I remember when my wife and I had just graduated from college and were beginning our careers. I was a consultant and she was a middle school teacher. We were both filled with optimism and enthusiasm. We had the potential to change the world.
As a teacher, she was learning new approaches to education and couldn’t wait to start applying them. We went to my home town for the weekend to visit my parents around that time. At my parents’ church, we ran into one of my teachers from middle school who was near retirement. He and my wife got into a conversation about these new teaching approaches.
Today, we observe a phenomenon that makes the United States unique and special. We will observe the peaceful transition of power of the United States presidency. Regardless of your politics or whether your candidate won, this is a process that has gone smoothly for over 200 years.
The outgoing president works closely with the newly elected president to facilitate a smooth transition of power. I’ve always been impressed by this. Even when the successor defeated the incumbent (which has happened ten times in our history), the two work together in the greater interest of the nation.
Although it rarely matches the levels of significance and national security, I’ve seen this occur in consulting environments many times. A team member on a project is to be replaced by another. When this happens, the incumbent team member is expected to transition his or her work to the incoming person.
Transitioning to your successor
One of the great things about consulting is the variety. Consultants thrive on moving from project to project. Some even like to have a variety of clients. After some time on a project, they are ready to move on. This can be a pleasant process in these situations. The incoming consultant is excited about the new assignment. The outgoing one is just as excited to start something new.
Sometimes, a client will change contracts with their preferred vendors, needing to transition knowledge from one firm’s consultants to another. This can be based on cost savings or an effort to consolidate work to fewer firms.
A transition like this is comparable to an incumbent president losing the race, required to transition to his opponent. While the outgoing firm may resent being replaced, they must do the professional thing. They need to provide the knowledge transfer necessary to make their replacement successful.
This should not be confused with the story in 2016 regarding Disney employees training replacement workers. That was about permanent employees losing their jobs because cheaper consultants were replacing them. A consultant-for-consultant swap is much more common and more acceptable. Consultants expect to be temporary and to move on to another temporary assignment.
Interviewing your replacement
I’ve been in the situation where, as part of my transition off of a project, I was to interview candidates to take my position. On one hand, that is an almost ideal person to do the interviewing. No one knows the position like the incumbent.
There could be a potential conflict of interest, even if the consultant is leaving willingly. He could fear a newcomer showing him up. He could focus on hiring someone less qualified to make his previous work appear better in comparison.
But like the incumbent president focusing on a smooth transition of power, a consultant needs to think of the client and their project. Sabotaging the project, no matter how subtle, will tarnish the reputation of the consultant and his firm.
Handing off the work
Once the new consultant has been identified and brought in for the transition, it can be awkward. The replacement may feel uncomfortable taking the place of the outgoing guy. The new consultant may be present when people say their goodbyes and show their disappointment to see the old guy go.
It is up to the outgoing consultant, regardless of the purpose of the staffing change, to make the process go smoothly. All documentation should be shared and authorized access provided to the new consultant.
Key stakeholders should be introduced in person, if that is possible. Contact information should be shared and background on each individual’s role and responsibilities. The ultimate goal should be that your replacement is never heard saying, “My predecessor never mentioned anything about that.”
It’s just how it works in consulting
Some people may find it bad form to require someone to train their replacement. The Disney scenario is extreme because permanent employees had to transition to their replacements before their firing took place. Because of the temporary nature of consulting, transitioning to your successor is a fairly common occurrence. It may create uncertainty for the outgoing consultant, but it’s just the way consulting works.
Have you ever been replaced by another consultant?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
My son, a senior in high school, is a pitcher for the school’s baseball team. He’s been playing since he was five years old. I’ve watched him and many of his teammates grow up playing baseball.
It’s been fun watching these boys develop as young men and as baseball players. Some have a natural talent. Others have worked very hard to make the team and continue to be competitive. I’ve seen some that got to the point where their talents didn’t allow them to go to the next level and be competitive.
These boys continued to go out for the baseball team every year. Some years they made it and sat on the bench for most games. Others simply didn’t make the team. In his junior year, the coach transitioned my son from catcher to pitcher. He sat the bench most of last year as a result. But was told he would play more this year.
Playing baseball from the bench
My son had a couple of friends who went out for the team for their senior year and didn’t make it. He felt bad for them. I told him it was probably better in the long run not to make the team than to sit the bench for their whole senior season.
He disagreed. “Even when you sit the bench, you’re still part of the team,” He countered. I thought about some of the stories he told of games when he was on the bench. He talked about working the field with the team.
He talked about joking with the other players. He didn’t have stories of great plays or winning hits he made. But he had stories of the fun he had. He had stories of contributing in ways other than playing baseball.
Consulting on the bench
That opened my eyes a bit. I hated watching him sit the bench last year. But as much as he would have rather been playing, he still had fun because he was part of the team. He felt good when they won and was sore when they lost.
It made me realize a situation I was dealing with – or not dealing with – at work.
I had been on a project that started out behind and went downhill from there. After some time of spinning our wheels, the client complained. My firm responded by making some changes. One of those changes was to take me off the project. They were very clear with me that they didn’t blame me for the problems. They just needed to demonstrate to the client that they were serious.
I was kept on the project to help with transition and to help wherever I could. But I was clearly on the bench.
I started out doing what I could do to help. But as my replacement came more up to speed, he didn’t need as much help. I went in to a funk. As much as my teammates were struggling with a difficult project, I felt like I was on the outside looking in.
I felt like the guy whose girlfriend broke up with him, but he couldn’t afford to move out yet. So he had to sit there and watch her have sex with the new boyfriend.
