Consulting Mastery: How the Best Make the Biggest Difference

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Most consultants are content to solve problems. Extraordinary consultants alter the culture of the client organization itself, changing the way the organization operates. Keith Merron shows that the most powerful tool for making a real difference is the consultant's inner stance--the attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, goals, and strategies that underlie the consulting practice. In other words, it is the inner qualities of the consultant that differentiate a great consultant from the rest of the pack. Consulting Mastery explores the deep inner shift required to become an extraordinary consultant. Through vivid examples, Merron contrasts the goals, strategies, and tactics used by most consultants with those used by masterful consultants to reveal the qualities and characteristics that will help you make the biggest difference with your clients. If you yearn to have a bigger impact on your client organizations, or even on the world as a whole, Consulting Mastery shows how to transform yourself from a problem solver to an empowering partner. Following a natural flow of learning, it details the conceptual foundation of consulting mastery, provides a vision of mastery in action, and outlines a clear path to attaining mastery in oneself.

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CHAPTER 1 THE DECAY OF THE CONSULTING PROFESSION

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We have met the enemy and he is us.

—Pogo (Walt Kelly)

A FEW YEARS AGO, I was involved in a consulting engagement, partnering with what was then one of the “Big Five” consulting firms. We were helping a multinational Fortune 100 company implement SAP software as their new company-wide software system. This changeover took well over a year and required a ton of planning, training, and dealing with all the issues one deals with when undertaking such a massive change. Early on in my work with the consulting firm, one of the young, extremely bright, talented, and dedicated consultants (we’ll call her Diane) showed me with great pride a document they had been developing—the consulting firm’s plan for leading the changeover to the new SAP system. This plan was over 400 pages long and showed over 1000 different things a manager needed to pay attention to in order to successfully lead the implementation of the new system. This document had sections on how to train others, how to listen to others’ concerns, how to gather information, etc. It was truly a magnum opus of SAP planning, custom tailored (so they said) to meet this client’s particular need.

 

CHAPTER 2 THE MASTERFUL CONSULTANT’S INNER STANCE

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One must not always think so much about what one must do, but rather what we should be. Our works do not ennoble us; but we must ennoble our works.

—Meister Eckhart

JOHN LEFT THE DEBRIEF SESSION of the consulting engagement thinking he had done a decent job. He had helped the client accomplish the task, had met all his commitments, and felt satisfied his deliverable was better than most could have done. The debriefing went as expected, with nothing unusual. John shook hands with the client, leaving her with this message: “Sheryl, if you ever have any other work like this, please don’t hesitate to call.” Sheryl assured him she would. John was comforted in her response.

Months went by and there was no call. Through his connections John learned there were indeed two other similar projects that required his kind of expertise, yet he was never called. After eight months, he decided to take action. He called Sheryl to ask her why he was not considered. She gave him two reasons related to their internal decision making, both of which seemed compelling but did not persuade him. He asked her again if she was pleased with his work, and she indicated she was.36

 

CHAPTER 3 CLIENT-CENTERED CONSULTING

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The more we look out for others, the more we look out for ourselves.

—Terry C. Warner

I WAS WORKING FOR THREE DAYS with a CFO and his direct reports at a mid-sized health care organization. The organization had been a client of mine for a couple of years, one with whom I had experienced some success. In this particular case, I had been asked by the CEO to help the CFO and his team to strengthen their leadership and teamwork, a challenge I felt well qualified to meet. The CEO felt strongly that the offsite would be valuable for the CFO and his team—a gift to them, of sorts—and he believed I could lead it well. However, there were also warning signs that I should not have taken the work.

I ignored them all.

The strongest indication was the CFO’s ambivalence about the offsite. He expressed reservations from the onset and again several times during the planning stage. I assured him each time that I could add value and that it would be well worth it.

The team, for its part, seemed disinterested, as I quickly discovered during my assessment interviews. They were overloaded and felt no need for team development at that time.

 

CHAPTER 4 SEEING THE CLIENT AS A SYSTEM

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Everything flows.

—Heraclitus

MOST ORGANIZATIONS ARE STUCK and can’t see beyond their “stuck-ness” because they don’t see how their parts are all interconnected—how they are part of a whole system. Too many consulting efforts start and finish with a narrow view of the organization. They focus on such forces as leadership, strategy, the technical system, the marketing approach, the culture, the structure, etc. What causes their consulting to be ineffective is not any single action but the isolation of that effort from the other key forces shaping the organization. Clients and consultants collude in this willful blindness, rarely recognizing the counterproductive consequences of their choices.

