Consulting 101
Lew Sauder is the co-author of The Reluctant Mentor and author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting.  He has been a consultant for twenty years.  Lew can be reached at Lew@LewSauder.com.
Consulting 101

Consulting Goal: Make the Client the Expert

Consultants are hired by clients for a number of reasons.  A client may need to increase their staff temporarily for a special project. Or they may need specialized knowledge that isn’t necessary for the client to hire on a full-time basis. Still other times, the client is looking for advice in an area such as strategy or marketing.

In any of those cases, they turn to an outside expert that can help them solve a problem.

A consultant could provide the bare minimum service.  She could come in, provide the client with the service they have requested – and only that service – and then move on to her next client.

But a good consultant should do more than that.  The consultant has been brought into be the expert, but should leave the client as an expert as well.  This can be done in two ways:

Draw from their knowledge: While the consultant is at the client site doing work for them, it is important to learn the client’s business from them.  This of course allows the consultant to apply her work and advice to the business for a more specialized product.

Additionally, it allows the consultant to share experiences she has had at similar and vastly different clients.  Using the experience a consultant has had in the past to complement the client’s existing business knowledge will make the client better at what he does.

Transfer knowledge: Similar to providing knowledge from previous clients, the consultant should provide what she has learned while at the client site.  When a consultant comes to work at a client, it is assumed that the duration will be temporary. 

While the consultant learns the client’s business and implements new products for them, it is the consultant’s responsibility to teach them what they have implemented before leaving that client. 

A consultant should not work at the client in a vacuum.  Consulting should be collaborative.  When clients and consultants work side by side with each other, the consultant can leave the client at the end of the project with both parties being comfortable that the leave-behind work is in good hands with the client.

There are some consultants that might believe this is a recipe for mentoring your way out of a job.  They feel that if you give them all of your knowledge and tell them everything you know about the system or product you just implemented, the client will have no reason to call you back.

That’s a very limited view. If you add enough value, the client is more likely to continue to call you back for more work.  Help the client grow, and they’ll always have more projects for which they will need your services.

You may even pull business away from your competitors. If you prove to the client that you are focused on their success, they will probably turn to you at the expense of other consulting firms.

The goal of any consultant should be to establish a long-term relationship with the client and become their trusted advisor. The biggest part of that is doing what is best for the client, not for you.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.  

Give Defeat a Chance

We hear about people “playing it safe” all the time. You hear it in investing scenarios when someone invests in vehicles that may not aggressively increase in value, but probably won’t lose value.

Sport team’s do it all the time.  Football teams develop prevent defenses, which allow opposing teams to make short gains, but are prevented from making a long pass or score a touchdown in a single play. A short pass combined with a long run can backfire on them.

It all comes down to how bold you want to be.

People do it in the workplace too. We see people who work harder at avoiding being wrong than being right.

Risk avoidance causes people in the workplace to do some pretty strange things.

When it’s time to report status, instead of telling the truth, they paint a much rosier picture than reality.  It’s what I call the “duck approach”.  Like a duck, they’re smiling and serene on the outside, but underwater, they’re paddling like hell trying to fix things.

The same happens when trying to get people to commit to a deadline. They know that as soon as they commit to a date and miss it, they risk being beaten up over it.  Most people would rather be ambiguous and say they’re still working on it.  “I’ll have it in a couple of days or so.”

These are the type of people who never lose.  They’re always right, because they’re never wrong. By never taking a risk by challenging themselves, they always come out “Okay”.

True winners though, don’t worry about losing.  Wayne Gretzke is famous for saying “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Still, there are those that are quite content not taking the shots and, thus, not missing any of them.

Think of all of the opportunities that present themselves over the course of a career:

·        The chance at a promotion within your firm

·        The chance to interview at another firm for a better job

·        The opportunity to present the quarterly update to the president of the company

·        Asking that man/woman down the hall for a date (note: you should be unattached for this one)

People can be so fixated on not failing that they never take the chance to win.

If you win every time, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments.

Knowing When It’s Time to Move On

From the time we start school as a child, our transitions in life are decided for us for many years.  Each year we finish a grade in school, the next level has been predetermined. When we graduate from high school, even though most of us got to choose whether to go to college or get a job, we knew that it was time to move on.

After graduating from college, it was again assumed that we would begin the job search and transition into the world of the gainfully employed.  Some were more successful than others, but we all knew the next step.

But once you get into that first job, learn the ropes a little and get a couple of years under your belt, you may begin wondering if this is the job for you.  You watch people come and go and eventually start to question whether you should consider a move.

