So you want to be a consultant. You probably think this will involve yourself talking and your client respectfully listening. Your client will put you in front of her team to present a PowerPoint deck outlining how Everything Will Be Different Now. You will then distribute copies of your Initiative Plan to each of her subordinates. Once you have given everyone their marching orders, they will do exactly what you outlined in orderly fashion.
But just to make sure, you personally will visit offices in New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Tokyo to double-check that everyone is doing what they should. You will shop in Rome, buy gadgets at the Seattle Space Needle, have some fabulous meals along the way, and you will reach 1K Status this year. That is why you want to be a consultant--you want to be consulted!
Not so fast, El Guapo! Overbearing, meddling, quick to take offense and quicker to offend: you aren't James Bond. You are everyone's...mother in law. Yes, even if you are a guy. Guys are the worst mothers in law.
How, you ask, is an enterprise hiring a consultant like a family facing a visit from the in-laws?
Put yourself briefly on the receiving end of your own advice. Enterprise employees are seasoned professionals who have been hired, retained, and promoted within the intricate, familial dance of relationships and roles that constitutes company culture. They know who to seek out for help, who they trust, who they don't trust, and how to get things done. Like a family which has figured out how to handle school mornings with only one bathroom, a company arranges itself to avoid unneeded confrontations. Any visible pattern of behavior has a reason behind it.
Now you stomp in with your big mother-in-law boots. Your first thought is that this isn't how it's done. Why is the mustard in the refrigerator door? Why is Brittney allowed to eat nothing but white rice? When did your daughter stop exercising? The husband must weigh 300 pounds, and she's not getting any thinner. YOU have the knowledge. YOU have run a family for an entire generation before these amateurs were born. Literally! You'll get those condiments whipped into shape. The family just needs to lead, follow, or get out of the way. You will use your visit to get everyone to shape up, and hopefully your reforms will stick until your visit next week. If you get invited next week.
Here's a pro tip. The best consultants will not give advice when they first arrive at a new site, even when begged. They will ask questions and they will listen. As social media expert Alison Cummings says, "nothing you say is as important as what you will hear." You may even have the answer on the first day or in the first hour, but the last thing you want to do is trot it out too early. Ideally, you want the client herself to come to the same conclusion you did, or even a better one, and for you to therefore share ownership of the plan. You are there to build up local leaders at all levels, give them techniques, give them mastery, and give them self confidence. You are not there to start running the company yourself.
The inimitable Anne Lamott has released a new book about becoming a grandmother, entitled Some Assembly Required. In a recent interview she described how she has to take really good care of herself when she visits her son and his small family, because nobody in that house is worried about her needs--they're all just focused on themselves and the new baby. There isn't room in that house to give her the care and attention she is used to. But of course, that's how it should be.
Lamott's advice to new mothers in law is to embrace the helpful acronym WAIT: "why am I talking?" And indeed this Four Letter Acronym is one that should underlie every single day you spend at a client site. As business blogger Gary Cohen says, "start by writing WAIT on your notepad before your next meeting." Practicing what Lauren Ekroth calls "mindful" conversation isn't just good for business--it's good for you!
I once won a high school speech contest at the Appleton Rotary Club, and the prize was a pen that had a little window in the side, and every time you clicked the pen open or closed, the saying in the window changed. In rotation, the pen said the immortal Henry Babcock words:
-Is it true? -Is it kind? -Is it necessary? -If not, let it be left unsaid.
Sadly I don't have that pen any more. But instead, I have "WAIT," which is easy to remember. I encourage all of you to remember it as well.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.