Instead, they live in an illusion of independence, autonomy, and separateness. We in Western culture, with our mechanized view of systems, are particularly susceptible to this illusion. With this view we justify much of the pollution that goes on in the planet under the name of progress. With this view we justify war, believing we can eventually kill off those we despise, with little consequence. We focus on our differences and fail to see the deep penetrating sameness that courses through us all. We believe we humans are better than animals and justify killing them in the preservation of our own species, and in so doing fail to realize we are killing our planet, the vessel we all share. So many of us in Western society miss the simple wisdom taught in the Disney movie, The Lion King, about how we are all connected in the great “circle of life.”74

 

CHAPTER 5 SHARED OWNERSHIP OF THE PROCESS

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We talk about the quality of a product or service. What about the quality of our relationships and the quality of our communications and the quality of our promises to each other?

—Max Dupree

THOM WENT TO MEET with a potential new client, a division of a large software development company. The head of the division, Christine, and two of her direct reports were seeking a consultant to help them become a high-performing team and better leaders of their division. In the previous four years, they had worked with three different consultants. They had been disappointed in the results: In each case, the consultant didn’t deliver what they expected. The first consultant was fairly knowledgeable, but the mountain of information she unloaded on them did not help them become more effective as a team. The second had a lot of nifty exercises, and everyone enjoyed doing them—but in the end, that made no difference either. The third confronted them repeatedly and was rather abrasive, so they deemed him ineffectual and discarded him.

 

CHAPTER 6 APPLYING KNOWLEDGE

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A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.

—Kahlil Gibran

ACQUIRING THE INNER STANCE necessary for consulting mastery is not like putting on a hat. Most consultants develop their craft by attaining vast amounts of knowledge, altogether missing the more elusive qualities that define consulting mastery. Most of us have spent many years as consultants acquiring the skills, techniques, and craft-specific knowledge to enable our clients to become more effective. We believe strongly that the more we hone these skills, and learn how to share the benefits of our knowledge effectively with clients, the more impact we’ll have. And to some extent this is true. Much of this knowledge is indeed valuable. Clients seek knowledge and expertise from consultants to solve problems they can’t solve themselves. Most consultants develop specific knowledge and then sell some of that knowledge, or the information derived from it, to clients for a fee. This exchange is natural, fair, often mutually valuable, and worthy of respect. What kind of information are we talking about? A specific and critical business system; a report explaining competitive forces within a particular industry; information about what kinds of organizational structures work well in what kinds of specific situations, to name a few.

 

CHAPTER 7 CONVEYING KNOWLEDGE

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Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

—Albert Einstein

MAXINE IS A CONFIDENT MARKETING CONSULTANT who has a theory about buying patterns. She was taught about such patterns in a marketing class in her MBA program, and it has been a guide for years. She has used it in dozens of situations and has learned when and how the model is most useful. The model, in this case, blends understandings of economic factors, market forces, industry trends, and psychological factors. Together, these factors predict buying choices. Maxine was brought in by a company seeking to take its product line, typically aimed for adults, into the adolescent market. She was confident in herself and trusted her model or theory. Being grounded in the model, she understood the principles upon which the model is based, and could therefore find unique expressions of that model. So because this particular client is dealing with the adolescent population whose buying patterns are notoriously fickle, and influenced by the media, she focused on two features of the model—industry trends and psychological factors—bringing them into sharp relief. Within industry trends, she focused on how the media affects those trends. She then helped her client see how psychological forces inside the adolescent mind affect choices and how understanding the adolescent mind more deeply, in turn, can shape those choices. She did this by facilitating a dialogue that helped the client apply these principles to its target customer base. Economic factors and market forces within the model were touched upon lightly (not ignored) since they were less relevant in this situation. She did not feel she had to fit the situation to the model. For her, it was the other way around. And she did this without calling attention to the model. Instead her whole focus was on the client and its practical use of the model. The net effect was that the client left the meeting with a deeper understanding, making cognitive and practical connections along the way. All of this was done in a smooth, easy fashion that focused on learning and application, not on theory or knowledge. And the client’s experience of Maxine was that she was very wise and helpful.120

 

CHAPTER 8 HELPING CLIENTS HELP THEMSELVES

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If you have come to help me because you feel called to help me, please go away.… But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, please stay and let’s work together.

—Unidentified Aboriginal woman

FOR YEARS I HAVE BEEN STRUGGLING with my tendency to try to control my son. I do it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, most of which are driven by my own fears of failure. I got it drilled into me early on by my own parents that a “successful” person had to be self-disciplined, focused, and goal-driven. My son, typical of many children, doesn’t display these characteristics. He is 13 years old and is generally unfocused around work (go figure!), often procrastinates, and mostly just wants to have fun. He does not like school, although he does get excellent grades. When he exhibits these characteristics, I often get upset and do any of a number of things, from glaring at him, to lecturing him, to setting up consequences for poor behavior, etc. I am aware that none of these behaviors seem to help. Most especially, it has strained my relationship with my son. He knows I love him deeply. But he also wishes I would get off his back and lighten up. To be honest, I wish the same about myself sometimes.