My father’s generation did things differently. He came home from the military, hired on at the local manufacturing company, and put in a forty-year career at one company.

The only “moving on” decision he had to make was when it was time to retire. In many companies, that was decided for you.

It’s different these days. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median employee tenure in 2012 was 4.6 years. People just don’t stay in one job for their entire career like they did years ago.

How do you know when it’s time to leave?

Most people start their careers knowing they probably won’t retire at that company. They know there’s a decent chance that company won’t even be in business in a decade.  Such is the amoeba-like nature of businesses these days. So how do you know when to brush up the resume, call a recruiter and start the job search activity?

No Challenge. If you find you’re doing the same thing and not being challenged, it may be time to move on.  If you find that you're so good at what you are doing that it's almost too easy, you may not be challenged enough.

No growth. Once you realize that you’re not being challenged, it may be that you’ve just been serving in the same role too long.  Talk to your supervisor about growth opportunities.  Growth doesn’t always meant promotion.  It may be that you stay in your same role and perform additional duties that challenge you and help you grow professionally.

Too often, people associate growth with promotion.  And too often, the people who get the promotion find that they’re either in way over their heads, or they moved to a position so radically different that it isn’t a fit.  They may be making more money and have a little more status in the company, but they’re more miserable than when they were unchallenged.

Inconsistent values. No matter how much you love what you do, if the company has values that are inconsistent with your own, it may be difficult to reconcile that for the long term.  Whether those differences are ethical or philosophical, the less aligned they are with your own, the more it may be a hint that it is time to move on.

This is not your father’s career. (This is a take-off of a famous car ad from the 1980s, by the way).  We do things differently nowadays. Few people stay at one job for the duration of their career.  Consumer’s needs change, causing markets to change, causing companies’ needs to change, causing jobs and working roles to change.

Complacency is a bad thing.  Everyone needs to keep their eyes open and know when it is time to move on.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments.

The Nuclear Flyswatter

I worked my way through college waiting tables.  At one place I worked, we had a cook who treated employee meals differently than customer meals.  Customers received the standard fair.  They got what they ordered.  But when an employee went on break and ordered a meal, this cook had a tendency to “gold plate” it.  If you ordered a cheeseburger, you were likely to get double-bacon cheeseburger.  Side of fries? You would get a big honkin basket of fries.

It was a nice gesture, but we would often get much more than we could eat. Sometimes we would get something we didn’t even want. We could see that he was trying hard to get in good with his fellow staff members. But he was trying a little too hard. It was overkill.

I’ve seen the same thing in consulting. Perhaps a company sends out a request for proposal for a simple website to process orders.  The consulting firm is competing with two others for the business. In their competitive drive to win the business, they over-engineer the solution, over-solve the problem, and end up proposing a trumped-up solution that the prospect didn’t want. 

When the consulting firm loses a proposal like this, they go through various stages of denial.  First, they assume they lost on price.  They’ll ask the prospect if they looked closely at the functionality they included.  They want them to understand that the high cost is reflected in the fact that they included more stuff. The prospective client probably understood that.

Then, the firm assumes that the prospective client didn’t understand the solution they proposed.  Because if they did, they would certainly have continued the dialog. Chances are the client understood the solution. It just wasn’t the solution they asked for, that they wanted, or that they were going to buy.

Gold plating happens once the client wins the business too.  In the software development consulting world in which I work, we contract with clients to write web software.  The scope of the project is defined around a certain set of parameters. Project managers need to monitor the work by the team members to make sure their work falls within those parameters.

Computer programmers, like many good workers, can have a tendency to get excited.  Writing code strictly within functional requirements gets boring after a while.  So why not make it a little fancier? Instead of having all these selection boxes as prescribed, they might create a drop down window option.  The users will certainly love that better.

When that happens, it’s well outside of the client’s expectations. Not only does the developer spend extra time doing work that wasn’t asked for, they spend more time reversing it after the user rejects it.

Going over and above the call of duty is admirable. But when consultants go too far, creating value that’s not valuable, they create the nuclear flyswatter that is not wanted, not needed and most likely, won’t be paid for.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.  

Is It Bad To Be a Bossy Woman?

Is It Bad To Be a Bossy Woman?

There has been a lot of talk about bossy women lately.  Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is leading a formidable group of successful women, including Condoleezza Rice and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Marie Chávez, on the banning of that word to describe women. 

