facilitators, mentors, investigators, advocates, and of course, decision-makers. As a manager of security consultants, one of my roles was to optimize the delivery of (consultant) value to core business stakeholders. It is always a risk in consulting that value and cost can become conflated during delivery. The cost side of the balance sheet is all about measuring what you want to influence.  However, insuring that value is always well represented can be more challenging.  So I set out to explore why leaders and managers among my stakeholders and peers were not more fully engaging our consultants.

1.       Start with “Yes!” –  Hands down, THE single most frequent response from stakeholders when I would ask them why they were not utilizing the consulting talent was:

  • Consultants don't know how to say, "Yes."
  • They tell me all the end-of-the-world reasons not to do things... someone forgot to tell the consultants... we are solutions focused here.
  • Every time I ask her/him to do something, I get a 10-minute speech about how many other things they’ve got going on, how busy they are, and they’re not sure when they can get to my project

WOW. People naturally gravitate towards the path of least resistance. You might be the most highly-skilled consultant in the firm, but if people feel like it’s a chore just to get you working, they will find another path or do the work themselves. If they believe your doom and gloom presents a risk to their social or polical calculus, you will be sidelined. The first thirty seconds of a dialog can make or break an engagement. Everyone is busy. Everyone has concerns.

Value begins with the consultant.  Simply saying, “I’ll get it done or find someone who can” will catapult a consultant’s value to the next level. Naturally, a consultant will need to follow-up and follow-through; but it is imperative to respond positively — start with “Yes!”

2.       Be the Best at What You Do – Leaders and managers talk to each other. They talk to each other about their challenges and objectives. Additionally, stakeholders gossip about their projects, their workers, and service quality. But more importantly, for the consultant, they talk about great (and poor) work product and worker performance.

No two stakeholders emphasize performance virtues (quality, quantity, and timeliness) the same.  And rarely do stakeholder hold true to their priorities from project to project. This is not an indictment of individual character -- it is the nature and requirements of dynamic business conditions. It is not personal, it is business. In order for consultants to be the best, that is, building a reputation for being the best at what you do requires tollerance for change. Building a reputation around "best" means quickly individualizing delivery requirements for each stakeholder, every time.

If you are the best at what you do, it is only a matter of time before your value becomes legend and you become the most desired, most requested, and most valued player for upcoming projects. Subject matter expertise is great; be the consultant who is comfortable with the latest trends, technology, or methods.  But in order to be the best at what you do, you must be able to apply your capabilities in a way that quickly and confidently uplifts the decision-making process.

There is no "magic formula" or "economy of scale" here -- this is at the heart of the value.

3.       Be Approachable – When someone walks into your cubicle or office, do you make them immediately feel welcome? Or do you project annoyance that they have interrupted you? Do you even know?

It should not matter where someone sits on the "org chart." You must make everyone who approaches you feel welcome and appreciated. I can’t tell you the vast number of times where a brief casual conversation with leader or manager standing at my door resulted in greater stakeholder value and additional billable hours. More often than not, these “drive-by” conversations led to insight about current or emerging projects (or developing trends).

For a variety of reasons, nurturing healthy relationships and working a program of stakeholder outreach is one of the most challenging issues for many consultants. A consultant cannot control external issues such as a firm's culture; however, developing and maintaining healthy stakeholder relatioships begins with approachability. Even the busy, introvert consultant must display the genuine social graces so people know you are committed, capable, and concerned about resolving their stakeholder "pain points."

Rarely does one person have all the pieces of a puzzle… If you are not approachable, you divorce yourself from opportunity that is willing to come to you! Remember, "Yes!" (because you probably know someone that can help!).

4.       Be Available – Leaders and managers wait until the last minute to get things done. We all know this. Everyone else complains about it. YOU DON'T COMPLAIN. Get it done. Get paid.

Dynamic and evolving business conditions are a reality and no amount of complaining or resistance is going to change this. Be the person who is available when they come looking for a professional consultant (at end-of-business or before the office opens). Let's be clear, "Ideas don’t sleep." Inspiration is rarely scheduled. Someone has to turn ideas into action -- and that is you. You are the value train. If you are not there at the genesis of ideas, then you are not a part of generating solutions or transforming ideas into action.  

The consultant who is only available from “8-to-5” might have only missed out on thirty minutes of effort (today), but over the course of a year they are likely to miss out on untold opportunity. The only way to become the “GOTO” person is to be available.

5.       Personal Interaction is Best – Leaders and managers in your firm are under more pressure than you are to deliver value, market their services, network with their peers, and move ideas to action.  

They may have work that needs to be done but they may not have the time to "ramp you up" ("work you", "read you in", "connect you into the loop"). Experience has proven that certain outreach efforts are just typically BAD(tm), for example:

  • advertising your availability through email and/or instant messaging gets lost in the noise of managerial communications
  • messages left with personal assistants or that roll into voice mail end up triaged into oblivion

Do not discount the importance of face-to-face interaction. From the office drive-by or an elevator chat, to a scheduled meeting or luncheon. Personal interaction is the single most effective method of efficient human interaction. Naturally, this can be challenging in geographically disperse cultures; however, a consultant must seek out and take advantage of pragmatic opportunities to engage in uplifting personal interaction.

Of course, you must tailor your outreach to each individual, their style, and the circumstances of your proximity and relationship. However, as a consultant seeking to optimize his/her value, it is imperative that you remove all obstacles between you and value.

Managing your relationships is your job.  Absolutely no one else will take responsibility for managing your relationships. Your ability to deliver value is dependent on actionable and meaningful engagement.  It is critical to understand how to “not be ignored.”

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