I’ve consulted for more than a thousand organizations. My clients include branches of the U.S. Government, large international agencies, and for-profit and non-profit companies. Over the last four decades, I’ve found the size of a client’s organization affects many aspects of my work. Here are some of the pros and cons of consulting for large organizations.
Picture 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?
1977: I earn a Ph.D. in applied elementary high-energy particle physics. Get a post-doc position and move to the United States. Work at major U.S. particle accelerators for a year. Leave academic research forever. Since 1978 — that’s 44 years! — every job I’ve had didn’t exist a few years earlier.
1978: I join the management of Solar Alternative, a solar energy manufacturing business founded the previous year. Five years earlier, there were no such businesses in the United States.
1983: I start teaching computer science using personal computers in the classroom. IBM introduced the PC in 1981.
1984: I begin IT consulting for clients using personal computers. Businesses didn’t start using personal computers until the early 80’s.
1992: I organize a conference where there are no expert speakers available (it’s a new field, there are no experts). Invent a way to make the conference successful based on the collective needs, wants, and experience of the attendees. (The conference has run annually for the last 30 years.) This is something new. Organizations hear about this and ask me to design and facilitate their conferences.
2005: I realize that the conference process I invented and since improved is incredibly popular with participants. I decide to write a book about it, and in…
2009: I self-publish Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love. (Five years earlier, self-publishing was a minor industry for vanity projects. Now it’s the most common way authors publish.) I quickly discover the size and interest of the meetings industry. In demand, I become a meeting designer and facilitator of participant-driven, participation-rich meetings. Yet another career that had not existed before.
A conventional career
My parents once suggested I become an accountant. I politely declined and continued studying physics. I have nothing against conventional careers, but my life hasn’t turned out that way.
If I had to guess, it probably won’t.
And it probably won’t for you either.
Has the job you’re doing now just been invented? Share your experience in the comments below!
Although I’m simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the thousands of books and videos about “leadership” pumped out every year, a recent quote struck a chord:
“You’ll do more good if you aim to serve more than you aim to please.” —S. Chris Edmonds
For context, watch this two-minute video:
While Chris focuses on the context of team leadership, I think that aiming to serve rather than please is also a useful rubric to keep in mind as a consultant. So here are three reasons why you should aim to serve, not please:
Almost all organization leaders today wield positional power: the power of a boss to make decisions that affect others. This is unlikely to change soon. But the growth of the network era, where leaders and workers need to connect outside the workplace in order to stay up to date professionally and to be open to new and innovative ideas, is creating a shift away from traditional hierarchical power models.
“One major change as we enter the network era is that positional power (based on institutions and hierarchies) may no longer be required to have influence in a network society.” —Harold Jarche, the new networked norm
It’s increasingly possible to have influence these days without being anyone’s boss.
Influence but no authority
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.)
Today, far more people work in the gig economy, which has grown in large part because the network era has made it much easier to find and hire specialized services on a just-in-time basis. This development has caused significant disruptions. Two examples: less long-term job security and the weakened ability for workers to advocate for their concerns en masse. However, there’s a positive side.
The network era
The network era is making possible a shift towards decentralized influence and power, and away from the dysfunctional features of hierarchical societal and organizational structures that have led to much suffering and misery throughout human history. Today there’s no reason to pick either positional or network era power. We can create systems that incorporate the best features of both.
Here’s Harold Jarche again:
“…it is up to all of us to keep working on new structures and systems. This is perhaps the only great work to be done for the next few decades. We have the science and technology to address most of the world’s problems. What we lack are structures that enable transparency and action on behalf of humankind, and not the vested interests of the rich and powerful.” —Harold Jarche, chaos and order
This isn’t easy work. When consulting, one of my biggest meeting design challenges is to get boss buy-in. Typically middle management are enthusiastic and onboard. But the most senior decision-maker will occasionally override everyone else in the organization. They make a poor design decision based on obsolete ideas about how people learn and a lack of understanding of how good meeting design can transform communities.
The network era is here. Its effect on power relationships isn’t going away. To improve the relevance and effectiveness of social structures, organizations, and meetings, it’s crucial for leaders to understand and accept the potential and value of decentralized influence.
Once upon a time, I enjoyed a lucrative career as an independent IT consultant. For 20+ years, I turned down more work than I accepted. And I never advertised; all business came via word-of-mouth, from CEO to CEO.
There was plenty of competition, and yet most of my competitors struggled for work.
Want to know one of my secrets?
I was a generalist
My clients wanted their problems solved. There were three key reasons why they needed help:
My clients did not know what their problems were. (Yes, this sounds strange, stay with me.)
Their problems were complex, crossing traditional expertise boundaries.
They thought their problems were technical issues, but there was invariably a critical people component.
When I started IT consulting, I thought companies would hire me because I had specialized technical skills they did not possess. Over time, I slowly realized that what made me valuable and useful to my clients were my abilities to:
Uncover their real problems;
Understand the entirety of what they needed to solve their actual problems;
Diplomatically explore, explain, and convince clients of they needed to do;
Successfully work with them to devise and implement effective solutions; and
Help them take ownership of the ongoing management of relevant issues so the problems didn’t reoccur.
The advantages of being a generalist
Today’s hard problems straddle traditional specialities. Being a generalist in the realm of consulting means being willing and able to see and act on a bigger picture than clients typically initially present. For example, no one ever hired me to solve “people problems”, but I can’t recall a consulting assignment where human issues weren’t an important factor. Some examples:
A ten-year-old silent war between two department heads that had never been addressed;
The internal IT staffer who was crippling company growth because he knew far less than he claimed;
A CEO who hired a golf buddy to recommend that an appropriate and functional information system be replaced;
The operations manager who routinely made decisions without the authority to do so.