Their purpose is admirable.  Women are often given that label when they take on leadership roles that were traditionally held by men.  I’ve heard of other women leaders, such as Hillary Clinton described by another B-word that probably means about the same thing.

What if they actually are bossy?

I agree that just because a woman is in a leadership role, that’s no reason to call them bossy. But what if she is actually just bossy?

The underlying message these successful women are communicating is that men can get away with being bossy and escape the label.  People just do what the men say. That indicates to me that people give credibility to bossy men while they hold bossy women in disdain.

That's unfortunate. But the problem with that is that both men and women should strive to be leaders, not bossy. 

Bossy is not leadership

Bossy is management not leadership. Managers push and manipulate - and boss - people.  Leaders establish a vision and pull a group of people in a common direction.

Bossy is weakness. Leadership is strength.

Bossy in insecure (aka arrogant). Leadership is confidence.

Bossy is authoritarian.  Leadership is collaborative.

Bossy people try too hard to gain credibility while leaders naturally earn it.

Credibility and respect – call it followership – cannot be demanded. It must be commanded. “You will call me Mr. Sauder and you will respect me, damnit!” just doesn’t work.

It’s hard for me to believe that Ms. Sandberg, Ms. Rice, or Ms. Chávez got to where they are by being bossy.  Aggressive? Most likely. Leaders? Absolutely. I can’t imagine they attained their respectable statuses by simply bossing people around without being excellent leaders.

After reading Ms. Sandburg's book "Lean In", I know that she's not advocating women to be bossy, she wants them to be leaders. (Full disclosure: I did not read her book, I listened to it on Audible)

It would be very unfortunate if young female future leaders got the message that it’s okay for them to be bossy; that people just need to quit giving them the label.

Young female future leaders (not to mention young male future leaders) need to learn that leadership, which is very different from bossy, is a much better way to earn respect and get things accomplished.

I’m sure that Sandberg, Rice, and Chávez all know that. I just hope their campaign doesn’t send the wrong message.

Because it’s not alright for women or men to be bossy.

A Consulting Limerick

A man tried a career in consulting

But his approach with clients was insulting

He was arrogant and rude

With the clients he’d feud

And they found him to be quite revolting

 

The firm chose to pull him aside

And some mentoring had to provide

They gave him some tools

And taught him some rules

And regulations for him to abide

 

At first he was rather resistant

He didn’t think he needed an assistant

Because I went to a top college

I have so much knowledge

On this he was very insistent

 

They said we hired you to be an expert

But your behavior we want to revert

Despite all you know

If you don’t help clients grow

Your value will be considered inert

 

It took him a while to see

The type of consultant that he should be

Client problems need to be solved

By getting the client involved

Not by giving opinions forcibly

 

He learned that consultants can’t condescend

Trust must be earned like that of a friend

To make the client wiser

You must be a trusted adviser

Or else you career will hit a dead end

 

Today he’s a raging success

His errors he’ll willingly confess

He avoided the career tumble

By being more humble

And focusing on the client’s best interest

How We Are Taught Not to Succeed

I still remember my kindergarten class with Miss Fischer.  We did our fair share of learning, memorizing the days of the week, the alphabet and so on.  But more than that, I remember singing, playing, and climbing the jungle gym.

It wasn’t until first grade that we got down to business. Throughout my primary school years, we had our share of fun.  There was music class and art class.  We had a lot of fun on the playground at recess too. But the bulk of time was spent in the classroom cramming facts into our brain.  Mathematics, grammar, history, science, spelling, etc.

Day after day, year after year, we sat in classrooms all day being taught.  Every once in a while they checked to see if we were listening by springing a test or a quiz on us.

Then, in my senior year, without warning, all of these adults who decided what I would learn – teachers, parents, guidance counselors – began asking me strange questions. “What do you want to do with your life?” “Where do you want to go to college?” “What do you want to major in?”

For twelve years, superiors decided what I would study, when I would study and how my success would be judged.  Then in an abrupt change of direction, I was expected to make decisions for myself.

I was confused for a while.  Actually, for a long while. I went to college with an “undeclared” major, finally deciding to get into technology.  My decision on a major in technology (it was called Data Processing in those days), wasn’t based on any certainty of what I wanted to do with my life.  It was based more on the fact that a lot of people seemed to be doing that… so I figured what the hell.

It worked out quite well for me. But that’s more because it was a lucky decision than a well thought out career strategy. I’ve never dismissed the idea that I might just be the luckiest dumbass on the planet.

