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Is your consultant strengthening or weakening your organization?

Apr 04, 2011 Business Daily

“A good consultant wants clients ultimately to be able to make their own good decisions—but the better a client develops the skill for the organization, the less it needs the consultant. So perhaps even well-intentioned consultants unconsciously build, with their clients, their own prisons—a set of invisible bars reinforced by a mindset that leaders always need outside counsel to make any serious decision.
This is not to argue that organizations should ultimately repudiate outside expertise and perspective. Even the most broad-minded and open-boundary organization has occasional limits in expertise, and can suffer from this or that company or cultural bias.”

BROOK MANVILLE Harvard Business Review Blogs (11 January 2011)

I am finally able to write this article. I have been a management consultant in Europe and Africa for the better part of two decades. These days, however, I preoccupy myself with other pursuits: writing, teaching, speaking and general drum-beating. I have a lifetime treasury of consulting involvements behind me: blue-chip banks, disaster agencies, anti-corruption authorities, hotel groups, media houses and many more.

So I feel vaguely qualified to comment on the nature of management consulting, and Brook Manville’s recent HBR blog (excerpted) rang a few bells. As someone no longer actively engaged in the profession, I can offer some insights garnered over the years.

Make no mistake: consultants are vital to most large organizations. A good consultant has developed deep knowledge and expertise of the kind that a busy executive will never be able to. A good consultant has also experienced a wide range of contexts that a line manager will struggle to clock. A good consultant therefore has both depth and scope, and can therefore be eminently useful.

Note my repeated use of ‘good’, though. Many consultants are anything but good: their expertise is often shallow and superficial; and their experiences are limited and short-lived. From big-name firms to solo practitioners, the profession has a lot to answer for and much hokum and chicanery that it has inflicted on the business world over the years. Indeed, many of the global headline failures of recent times have had highly paid consultants involved all the way to disaster.

This is because there are many potential fault lines in the relationship between client and consultant. First, people who most actively and avidly seek external consultants are often those who do very little to develop in-house expertise, and want the quick-and-dirty solution of hired help. Second, consultants are often brought in to do the CEO’s dirty work – hired guns who give the appearance of independent validation and provide a convenient curtain for the CEO to hide behind; and third, as Manville points out, consultants can become a never-ending drug that ultimately weakens the organization.

Allow me to offer some reflections on how to make this difficult relationship work. If you are a CEO, only use consultants where you have a very specific knowledge or skills deficit; only use them for time-bound, delineated projects; only use the ones who have unusually deep knowledge, experience and insights; and use them for their ability to bring in fresh thinking and inject new vigour into hidebound corporate cultures.

If you are a budding consultant, you have to ensure that you move beyond boilerplate methodologies and textbook approaches. You must develop unique skills sets that are peculiarly your own. You must have an abiding passion for what you do and must exhibit and transmit this in every interaction. And you must understand that in this business word-of-mouth is everything and therefore every single engagement must clock a superb experience for every client.

Like every market, this one has its share of bad buyers, bad sellers and bad practices. Discerning selection and limited deployment should be the watchwords.

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