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March 10, 2009


A few months ago, I answered an e-mail about what to do when client requirements and the perceived best solution for the client conflict. As a consultant, you analyze the client's circumstances and provide as many solutions as possible, presenting the one or two solutions you believe to be the best. But sometimes, the client hires consulting companies simply to validate a management decision that might not necessarily be popular among the staff. And sometimes, in these situations, the results and the client management's decision clash. Well, let us first admit that consultants do not often know everything. In fact, client management often chooses not to disclose all the information to consultants. So before you begin, gather your facts first.


Several years ago, a client wanted to implement two ERP systems and integrate them with an existing in-house built manufacturing module - a very expensive and convoluted system. None of the client staff I interviewed wanted to convert to such a monstrous system, yet management had already made this decision. My job was to validate their cost-benefit analysis and convince the staff of the decision's intelligence. Even before beginning the significant data analysis, I knew my work was going to be difficult, to say the least.


From my perspective, the client hired us to be the heavy-handed messengers of bad news. To make matters worse, my management seemed not to care. The client had promised - in writing - to award us the proposal for the implementation. This second phase of the project was going to bring in close to $300,000 dollars a month. Clearly, my partners were not going to pass on this opportunity.


For two months, I was the only point of contact the client's middle management had with the client's steering committee. For two months, I tried to play both sides - sympathetic with the client staff and on board with both client management and my management. I had to play politics with the greatest finesse I could extend - a difficult task in a manufacturing company where 90 percent were men over 45 with whom I shared little in common and who opposed most change (including the brand of soap in the bathrooms!). ~ The whole time I was plagued with the one obvious question I feared to ask: Why would the client want to throw out so much money? But there came a point when I thought I would compromise too much of myself by not asking. I thought that if I understood the motives behind this wretched project, I could at least maneuver through the questions from the staff better. So I asked my partner, who simply stated it was political at the client's senior management level. Obviously! But beyond that, the partner refused to disclose any more information.


I later found out that the partner could not tell me more because he did not know any more. A few weeks later, the CEO's wife told me what instigated the politics. I was completely bowled over with disbelief. Apparently, the CEO, grandson to the founder, felt too inadequate to run the company and decided he would make more money personally, if he intentionally made the company fail. I was completely dumbfounded. First of all, I could not understand why his wife would tell me this. Secondly, I lacked absolute understanding of how the CEO came to the conclusion that this orchestration was the best way for him to maximize his personal profits. And lastly, I was stricken by the absolute disregard for all the employees, many of whom had worked there for decades, not to mention the unethical legal document awarding us a contract we were never going to realize.


I had several options for dealing with this new information: run and tell my management, try to convince the CEO of an alternative, or keep quiet. Well, with information as explosive as this, I decided the last choice was the least appealing and logical. I had no loyalty to the client. So I told my partner to meet me for drinks the next evening - he was going to need it. He knew me well enough to know I only invited him out for drinks when I had bad news. He met me, had two beers, and then demanded to know why I had called him out. I watched this man's face go from cherry (from the alcohol) to blanched (shock) and then back to scarlet (anger). I made him hand over his car keys, drove him home after four more beers, and made him promise not to act rashly on this information. ~ The next day, I went into the office instead of the client's, went over our billing records with Accounting, and found we had been paid to-date. I informed the partner, who called an emergency team meeting with the manager on the account, an audit partner, and a team from our financial services consulting line. We went over the client's last financial statements, went through our client roster to determine a good M&A, wrote up two proposals for an acquisition, and scheduled a meeting with the CEO and the (hopefully) acquiring company for the next day.


First we got the acquiring company to agree to our proposal. Then we went to see the other CEO. When we confronted him, we witnessed a nervous breakdown and decided to reconvene an hour later. When the time came, we proposed the acquisition and won the engagement (with the agreement we would get paid upfront). The following week the CEO made the internal announcement at a town hall meeting. Over the next two months, the CEO made arrangements for severance payments and initiated the M&A.


There will be multiple instances in your career where you are in difficult positions. But through teamwork and creativity, solutions can be found. Most of your situations are not going to be so extreme as in this case. But I firmly believe that as long as you act responsibly, ethically, and intelligently, most of your conflicts can be resolved. I do not wish to make this sound so trite, but I only want to encourage you to take heart. By the way, the CEO and wife are still married, and we still stay in touch.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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