I don’t think I’m alone either.  And it appears that the way we raise children today may make it even worse.

There is less play and creativity in school today and more fact cramming. We measure the success of students and teachers alike based on the number crunching outcomes of standardized tests.

When college graduates make the transition into the work world, they are often given orders and told what to do rather than prompting ideas from them. What the hell do these young green employees know?  The older folks with all of their experience know better. Besides, that’s how it was done when we started out.  If it was good enough for us, it must be good enough for them.

On the other hand, we hear an awful lot of noise about creativity, problem solving and innovation.  We need new ideas. We have all of this technology. How can we apply it in profitable ways? The kid is book-smart, but why can’t he solve a problem where the answer isn’t in the back of the book?

We spend sixteen years in primary and secondary school “educating” the world’s youth. But that education consists of facts and figures.  Most of the problem solving is artificial.

What can we do?

There are no easy solutions. I don’t claim to have all the answers.  But I see a void in non-fact based activities in our education system.  Programs like art and music that get students using the other side of their brain have taken big hits from economic cut-backs.

Not every student is an athlete. But there are – or should be - enough extracurricular activities for every student to participate.  What if school went until 5:00 every day? The extra sixty to ninety minutes could be focused on everything they don’t focus on now.

If you’re not into athletics, there is music, art, debate, chess club, or some activity that uses different brain muscles you didn’t use during the day.

Problem solving should be a bigger part of the curriculum.  Not absolute problem solving where the teacher compares your answer to the correct answer in the teacher’s guide. Problem solving where there are many right answers based on the argument you make for it.

Problem solving where the answer begins with “It depends…” Then the student is required to tell the class what it depends on, what parameters she had to work around and the answer she finally came up with.

There is a famous story about FedEx founder Fred Smith. In business school, he submitted a paper for a Yale economics class in which he proposed the idea of an overnight package delivery company. He received a poor grade on the paper with a note from the instructor that the idea had to be feasible.

How often have you been shot down with “Wrong answer”, and never pursued your calling? How often does that happen in schools every day?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

You Had Me at Goodbye

I recently had a conversation with someone who didn’t want the conversation to end.  It started innocently enough as a hallway conversation.  We hadn’t seen each other in a while.  I made some small talk asking the person how things had been.  After about five minutes, I realized that the conversation had evolved to meaningless chatter. Every time I started to close off the argument, my counterpart came up with another topic of discussion.

I’ve seen a similar phenomenon in meetings.  I once had a weekly status meeting that was scheduled for an hour.  Even when all of the agenda topics had been covered, the facilitator of the meeting would think up new discussion topics to fill out the balance of the hour. Just because a meeting is scheduled for an hour, doesn’t mean it needs to last that long.

I’ve gotten into conversations in the elevator on the way out of the office at the end of the day. My conversation mates would continue small talk in the building lobby.  Meanwhile, I stand there counting in my mind, each car that is filling into traffic ahead of me.

I’m not anti-social.  I enjoy a good conversation as much as the next guy.  And maybe there are some that think I talk too much.  My willingness to jabber is directly related to how much I enjoy talking to you.

Maybe it’s just me.  My too-slow wife says I’m impatient.

I think of it as just being practical and efficient.  Say what you need to say, finish, and let me get on my way.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.  

The Consulting Commute

The Consulting Commute

If you work in the consulting industry and live in the metropolitan area of any major city, chances are, you’ve dealt with a long commute at times.

Living in the Chicago suburbs, I’ve had my share of dealing with a long commutes.  I’ve had clients range from Gary, Indiana to Kenosha, Wisconsin.  I’ve been downtown in Chicago’s loop and in the far western suburbs of St. Charles.

That’s a variance of ninety-five miles north to south and forty miles east to west.

In consulting, there’s a fair amount of out of state travel as well.  I live forty miles from Midway Airport and forty-five miles from O’Hare.

Ideally, one would live in as central of a location as possible, close to expressways and equidistant from each direction and both airports.  Oak Brook would be terrific. There, however, the homes in the gated communities go for well over a million dollars.

You can certainly branch out from there to more affordable housing.  But for a young consultant saving to buy that first house, one soon realizes that the further west you go, the more affordable it is.

When considering joining a consulting firm, it’s a good practice to determine where the majority of their clients are.  Some firms assume 100% travel.  In that situation, it may be best to live close enough to an airport that the weekly commutes to and from are not too much of a burden.

If the majority of their clients are in a specific area (i.e. north suburbs or in the city), it may be best to find a place in that area.

