Do I have your attention yet?
I don't recommend that you be a shark, constantly in motion and always hungry, but it might be appropriate to emulate a dolphin - an intelligent animal that communicates well, organizes to help others, swims purposefully and efficiently, and is recognized as a valuable and distinct ecological contributor.
The best consultants have their own propulsion systems, which consist of a set of values, excellent communication skills, a partnership of equals with the client, and a sense of purpose (other than merely making money). This self-imposed and self-perpetuating direction makes us all the more valuable and distinct in the client's eyes. Make no mistake: "Yes people" are seen for what they are, which is low-level, insincere, sycophants. Clients are much more willing to pay high fees to consultants who will "push back," provide independent analysis, and speak forcefully, no matter what the consequences.
May the force be with you
How do you become a force and maintain your own direction amidst the political winds and cultural tides of the client organization? Here are some attributes and techniques that I've found useful:
1. Establish early what the client's accountabilities are, what your accountabilities are, and what the joint accountabilities are. Almost every time a consultant finds the project undermined or sandbagged midway through, it's because the client is not living up to his or her end of the bargain. Make this explicit at the outset (e.g., "You will model such open communications in your own meetings") so that you can hold the client's feet to the fire.
2. Tactfully disagree and push back as soon as you hear something that conflicts with your own analysis or beliefs about the project. If you let these disagreements ride, the client will inevitably assume that you have passively agreed with the other position. You never want a client to say, "You've never told me that before," late in the project. Also, make sure you do this with everyone, even relatively minor players, or else they will tell others that you've agreed with their position. Never fear a legitimate and healthy disagreement.
3. Constantly try to meet higher-level people, even those who are superior to your buyer. The more you can learn what's on their minds (and the more you can say, "When I was talking to the executive vice president yesterday?"), the more people will tend to vest you with credibility. A 10-minute conversation over coffee can do wonders.
4. Commit all agreements to writing, especially with new clients. Misinterpretations can occur, buyers can change, conditions can evolve, and you might have rationalized something in your own anxiety to land the account. Make sure that "who does what to whom" is carefully enumerated.
5. Don't be pushed around by bullies. I've never met a customer who was "always right." I've met a lot who have been more wrong than right more times than not. Be willing to walk away. Never allow your integrity or intent to be compromised because someone threatens to end a project. If you succumb, you will be ineffective forever after.
There are times when the tides are so powerful that you mistake the movement for your own independent propulsion, only eventually to be tossed against the rocks. Never allow yourself to simply go along for the ride. Make sure that you're navigating your own course. And, like the dolphins, don't remain submerged. Make it a habit to come up for air regularly.
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