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The Power of the Consultant

#1 The Power of the Consultant
11/05/2010 12:37

C. Eough

Hello, consultants.

I'm sure many of you have encountered clients that are, well, difficult and obstructive. Not because they have legitimate work-related concerns or problems, nor because you are somehow rubbing them up the wrong way, but simply because they have a personality defect. You know, the sort that are vicious, spiteful idiots for no reason other than perhaps they don't like the look of your face (or something like that). Or perhaps because they think you're paid more than them and this conflicts with their inner view of themselves as being superior. Who knows what their reason is. But I'm sure that at least some of you have come across these kinds of people in the past. Occasionally, you see them acting in a similar way to other people - being dismissive of them, harming their reputation behind their back, not returning calls, trying to 'one-up' them during meetings, taking them to 'one side' in front of their colleagues in order to 'correct' them about something or tell them how they could have done it better (but not in a genuine kind of way, more of a one-upmanship kind of way), that kind of thing. There seemingly is no rhyme or reason to their behaviour or the pattern of who they 'target' in this way.

Anyhow, any idea how to deal with them? Being nice or trying to win them over doesn't work. Taking a hard line would not work either - they may not be the project sponsor, but they are nonetheless part of the client team, and clients don't tend to like it when you start being critical of one of their own. Audit trails and logical reasoning put you in a no-win situation too... you don't generally want to get dragged down to that level. And avoiding them, simple as it sounds, just isn't possible either, short of rolling off the project.

I guess I could start doing a bit of one-upmanship myself, starting by recommending to their FD that we audit something in his/her area of responsibility in great detail and then ultimately positioning him/her as a whipping boy that keeps getting called up in front of their audit committee to 'explain' why various things they are responsible for haven't gone to plan or why they haven't done certain things (I'm sure I could find many seemingly bona-fide examples if I wanted to)... but quite frankly I've got more personal integrity than that, and besides, I've also got better and more productive things to do with my time. Negative energy is not my 'thing'.

Anyhow, would appreciate your views too. Thoughts/ideas please?

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#2 RE: The Power of the Consultant
11/05/2010 13:16

Mars A Day to C. Eough (#1)

I might get shouted down on this one but I would suggest the solution does lie in responding to their behaviour, but rather in modifying your own. It will take time but you need to cultivate charisma/gravitas/weight - call it what you will. Start from the small details - eye contact, firm handshake, use their name in the first sentence you say while looking them in the eye, make that person feel like you are there to SHARE their pain and no one else matters. they get your full attention for those few minutes. Keep communications simple and straight to the point, but polite. Talk in engagement terms - we not you or I. If you are called aside to be corrected, then turn this around (positively) by pulling it back to the main group and tell them that x from the client has raised point Y that WE can all LEARN from, kudos to X! Etc. You get the drift.

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#3 RE: The Power of the Consultant
11/05/2010 23:53

Mr Cool to C. Eough (#1)

Hi C.eough

Wow – a good and fascinating question and alas no simple or single answer. I have spent the last 10 weeks turning around a failing programme of work and in the process “fired” three permanent employees that were exhibiting just such behaviour. These are extremely complicated situations and no two are the same, therefore no simple answer. However...

Why assume that permanent staff don’t like consultants putting “pain in the a$$” colleagues in their place? Often they love it. Sometimes that’s why we’re hired! We’re the independent reviewer with no axe to grind.

Why assume its lacking integrity to act in a way that removes an obstacle from the successful completion of your engagement? Someone is paying your bill and if your progress is being impaired then they are paying double. You may feel empowered to advise them of this.

If someone is a genuine obstacle to progress it is perfectly valid to negate their influence. If they are simply a distasteful or annoying person to work with, it is perfectly acceptable to isolate them to minimum involvement. Others will thank you, even if silently.

You also say that you have more productive things to do with your time. However (and I’m awaiting regular contributor ZB to jump in with a swipe here), there is an entire industry called change management, where experts earn very handsome day rates, just for facilitating progress, which ideally would be self-delivering. Why? Because not everyone agrees with what needs be done. Consensus does not arrive by itself. Cats need to be herded. In short, the management of obstacles is as much part of your productive activity as the mapping of a process, auditing of a balance sheet, or testing a system.

Of course, I’m tempted to ask, where is your engagement manager in all this and what is he being paid for? Or are you exaggerating the issue?

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#4 RE: The Power of the Consultant
12/05/2010 10:56

someguy to Mr Cool (#3)

Good question - what do you do if a client's being an a$$hole? Sometimes it's a bias against "you highly paid consultants telling us the time with our own watches". Other times they're just under pressure or have never been put into a project role before. Whatever, they need to be kept in line and "managed" just like any ongoing issue.

I sense that you're talking about a client manager rather than a subordinate who would be easy to either sideline or ignore. Personal integrity is not the issue here - a genuinely obstructive person should not be allowed to derail your project, and if you can't confront them directly it's best to "mitigate their impact" ie. go over their heads to someone with whom you can have a collaborative relationship with.

Just take their criticisms on the chin and always bring it back to the work at hand - how can we get to X. Be neither nice nor nasty, but always bring others into the discussions (not only does this spread the pain but it also paints you as the collaborative type, vs the confrontational client).

Often people will respond to seriousness with seriousness (Mars implied this with his gravitas comment). Respond to viciousness and spite with calm and reasoned argument. First to raise their voice loses. Keep doing this whenever you're the target and they will look for an easier person to push around. If it comes to a head, then don't be afraid to confront the issue with the person in front of their line manager - unless they have serious commercial clout they can't hurt you and will recognize that you can't be passive-aggresively pushed around.

Lastly, don't think you can change this person's behaviour or "get your own back" at them. Some people will always be vicious and spiteful - it's not your job to "fix" them, and neither do you need to exact some sort of retribution on others' behalf. As you say, there are better things to do with one's time.

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#5 RE: The Power of the Consultant
12/05/2010 22:07

Up North to someguy (#4)

Hi C Eough,

In my experience of this type of situation it is important to:

* Stay grounded. You are employed to ultimately solve problems and sometimes this will encrouch on peoples fears. This can at time s provoke a reaction.

* Try and get to know the person (age, profile, experience) all come into play, theres nothing like a one to one coffee to clear the air. *Consider language that you are using. Sometimes the way we actually communicate causes confusion..use the same tone and words.

* Recognise that it is what it is. Where there is an impass and you have really tried to explore "coping strategies" then you must look for support from your own line manager and the company equivalent for the person you are dealing with.

* always mainyain your integrity and dignity.Clients notice this.

Win lose or draw its a great learning experience.

Hope this is of use.

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