Other factors to think about:

Public transportation: Living near public transportation enables you access to many areas within the city, including airports without the need of a car.

Parking: If you own a car, even if you can take public transportation, you’ll need a place to park it. Whether you rent or own, that’s a luxury that isn’t always included in a metro area.

Work location of spouse/significant other: You can find a place to live that’s within ten minutes of your work.  That may be nice for you, but if your spouse’s work is forty-five miles away, you may face pressure to move.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there is no ideal location for a consultant to live.  I’ve learned that short cuts are quickly learned by other and have as much gridlock as the main highway.

Ways to deal with it

I used to come home from work ready to kick the cat and yell at the kids.  Through experience, I’ve learned many ways to deal with long commutes.

Audio books: I listen to a lot of audio books.  CD packs are available at the local library for free.  You can also load them to you smart phone from Audible, iTunes and other sources. I used to listen almost exclusively to business and self-help books.  I’d find myself getting bored with them eventually.  I learned to alternate between fiction and non-fiction to maintain my interest.

Podcasts: Similar to audio books, listening to podcasts is like the DVR of radio.  You can select sports, business, religion, comedy, essentially any topic you are interested in.  Load them to your phone and listen away.

Music on your smart phone: I’ve caught myself scanning through the radio stations looking for some type of music that I like.  When it scans the dial three or four times, I finally realize that I have all of my favorite music on my own phone.

Satellite radio: Although a monthly subscription can be expensive, if the commute is long, it might be worth your sanity to get satellite radio to give you enough options to never get bored.

Comfortable car: If you have a car in which the air conditioning or heat do not work, your commute is going to seem longer than it already is.  Purchasing a car with a comfortable seat, working air and heat and other amenities will at least make you comfortable as you count the license plates in traffic.

Working in a consulting environment, facing demanding clients on a daily basis can be demanding enough. Getting in a hot (or cold) car and spending the next ninety to one hundred-twenty minutes in bumper to bumper traffic will just make things worse.

Finding ways to deal with it will improve your sanity and possibly even help you be more productive, advancing in your consulting career.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

Is it Gut Feel or Wishful Thinking?

Perhaps my father didn’t like me, because he raised me to be a Chicago Cubs fan. And since I’m a slow learner, by the time I realized the futility of being a Cubs fan, I was stuck; there was no switching teams.

So now, every time I go to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, I enter with the hope of a Cubs win. Sometimes I just know deep down inside that they’re going to win.

It usually only takes a few innings to bring me back to reality. I realize that that gut-feeling I had for a win was really only wishful thinking.

I see that type of approach in the business world too. Managers develop what they consider a “sixth sense”.   Someone presents them with an opportunity or an issue and instead of looking too deep into the details, the manager trusts his intuition.  He makes a rash decision and goes for broke. 

Like my visits to Wrigley Field, sometimes the manager gets lucky and things turn out alright. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. In baseball, it’s pretty black and white.  Either you win or you lose.  Business decision outcomes aren’t as easy.

A manager who makes a bad decision based on limited information can pass the blame to someone else or paint the outcome to be better than it is.

Good decision making though, requires more than going with your gut.  A good manager goes through a somewhat methodical process to ensure he or she has done the due diligence to make a good decision. 

A good decision making process involves the following steps:

·        Investigate all options. Brainstorm with others to make sure you have considered several ways to address the issue. The obvious solution may not always be the best. Sometimes it turns out that a combination of ideas is the best solution.

·        Consider benefits and risks of each option. Some decisions have rippling effects on other areas of the business. Analysis should be done to consider undesired effects to other business units.

·        Determine the likelihood of risks occurring. Once you identify as many ramifications to each option as possible, try to determine how likely those things are to happen.  This can help direct you one direction or another in making your decision.

·        Get input from trusted people who understand the issues. Good managers know that they don’t know everything.  Getting advice from trusted colleagues and direct reports can provide new perspectives you may not have considered.

·        Make an informed decision. Finally, when you have considered all of your options and judged each one on its merits, it’s time to make the decision.

·        Admit when you’ve made a bad decision. Even after careful analysis and doing all of your due diligence, everyone is capable of making an incorrect decision.  When that happens, it’s best to recognize the error, make corrections and move on. It’s about getting it right, not being right.

Popular advice is to follow your instincts.  That advice may apply in some situations, but your gut feel should be tempered with good research and analysis to make sure that your instinct isn’t simply biased with wishful thinking.

Unless you’re watching baseball; then just follow your heart. And wait until next year.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.