Everyone in the firm knew I was taken off of the project. I wasn’t billing, which is never good in consulting. In our daily stand-up meetings, I was the one who didn’t report doing much. It was a pretty humiliating experience.
Boo hoo. Woe is me.
Adding value from the bench
The conversation with my son resonated with me. He wasn’t out in the field playing. He wasn’t getting any RBIs. He could have been humiliated and quit. He could have come home sulking after every game about his lack of glory. Instead, he talked about his friends on the “bench crew” like they were their own team.
He added value where he could. He helped rake the field before and after every game. He cheered the team on when they won. He consoled them and shared in the disappointment when they lost.
He found ways to add value.
I looked around me and saw that there really were a lot of things I could do that would add value consulting on the bench.
There are usually a few people in the office that are unassigned. Consulting firms have to maintain some form of a bench to keep a staffing pipeline for the sales pipeline. I got together with few unassigned coworkers (our own “bench crew.”) We worked on designing a second release of an internal application that the firm used.
At least we could add value for future projects.
Most consulting firms fuel their growth in three ways. They have to sell projects to clients to make money. They have to deliver those projects in order to bill the clients. And they have to hire competent people in order to deliver those projects. You can’t be good in only two of those areas.
So I kept my eyes open for anyone in my network who might be in the job market. When that happens and I’m busy on a project, I might refer them to my favorite head hunter or send their resume to our firm’s recruiter.
Since I had time, it gave some back to them. When people told me they were looking for a job, I’d meet them for coffee and find out what they were looking for. I tried to find people who might be a good fit for our firm that I could refer. If they weren’t a good fit, at least I had done a little networking. You never know when they might be a fit down the road.
In the old days, we used to call it sales. But that sounds so used car-ish. It’s really about developing relationships though. I kept my eyes open for new opportunities from my network. When there was something that looked like an opportunity, I referred it to our business development team.
I also talk to them about anything I could do to help. Could I provide delivery expertise in a proposal or in a prospect meeting? Was there any running they needed that they were too busy to do?
In addition to the above items, there is usually a lot you can do to help out if you just look around. Is there any testing you can do for any of the teams before they hand things over to a client? Can you help out the receptionist with anything? Does anyone, anywhere in the office need a hand with anything?
Get over yourself
Most consultants associate their value with billable hours. If they aren’t serving a client, they feel as though they aren’t adding value. They think of a client project team as their team.
But consultants are also on a firm-wide team. You might be on the bench, but there are other ways you can serve that team. If you feel that you are above that kind of work or that it is outside of your job description, you’re wrong. There are many other ways you can add value to your firm.
Perhaps your ego has been bruised for being taken off of a project, or for just going a period of time without a billable assignment. Work on developing a thicker skin, get over yourself, and figure out ways to help in other ways. It might just get you your next assignment.
I always thought my son and his friends felt left out sitting the bench. But I realized that they would have felt much more like outcasts if they were not part of the team.
For whatever reason you find yourself unbillable, consulting on the bench can allow you to do some other consulting-related activities that you don’t otherwise have the opportunity to do. It also might help you turn humiliation to humility.
What have you done to add value when consulting on the bench?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
Early in my career, I worked for a small consulting firm as a software developer. I liked the company and I like the work. I had a very supportive manager. Perhaps because of those factors, and some credit to my small town, mid-western roots, I worked hard on my projects. I put in long hours and ate at a lot of food out of paper bags from carry-out restaurants.
I was there just short of four years before the company went out of business. Another consulting firm came in within days to interview anyone who was interested. I interviewed with them and was hired by them. I learned later that when they talked to my boss about me, he told them “Lew will do whatever it takes to get the project done right and on time.” Continue reading How to Create Your Personal Brand→
I grew up in a small town of about 2,000 people. My high school graduating class size was 63. It was a small, tight-knit community and still is. I don’t live there anymore, but enjoy my visits back.
There was a woman who worked in the high school office for over 40 years. I knew her well and waited on her often at the restaurant that I worked at in that small town when I was in high school. I knew her kids growing up. She was a nice sweet woman.
She recently pleaded guilty to embezzling over a million dollars from the high school over the period of about a decade. Along with my former community members, I’m shocked. No one ever suspected her of such a thing. Now, instead of enjoying her retirement years, she may serve the rest of her life in prison.
I once had a new consultant join my team who entered the client site as if he owned the place. He was expected to share a cubicle with a fellow consultant but refused.
“I need a desk to myself to spread out.” He exclaimed. In fact, he lobbied to get an office with a door to himself. The client’s managers didn’t even have such a perk.
An aloof consultant
That was just the beginning. This aloof consultant claimed to be a database expert and criticized every aspect of the client’s database design that was different from his own design preferences. Continue reading The Aloof Consultant→
I’ve been working since the age of 12 when I became a busboy at an Italian restaurant in my hometown. I still remember my dad dropping me off on my first night. As I got out of the car, the last thing he said to me was a rather emphatic “Do what you’re told” (as though I’d had a history of not doing that with him). Continue reading Are You A Rule Follower?→
I’ve always had a pretty good sense of humor. I can find irony in a lot of things and have used it to my advantage. In my school days it would get me in trouble occasionally when the teacher thought I was auditioning for class clown. As I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve tried to mature only as much as necessary. Continue reading Can Consultants Have a Sense of Humor?→
As one who has lost his job in each economic downturn that has occurred throughout my career and changed jobs once on my own accord, I’ve been through the painful process we call job search more often than I care to admit. I’ve been through the frustration cycle of searching the job boards, customizing my resume to the job postings, submitting it into the black hole of the internet to hear nothing in return.