 

CHAPTER 9 THE KEYS TO SELF-MASTERY

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The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inward freedom to which we may have grown at a given moment. And if this is a correct view of freedom, our chief energy must be concentrated on achieving reform from within.

—Mohandas K. Gandhi

UNTIL THIS POINT, we have focused on two of the three aspects of consulting mastery—the consultant’s relationship to clients and relationship to knowledge. We now turn to the third and last relationship. I believe this one is most important—and the one from which every other aspect of consulting mastery depends. It is the consultant’s relationship to self.

As I complete the writing of this chapter, I have just had a unique experience that points to the very essence of consulting mastery as it relates to the self. I am guiding one of my clients through a multi-year organizational transformation process. One of my responsibilities has been to help the client figure out how to measure its progress over time and use that information as feedback and as guidance for future development. As part of this, we have put together a measurement team that has been determining which variables to measure and how to measure them. They have decided to seek a consulting firm to work with the measurement team—one that is expert in designing organizational surveys. To get more acquainted with what is available in the way of survey consultants, they invited nine consulting firms to visit them to share how they approach this kind of work. I have taken part in almost all of these presentations since I will play some role in the survey design and feedback process.148

 

CHAPTER 10 HONESTY AT THE DEEPEST LEVEL

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Truth is within ourselves.

—Robert Browning

IN THE YEAR 2002, a subtle, yet troubling event occurred in the consulting industry. Few in the outside world noticed it or paid attention to it, yet it marked a clear shift in the integrity of the consulting profession. The Association of Management Consulting Firms, the leading industry association, under pressure from its members, changed a piece of its code of ethics relative to integrity. As of 1969, the code of ethics read: “Not to serve clients under terms or conditions… which impair objectivity, independence, or integrity.” As of 2002, it reads: “…immediately acknowledge any influences to objectivity…” In effect, the current code says a consultant can violate integrity, just as long as he or she acknowledges it. And indeed, that is how so many people in the field of consulting conduct themselves. Money or power becomes an attractive tonic, and actions that violate our integrity are perpetrated by almost everyone. We need look no further than the Enron debacle and Andersen Consulting’s participation in it for evidence.

 

CHAPTER 11 DEEP LEARNING

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The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking one’s self seriously. The first is imperative and the second disastrous.

—Margot Fonteyn

ALMOST EVERY CONSULTANT says he is committed to learning. Instead, most put up fences to learning. Even more to the point, expert consultants believe they make their living based on what they know. To reveal what they don’t know is the height of vulnerability and goes against every fiber of their being.

And yet, that is precisely what masterful consultants do—they admit they don’t know everything. They are committed not to the process of knowing but to the process of inquiry. And they are committed to the process of shared learning—their own and their clients. Most importantly, they get that if they want to help develop organizations that are great in their ability to create, discover, and learn, they need to model the same, moment by moment. Whether they know it or not, they live by the ancient Greek principle of aretê. Roughly translated, the concept of aretê means virtue, but not virtue in the modern moral sense of the term. In the ancient meaning, virtue or aretê had to do with a respect for wholeness in life, a striving for excellence in becoming fully human. Aretê was a dominant value in Greek life for hundreds of years, an ideal reflected in Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Aretê, to the Greeks, was only possible when one is striving, striving to become. Moreover, it can never be attained, for those who think they have attained it have lost it, passing into egotistical pride.178

 

CHAPTER 12 LBRING YOUR WHOLE SELF, IN FULL PARTNERSHIP

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Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.

—C. G. Jung

A QUOTE BY A RABBI from the second century, cited by one of the consultants I interviewed, speaks to the central issue of this chapter. “God does not expect us to be perfect. There are enough angels in heaven. He only expects us to be fully human.”

As suggested earlier, many consultants have a tendency to believe that one key to success is to be perfect. Masterful consultants believe it is better to be whole. By whole I mean bringing your whole self to the client situation: your intellect, emotions, and spiritual self. The masterful consultant comes to the client as a learning being, as a person in motion, as one on a journey. She knows she is far from perfect, and as someone who embraces wholeness, she does not strive for perfection, for she knows it as a devilish temptation. Being perfect means: no mistakes. Being whole means she shares her mistakes in the spirit of learning. Being perfect means she knows everything that needs to be known to add value. Being whole means she knows little, and yet is able to guide the process of learning so that we can know much. Being perfect means that she shows only those parts that make her look good. Being whole means she shows all of who she is, her best parts and her shadow side as well. Being perfect means she becomes invulnerable. Being whole means she shares herself vulnerably.190

 

CHAPTER 13 PLAYING A BIG GAME

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What most of us mean by competition: “It’s not enough that I win, I also have to make certain that you lose.”

