Who has more power, a consultant or a janitor?

consultant powerPicture the renowned senior consultant breezing into the gleaming corporate HQ of Fortune 500 MegaCorp, for a well-paid gig advising C-suite executives. Now, picture the newly-hired janitor who spends their evenings mopping & vacuuming floors, cleaning restrooms, and emptying trash and recycling cans in a small MegaCorp branch office. Who has more power, the consultant or the janitor?

Obviously, the consultant has more power. They get to influence what happens at MegaCorp at a high level. Consultants have helped major industries successfully adapt to changing circumstances. (They’ve also been responsible for controversial decisions.) The lowly janitor? They just keep the office clean and tidy. Right?

Wrong. Actually, the janitor has more power! Here’s why.

Influence but no authority

Both the consultant and the janitor have responsibilities. MegaCorp contracted the consultant to give the C-suite good advice. MegaCorp pays the janitor to caretake the office.

The janitor has more power because they have the authority to do their assigned caretaking. Even though MegaCorp limits through the job description the scope and status of their work, the janitor has the power to determine how to clean floors and empty trashcans.

The consultant has no power to make any change at MegaCorp. Consultants have influence — but no authority, no power. My mentor Jerry Weinberg defined consulting as the art of influencing people at their request. Any seasoned consultant, however successful, sometimes fails to influence their clients.

“As a consultant in various fields for 39 years, this is a familiar world: one where I have influence with a client but less authority than a janitor. Clients are free to ignore my advice. Sometimes they do, but clearly I have useful influence that typically leads to significant change. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t continue to be hired and — usually 😀 — appreciated.)”
—Adrian Segar, The declining influence of leadership positional power in a network society

The janitor has the power to caretake their building in the way they want and need. MegaCorp gives them that power while not granting any to the consultant.

The Hard Law

Having influence but no power is one of the hard things about being a consultant, as expressed by Jerry Weinberg’s Hard Law:

“If you can’t accept failure, you’ll never succeed as a consultant.”
—Jerry Weinberg, The Secrets of Consulting

This is indeed a tough truth to swallow. But Jerry adds an “atom of hope” with a reframe:

“Some people do succeed as consultants, so it must be possible to deal with failure.”
—ibid

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