Consultant or Cheerleader?

February 12, 2015 by
Filed under: Agility, Leadership, People 

When you hire a consultant, you probably have an expectation of a specialized set of skills, or a particular value that you are looking for. That might be some expertise that you don’t have (or couldn’t readily develop) in-house, or an objective perspective to help you see things in a different way.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the consulting landscape has been diluted over the years.

As companies downsize, some of the senior people that thrived in a corporate setting (with plenty of supporting roles around them) take the leap and hang out their shingle. They’ll tend to rely on what worked for them in the past and try to apply the same thing everywhere they go. It might work in some spots, but not all. They’ll have a tough time gaining clients with that approach, and often end up just settling into an employment gig somewhere soon.

Others will see consulting as a game to play with the client, and their goal is to win the game. They’re the ones that are pitching whatever is currently in vogue, and when the perceived market needs change to a different fad, so will their pitch. “Rah, Rah, Sis-boom-bah” becomes “C’mon Tigers, You’re the ones…”. Sometimes they’ll ask you which jingle you are interested in hearing, then tell you they’re the best damned that-jingle cheerleaders available, having just read the book or taken the 1-day mastery course.

Easy to sell, there will be a brief improvement wherever they go (primarily because your group is thinking and talking about these things for the first time, rather than anything the consultant has contributed), and as long as their pitch matches those perceived sales needs, they’ll probably do well – for themselves. You have probably experienced some of this, might even be caught up in that temporary euphoria and waving pom-poms now.

The problem is that what’s happening on the sidelines is a bunch of stock chants and moves that while energizing, are largely secondary to what’s really happening out on the field/pitch/court. Real teams, with real cultures and complex environments and challenges need more than this. The cheerleaders might bring the spectators to their feet, but are usually too busy doing their thing to recognize what’s really happening in the trenches – “We’re the best!” doesn’t address the pain you are experiencing right now. The environment is different on every team, with every project, and the current situation can change several times a day.

Hire the cheerleaders if you wish, but recognize the limitations of any approach that doesn’t take your context into consideration. Appreciate the risk that trying to cram their stock approach into that context can actually make matters worse. Ask yourself if that approach is really worth what they are planning to charge you. Contrary to popular belief, you really don’t always get what you thought you paid for.

Alternatively, you could take the time to find the right person to work with you on your playbook, rather than bringing in a new cheer. You’ll get lasting value working with someone that has broad experience, is not wedded to a particular cheer (but knows many), understands that the team and relationships are far more critical than any stock plays, and is willing to understand what’s really happening before throwing a stock solution at you. Respect the details of your situation, they are not so easily swept under the rug.

This, unlike cheerleading chants, will never change. – JB

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