—Harvey Robbins & Michael Finley 1

DECADES AGO, THOMAS SZASZ, the great observer of human illness and well-being, said that what people really need from life is not wealth or comfort, but a game worth playing.2 Too often we engage in ordinary games, where there are winners and losers, and where the outcomes satisfy the ego but not the soul. In contrast, masterful consultants seek to play a big game, where their clients and the world at large are uplifted and renewed, and where greater results can be achieved. To illustrate, I turn to a different arena.

A couple of years ago, Sports Center on ESPN ran a story that was extraordinary and spoke volumes about what human beings are capable of. The story was about Jake Porter, a senior at Northwest High School in southern Ohio, who has fragile X syndrome, a common form of inherited mental retardation. He loved football and loved being a part of his high school football team. Although he was handicapped and unable to play, Jake practiced with the team, went to games with the team, and did everything he could to support the team as their team manager. Jake always suited up, for he was a part of the team. But he didn’t care if he ever played, and never expected to. Just being around the team, and being around the game, gave him deep satisfaction. And he was legendary throughout his hometown and other teams in the team’s conference for his positive attitude toward life, an inspiration to many.200

 

CHAPTER 14 MASTERY AND BEING

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Much learning does not teach understanding.

—Lao-Tzu

THE JOURNEY TOWARD CONSULTING MASTERY is a journey toward oneself. It has been suggested that much psychological illness can be attributed to lack of self-awareness. Indeed, almost all of psychotherapy is designed to help one attain greater self-awareness in the service of healing. The same is true of mastery. The deeper one goes, the more one knows, the more mastery is available. Abraham Maslow and countless others have strongly suggested the direct relationship between optimal psychological health and effectiveness. Clearly, healthy human functioning has a verifiable relationship with each of the following:

Each of these is directly related to consulting mastery. Everything you have read so far is a testimony to this. So the journey toward consulting mastery is a journey of self-discovery. To deepen this exploration, let’s step back for a moment and define what we mean by “mastery.”

Webster’s New Dictionary tells us that the word “master” means: “someone regarded as great in his field, who serves as inspiration to later generations; a person of consummate skill in an art, technique, etc.” Mastery implies greatness, brilliance, exceptional proficiency, and command of an art form, a profession, or a situation. It’s a term that eludes precise definition. It is something that one feels or observes, and therefore is subject to human interpretation. Yet, at the same time, we know it when we see it.2

 

CHAPTER 15 THE ROAD TO CONSULTING MASTERY

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He who looks outside, dreams; he who looks inside, awakens.

—Carl Jung

Mastery in any endeavor is not given. It is earned. It is the birthright of all people yet requires that we go on a journey and face terrible demons within ourselves, to arrive whole. Almost all heroic myths that depict a long and arduous journey are stories of an inner journey toward consciousness, and the attainment of mastery requires such a journey.1 I am reminded of a story told among the Buhera Ba Rowzi people of Zimbabwe, passed down through their oral history from generation to generation, that speaks to the courage and internal commitment necessary for self-mastery and for consulting greatness. It is both an ancient story, and yet, like all archetypal stories, it speaks to a universal truth about courage and integrity. The story is about Mella, a young girl facing an eternal challenge, and the choices she made along the way. Like many myths, the story is best interpreted as a parable or even as a dream, the external events of the story understood as the dynamics unfolding in one’s psyche.

 

APPENDIX A THE INTERVIEWS AND THEIR IMPACT

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THE ORIGINAL CONCEPTION OF THIS BOOK did not include interviews. Some colleagues wisely suggested, and I readily agreed, that interviewing people considered contemporary masters of our craft would give both weight and credibility to my thoughts, and even more importantly, offer insights beyond my own experience. How right they were! I have learned through my interviews more than I could have offered on my own, and have been inspired by their wisdom, for it points to many ways I can continue to grow myself as a consultant.

Going one step further, I also decided to interview people in positions of authority in organizations about what they seek, value, and appreciate in a consultant. I was particularly interested in their view of the best consultant they have ever worked with. In the end, I interviewed 14 masterful consultants and 10 clients to add to and deepen my own perspective on consulting mastery.

The process of identifying participants to interview was itself a learning process for me. I began by asking many highly respected and well-connected colleagues whom they consider a masterful consultant in our field. Each colleague gave me a list of people. At first, I took this at face value and believed that, if my respected colleagues believed these people were masterful, they must have something on the ball. However, in probing further, I discovered that this was not necessarily the case. I began to ask, how do you know these people are masterful? Almost in all cases their answer was the same. “Well, I know them by reputation. These people are known throughout our field as being great.” Again I probed further. “How do you know, I asked?” Almost all answers sounded like the following: “Well, I heard about them. I heard they do a good job.” Seldom did my colleagues observe these consultants consulting in the flesh.

 

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