You would think, by the time we get through twelve years of primary education and four years of college, that we’d be able to deal with criticism. After dealing with critical parents, siblings, teachers, coaches and strangers, it should be part of our DNA.
But no matter how much criticism we face in our lives, it’s still hard to take. It is a consulting skill that every consultant must learn to master.
When we graduate from college and join the business world, we come in wanting to conquer the world. I’ve got a college degree and I’m not afraid to use it. Oh sure, we lack experience, but experience is overrated. I’ve just been trained on the latest and greatest business practices available. I’ve got a few things to teach these old-timers that hired me.
This consulting firm I just joined? They heavily recruited me. They told me I was a rock star. They insinuated that their success hinges on my joining them. Look out business world, I’m going to kick some ass.
Then reality sets in. The new consultant finds that he is one of many. He learns that this firm hired a lot of rock stars. In fact, rock stars are the only type of people they hire.
When he gets out in front of a client, he finds that he doesn’t know as much as he thought. Solving business problems is a lot tougher when the answer isn’t provided by the professor at the end of the discussion.
The consultant finds this out the hard way. He may face a tough client. The client is paying a lot of money on an hourly basis for these consultants. She may not like the fact that the consulting firm has placed these young green consultants on her project where she’s paying to train them for their next client.
She may be very critical of the consultant’s work and won’t hesitate to let him know about it. She treats her employees a little differently. When her own people screw up, she counsels them and helps to develop them for the long term. Consultants are supposed to have already been through that with their own firm. Counseling and mentoring consultants is not the client’s job.
Criticism can come internally from a demanding boss who expects you to be able to hit the ground running and do the job that you’re getting paid the big bucks for.
The consulting skill of the thick skin
Regardless of where it comes from, a new consultant will face high expectations from clients (aren’t you the expert?) and their own management (you’re in the big leagues now). The criticism usually comes in three primary modes:
‘You suck’: The most demanding clients and bosses will just come out bluntly and tell you when you screwed up and expect you to shape up or ship out. This is painful criticism to receive. It can sometimes get personal and even when it’s not, the tendency is to take it personally.
The key is to filter out what the criticism is. Are they just blowing off steam? Making a mountain out of a molehill? Or, is there a diamond in that rough that you can take back with you to improve. In this approach, they only tell you what you did wrong. You have to figure out how to develop and keep it from happening again.
Constructive criticism: When someone gives you constructive criticism, they’re really saying ‘You suck, but here’s what you can do to stop sucking”. It’s important to listen to their advice. No matter what a rock star you are, you should strive for constant improvement. Use this feedback to improve.
One caveat here, make sure it’s correct. You may not suck. Maybe you just didn’t do it their way. It’s important to make sure the advice you’re getting is appropriate for you. If you decide it’s appropriate, learn from it.
The offhanded comment: I once had a boss that was notorious for offhanded comments. This type of criticism is given through mini-jabs like “Well, I guess that will have to do.” and “If that’s the best you can provide…” Criticism through offhanded comments may be the toughest to receive because they don’t tell you exactly what’s wrong and they don’t give any feedback on how to improve. You’ll often receive it from insecure managers that can never be pleased.
Regardless of their insecurity or lack of leadership capability, there is always the possibility that they’re right, however poorly they’ve communicated it. Depending on your relationship with the person – and your ballsiness – you can ask for feedback. You could say something like “Where does it need improvement?” or “I’d be happy to make changes if you’d give me some suggestions.” Don’t expect much in the way of helpful advice. The manager that manages with the offhanded comment isn’t likely to provide helpful comments.
Despite the management style of the client or manager you work for, it’s important to develop a thick skin when it comes to criticism. You will receive it for the rest of your career. If you let criticism destroy you, it gladly will. Consider the criticism doled out to people like the President of the United States, professional athletes and professional sports officials. Their criticism is very public and can be very harsh and personal. Criticism you receive from a manager or client will most likely pale in comparison.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.