My successful IT consulting career combined adequate technical knowledge, business managerial experience (from five years managing a solar manufacturing company), good problem solving abilities, continuous acquisition of people skills, creativity, and a win-win mindset that focused on serving my clients rather than maximizing my income at their expense. During two decades of work, I saw many independent IT specialists who were, despite possessing technical knowledge superior to mine, unable to maintain a viable business.
I’m still a generalist
I’m still a consultant today, but in a different field—meeting design. And I’m still a generalist, because good meeting design requires knowledge and skills in many different areas: production, andragogy (how adults learn), facilitation, and people skills, to name a few.
We are living in a world where the commodification of products and skills leads more and more quickly to a race to the bottom—“who can make/do this for the least amount of money/time?” (For example, accountancy, once seen as a secure well-paying profession, is increasingly outsourced and automated.) As a result, the advantages of the generalist mount because relatively few people have the required skill-set to solve problems that cross traditional specialties, and it’s easier to thrive in a field with, say, ten competitors as opposed to ten thousand.
We’re moving from working in the system that is a business, to working on the system. The consequence of this is that its becoming more important to have the general capabilities and breadth of experience that enable us to develop and improve the system in novel directions, than it is to have deep, highly entailed experience in working within the current system. There will always be a need for narrowly focused expertise in highly technical areas, but in the majority of cases the generalist now has an advantage over the specialist.
Are you a specialist or generalist? How’s that working out for you?
Photo attribution: Flickr user environmental_illness_network
In his beautiful and insightful book “Being Mortal“, surgeon Atul Gawande describes a mistake clinicians frequently make. They “see their task as just supplying cognitive information—hard, cold facts and descriptions. They want to be Dr. Informative.”
Atul contrasts this with an approach offered by palliative care physician Bob Arnold:
“Arnold … recommended a strategy palliative care physicians use when they have to talk about bad news with people—they ‘ask, tell, ask.’ They ask what you want to hear, then they tell you, and then they ask what you understood.” —Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, pages 206-7
“Ask, tell, ask” is great advice for anyone who wants to connect fruitfully in a learning environment. Personally, over the years, I’ve become better at asking people what they want to learn (ask) before responding (tell), but I still often omit the second ask: “what did you understand?”
The follow-up ask is important for two reasons.
Without it we do not know if anything we told has been heard/absorbed, and whether the listener’s understanding is complete and/or accurate.
Asking the listener’s understanding of what he heard allows him to process his understanding immediately. This not only improves the likelihood that it will be retained and remembered longer but also allows him to respond to what he has heard and deepen the conversation.
“Ask, tell, ask” assists transforming a putative one-way information dump from a teacher to a student into a learning conversation. I will work to better incorporate the second ask into my consulting interactions. Perhaps you will too?
“If you can’t sell it, you can’t build it.” Makes sense. But…
Architecture students bristle when Joshua Prince-Ramus tells them that they are entering a rhetorical profession. A great architect isn’t one who draws good plans. A great architect gets great buildings built. Now, of course, the same thing is true for just about any professional. A doctor has to persuade the patient to live well and take the right actions. A scientist must not only get funded but she also has to persuade her public that her work is well structured and useful. It’s not enough that you’re right. It matters if it gets built. —Seth Godin, If you can’t sell it, you can’t build it
A great reminder from Seth, as usual.
As a consultant you have no authority, only influence. And sometimes you will fail.
Even if you’re right and do an amazing selling job, sometimes you will fail.
Because sometimes it’s not about you, it’s about them.
If you can’t handle failure—having your great advice ignored—you won’t be consulting for long.
According to a widely ballyhooed recent study, event planning is the 6th most stressful job. I have no idea if that’s true, but, looking back on the two-day event I ran last week, I estimate that I had to solve well over a hundred on-the-spot problems that cropped up during the twenty-four hours I was on duty.
If you’re looking for a solution to a problem, there’s a natural temptation to pick the first solution you come up with.
In my experience, this is usually a mistake. An understandable mistake, for sure, but still a mistake. Most of the time, the first solution I come up with is not the best choice, so it’s worth taking a little more time to think before springing into action.
You can reduce the possibility of a poor decision caused by a hasty response by employing The Rule Of Three.
The Rule Of Three
Before deciding on a course of action, come up with three alternatives.
Here are three ways of thinking about The Rule Of Three.
1) Family therapist Virginia Satir encouraged people to have at least three choices. She said:
…to have one choice is no choice; to have two choices is a dilemma; and to have three choices offers new possibilities. –The Satir Model, Virginia Satir et al
2) Jerry Weinberg (who came up with this rule’s name) puts it another way that should get your attention:
If you can’t think of three things that might go wrong with your plans, then there’s something wrong with your thinking.
3) One more formulation: If you don’t have three options for a solution to a problem, you don’t understand it well enough yet, and you might need to explore it more.
Applying The Rule Of Three
It can be hard to apply The Rule Of Three, especially in stressful situations. Sometimes I have a hard time resisting acting on the first idea that pops into my head.
Here are two ways that help me apply The Rule of Three:
1) Get help to come up with more options. When I’m under pressure, asking trusted colleagues to help brainstorm alternatives is a great way for me to widen my problem-solving horizons and avoid missing a great solution. Two (or more) heads are better than one.
2) As with making most changes in your life, practice helps. Commit to apply The Rule Of Three to problems you encounter for three days. Then evaluate the results. How and under what circumstances did The Rule Of Three work for you? Decide whether you want to continue the commitment to maintaining this new approach to problem solving.
Uh oh, only two options here. I’m looking for at least one more. Suggestions?