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by By Alan Weiss | March 10, 2009


We often perform like a combination of diplomat and acrobat to obtain a piece of business, only to enter into combat with the employees of the organization that we've been hired to help. This is partially due to their prior experience with consultants, their distrust of anyone from the outside, and their legitimate worries about the future.

However, it's also often due to poor preparation by the consultant and the buyer, and that cause can be prevented. During discussions prior to the proposal, and certainly no later than when the buyer says "yes," you should be planning for an appropriate intervention. In my experience, the key steps can include some or all of the following, depending on conditions:

  1. Identify and meet with key sponsors. Aside from the buyer, there are usually key people whose early support of your project will accelerate your progress off the starting line. They could be some of the direct reports of the buyer, but they also can be influential union leaders, top sales performers, and highly respected informal leaders, regardless of title. One-on-one meetings with these people are far better than group meetings for initial contact.

  2. Learn what happened in the past. If other consultants or internal initiatives failed, don't simply write them off as being less effective than your brilliant self. You may just discover that they blew up on unseen land mines that you haven't anticipated, either (e.g., overlooking the ability of certain managers to veto something, even though their approval isn't required to launch it).

  3. Never trust existing assumptions or projections. I've found a great many clients who were adamantly wrong. That is, they held so stubbornly to certain beliefs that those beliefs were mistaken for reality, and successive consultants simply accepted these "truths." You have to ask constantly, "Why do you believe that?" and "Are you 100% certain?" One company insisted that its turnover was below industry averages, until I did the research myself and found out that it was actually 200% above average.

  4. Don't act like the enemy. Charge expenses commensurate with client policy (e.g., don't fly first-class if client managers fly coach). Don't demand things: Go get your own coffee and use your cell phone, not someone's office. Be unassailably polite. Never drop names. Don't critique anyone in public. Observe the local cultural protocols (use the cafeteria, not a private dining room).

  5. Provide value to employees. While the buyer is your client, the employees can be your friends. If you know something that will help them in their work, volunteer it. Buy some doughnuts. Offer someone a ride. Suggest a useful Internet site. You don't have to provide confidential details of your project, but you probably can reveal its objectives and ask for suggestions.

  6. Get out of the way. Whatever you do, do no harm. Don't interfere in normal work routines. Don't attempt to be the center of attention at work or social events. If you're ever uncertain as to whether to speak or intervene, discretion is almost always the better part of valor. You can always correct something an hour or a day later, but you can never retract a remark.

We are frequently perceived as the enemy through no fault of our own. When it is our fault, we probably are the enemy and deservewhat we get. Part of the buyer's education and the consultant's preparation for the engagement should be an assessment of how toenter the existing dynamics of the organization most effectively. This can even be covered in your proposal under "jointaccountabilities."

All organizations have immune systems. Don't allow yourself to be rejected.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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