Consultants are generally contracted by their clients to resolve an issue. It’s often project based. For instance, a healthcare consulting firm may be contracted to implement a new electronic medical records (EMR) system at a medical center. They will be charged with collecting the requirements for the organization, modifying and configuring the system, implementing the system, training the organization and possibly even supporting the system after it goes live.
One thing the healthcare consulting firm cannot do is make the organization use it. The executives wanted the system enough to pay for it, but if the medical professionals don’t see the value, they may refuse to use it.
Ironically, it’s much like the doctor-patient relationship. The physician can examine the patient, diagnose the ailment and prescribe a range of solutions including medications, exercise and diet restrictions. All the prescribing and preaching within the doctor’s power, however, can’t make the patient follow the doctor’s orders.
The patient can refuse to take the medicine, reject the dietary restrictions and ignore the advice to exercise. And like the consultant, the physician is often blamed when the desired results aren’t realized.
We turn to the doctor or the consultant to determine what’s wrong and how to fix it. We just don’t always like what they tell us to do. Sometimes, we just don’t have the discipline to do it. Old habits are hard to break for adapting to a healthy lifestyle or to new technology.
When people turn to an advisor of any type, they often have an expectation that the advisor will fix the problem without any work or pain involved.
Physicians and consultants are generally placed in the situation of being change agents without the authority to implement the necessary changes. As a result, they need to figure out how to provide advice with influence when they have no authority.
Consulting and managing: The difference
That is the difference between consulting and managing. A manager (usually) has the authority to affect change. A consultant must figure out how to influence the client’s organization. How is that done?
Partner with client management. Depending on the client manager that you work with, you will get varying levels of authority. It’s critical to work with a manager that has both authority within the organization and legitimacy with the team members.
Obtain buy-in from a leadership team of client users. As the project begins to kick-off, identify members of the team that the rest of the team respects. These team members may not have managerial authority, but do have legitimacy within the ranks. If you have them on your side, you will be more likely to get the rest of the team to adopt the system.
Sell without selling. Putting on a hard sell for how it will help the organization save money and be more productive will usually not win them over. It may backfire if they interpret that to mean a reduction in staff in their future. However, demonstrating the benefits to them personally – how it will make their job easier – without the appearance of selling it to them, will improve the chances of getting buy-in from the client organization.
Consultants, like physicians, have limited authority. If they figure out how to influence, they can be successful change agents without the need for authority.
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.