30/05/2017 8:30 AM IST | Updated 24/09/2018 6:55 PM IST

9 Truths Your Consultant Wants You To Know (But May Not Tell You)

As a CEO, you cannot buy strategy…

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After 15 years of management consulting, I know enough "you-know-you-are-a-consultant-when..." jokes to create a whole new sub-genre of stand-up comedy. Three vital truths learned in Consulting School, however, have prevented me from changing my career direction (much to the relief, if I may add, of comedy aficionados):

a. Stick to what you do best (aka your core competence)

b. Your client should always know when you are joking

c. Never joke.

We are all plotting for your success... What is also behind it is the only vehicle a consulting firm has to grow the business: client references.

I am not joking, therefore, when I say that there is a truth beyond those wise-cracks about Powerpoint presentations and dark suits. Like other specialised professions, we all want to change the world. And the more successful among us keep cynicism at bay for longer, continue to take pride in our trade, laugh at ourselves, and always look to improve ourselves and do well by our clients.

It helps therefore, if there are some truths we can put out there without fear of retribution (and cancelation of contract). And like always, it's always good to begin with a disclaimer:

Truth number 1: There are consultants and there are consultants

Not all truths apply everywhere. What I am talking about here is consulting firms with a mission, core values and a reputation earned over decades of exemplary work (the kind which thankfully, make up most of the firms that I have worked with). Which is not to say there aren't other kinds of firms with entirely different values, methods and delivery standards. Those are not the firms we are discussing here

Truth number 2: As CEO, strategy is your job

Here is this one thing you can't do as CEO: You cannot buy strategy. My team was responsible for helping a manufacturing organisation arrive at their vision. A one-on-one conversation with the CEO over dinner (I will call him Mike) one evening went like this:

Mike—"Great that we have a vision now. What do you see as key derailers as we proceed?"

Me— "At the road-mapping stage, just be sure to yank the chain real hard if any of your leaders come running to me."

Mike—"But didn't you just sign up to help us with the road-map?"

Me— "Yes we did. Just ensure your leaders own the milestones they are entrusted with."

It played out rather tellingly in this case. As with every roadmap, there were overlapping milestones. Whenever there was a conflict over the way forward, we kept guiding the leadership back to the vision and the guiding principles which we had co-drafted.

Wish you could pass on some of the heat to some other quarter? Caution: don't look towards your consultant.

Eventually, the leadership learned to work together. The initiative worked so well that it was replicated in other businesses of the group.

Your consultant can:

  • Provide you industry notes, analyses, best practices and benchmarks.
  • Align stakeholders' perspectives.
  • Help you arrive at and focus on your vision,
  • Provide you decision options with weighted pros-and-cons.
  • Vet your strategy and draw your attention to potential pitfalls in implementation.
  • Throw light on the trade-offs that you make and their implications.
  • Re-adjust your focus to ensure that your horizon is on the right co-ordinates (are you looking so far into the future that you are losing focus on interim milestones? Are you so caught up in the short-term that you fail to look at the bigger picture?).

In other words, your consultant can be an adviser, a thought partner and a facilitator to creation of your strategy.

Your consultant, however, cannot:

  • Tell you what you should want or which trade-offs you should be comfortable with.
  • Tell you what your core capabilities are.

The CEO's (and leadership's) perspective, sign-off and commitment are vital components to the success of any consulting intervention.

Truth number 3: Yes. We are always trying to meet our budget (but it doesn't mean what you think)

Here is a sneak-peek into what happens in an account planning meeting: an analyst is commissioned to bring to the meeting data about your business, market standing, employer brand, recent news, your stated ambitions etc.—all the stuff she gathers through secondary research and talking to your competition and customers. The client partner brings along his vision for the account. The headline of that vision typically is "TeamClient Name>. What can we achieve together?" or "Client name> helping the acorn grow into an oak tree."

In other words, we are all plotting for your success. The aforementioned sense of purpose is, no doubt, behind it. What is also behind it is the only vehicle a consulting firm has to grow the business: client references. A consultant is held to account on if her client qualifies as "reference-ible". Defined as: a client willing to provide us good reference of the work done.

The bottomline: Our success lies in you achieving your goals.

Truth number 4: Don't fire from our shoulders. It helps no one. And nobody is fooled

Okay, so business isn't looking good. You have decided to right-size. Or you have decided to re-structure, which leads to the apple cart getting upset. Key stakeholders have gone into a sulk, threatening to resign. There are possibly a few redundancies.

We are happy to help you from behind the scenes but we have no interest in co-branding say, your EVP program or the roadmap towards your Vision 2020.

In short: there is considerable heat. Wish you could pass on some of the heat to some other quarter? Caution: don't look towards your consultant. Yes, the decision to hive off the business/re-structure/lay-off/implement the new package may have followed the advice of the consultant. However, nothing shakes the confidence of the employee (or shareholders) like an impression that the leadership isn't in charge.

The times which most require that the leadership be visibly in charge are times of big change and when the going seems to be tough for the organisation.

Truth number 5: Own the initiative. Call it yours

Here is something for the believe-it-or-not columns: no, we don't want our logo everywhere. Your initiative—whatever it is—has a chance to succeed only if the leadership is seen to be visibly behind it. We are happy to help you from behind the scenes but we have no interest in co-branding say, your EVP program or the roadmap towards your Vision 2020.

If the initiative succeeds, however, we will be glad to invite you to address a forum and talk about your experiences. To other clients.

Truth number 6: We are evangelists, not mercenaries

We are fired by a sense of mission, one which invariably involves doing well by the client. While this may sound a tad too idealistic, the truth is that there is a certain degree of indoctrination which every consultant needs to imbibe in order to be successful. With a cacophony of different approaches, philosophies, research and points-of-view out there, a firm belief in the efficacy of what we offer to our clients and of our work being in the best interest to the clients' business is what makes it self-fulfilling. To twist a Latinism—we believe, therefore we do.

Truth number 7: There is more than one way to skin a cat. And none of them is the best way

Sounds obvious. How this truth complicates life is that as consultants, we are paid to make recommendations. And sometimes, just working out the arithmetic in a decision matrix is intellectually dishonest. We often do recommend. And our recommendations are a mix of what logic, scientific research, our philosophy and our gut instinct tells us. If we are intellectually honest, we will also tell you the risks and the opportunities you are forgoing by choosing to go with our recommendation over the other options you have.

Truth number 8: We won't always tell you what you want to hear

"Tells it like it is" is a listed behaviour in the competency profile of most consultants in consultancy firms. We are groomed and held accountable for delivering bad news when it is necessary. As some of my clients have heard from members of my team: "No, I can't re-label 'off-track' as 'unsatisfactory'. I will lose my job for it." Believe me dear clients. They were telling you the truth.

Truth number 9: We can't work magic. Though we can do some pretty incredible stuff

Can consultants turn around organisations? Let me answer that like Zhou Enlai answered when asked how the French Revolution had impacted the world: It is too early to say. We all know the controversy which arose out of the fate which befell the "excellent" organisations featured in Tom Peters' book, In Search of Excellence.

It isn't my case that those organisations failed for not correctly implementing McKinsey's advice. The fact, is however, that I have myself been part of amazing transformation journeys with my clients. And it has always been incredibly fulfilling.