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Management Consulting

Management consulting is the business of providing assistance, experience, and or advice to people who manage businesses and organizations.†† Business and organizational leaders hire management consultants for three reasons:† Either they are genuinely in need of experience and assistance in bringing about change, they are looking for air cover for a decision they have already made, or they need to stall before taking action.

Blessed is the consultant who is called in to help a leader solve a problem or bring about change.† I hate to be cynical but that is seldom the real reason consultants are hired.† Why?† Because it is a rare leader who will admit that they either donít know how to solve a problem or they canít figure out the answer themselves.† The best chance for a favorable valid consulting environment is a sole proprietorship or a closely held corporation.† An organization on its deathbed would be another example, but weíll save that discussion for a little later.† But even in this most favorable environment, one where change is wanted, needed, and desired, there are real forces at work to undermine any truly beneficial progress.

†Most organizations of any size, say anything more than about 50 people, are to some degree politicized.† Thatís because while there is always a leader, there is almost always two or more people who want that leaderís job when they move on.† To some extent the leader at the top is dependent on these ambitious folks to bring about results, or bring expertise to the table that the leader doesnít have.† The more dependent he is, the more vulnerable the organization is to sub-optimization.† Sub-optimization is a phenomenon where one department or individual leader takes actions to look good at the expense of another department.† Cutting centralized support by pushing functions or activities onto field offices is a prime example of this type of behavior. Looking good at the expense of oneís peers is not good for the business but can be a successful strategy for getting a leg up on the competition.† Add to this witchís brew the fact that at least one rival would like to see their leader fail so that they can get his job and youíll find all kinds of counterproductive behavior when it comes to implementing any of the bossís agendas.

Sometimes the situation deteriorates to the point where the business is on the verge of bankruptcy.† Here the sub-optimization conditions, inter-department rivalries, and just plain inertia have worked to bring the organization to its knees.† If itís clear that all of the subordinates are going to go down with the ship, there is a real chance for change.† And consequently a real chance for a consultant to do some good.†

Sometimes the top leader knows what he wants to do but feels there is substantial risk to the organization, and consequently to his career, in driving the change through the organization.† Hindsight has 20-20 vision and no leader wants to risk failure.† This would be a good time to bring in outside expertise to get affirmation and validation.† If the plan fails, the failure can be shared with the consultants.† If its obvious to the consultant that the leader is looking for affirmation, the consultant knows what is expected of him:† Make the case to prove the leaderís plan or idea is correct.† However the leader most often will not let the consultant know that he has an approach in mind, and itís up to the consultant to noodle this out on his own.† A good consultant who is in this situation will either try to steer the leader to a better solution, or will try to bring the rival subordinates into the boat on making the leaderís change or implementing the program.† This may be accomplished by guided interviews, discussions, meetings, team problem solving, or some combination. Generally the subordinates already know what the boss thinks and are on guard to derail this approach.† Therefore the consultant will try to construct incentives that are strong enough to pull the reluctant subordinates into the boat.†

Sometimes the leader knows what needs to be done but need to stall.† Maybe he needs time to deal with a key rival, or time to which subordinates are truly dangerous and then time to force them out.† Bringing in an outside consultant can provide delay.† The consultant will need time to become oriented, run some diagnostics, and formulate a plan.† Then the plan will need to be set in motion.† Depending on how obvious the solution is, all of this preparation can take months, perhaps years.† Taking money to basically achieve nothing is not exciting or ethical to most consultants.† When it becomes obvious that this is the situation, most consultants will redouble their efforts to try to be worth what they are being paid.† This will lead them further astray from the original stated objective and ultimately everyone will realize this and the engagement will end in frustration.†

The Aptitude For a Career in Consulting

At some point many business people consider a career in management consulting. The temptations are greatest when just at the point of receiving an MBA and again late in their career when they either discover that they are not going any higher in the organization or even more disturbing, that they have been let go.† If the environmental conditions for management consulting do not dissuade you, then consider the aptitude needed to successful consult.† First of all, it helps to be good looking, or at least reasonably attractive.† People like to surround themselves with people that are pleasant to look at.† Even more important is to be someone who is genuinely interested in other people.† People sense that characteristic immediately and respond to it warmly.† Youíll also need the gift to perceive what other people of thinking even though they donít come out and say it.† Thatís because most people are guarded, particularly when dealing with management consultants.†† After all maybe these guys were brought in to figure out who should go and who should stay.† Of course this is rarely case but most people will believe thatís what the engagement is all about anyway.†

If you are contemplating this career you will also want a healthy dose of patience, perception, and determination.† Patience because many of the people whoís cooperation you need, will view you with distrust and suspicion.† It takes time to build trust.† Youíll need perception because at least once someone will make a serious run at getting you thrown out of organization.† You need to be able to see it coming and marshal your facts and allies.† And youíll need determination.† As Ross Perot likes to say, ďEvery good and valuable thing, stands moment to moment on the razorís edge, and must be fought for.Ē†

Last and perhaps least is the knowledge and skill you bring to the table. They are the ante, the expected, the minimum requirements for entering the game.† †However, without the softer personal qualities outlined above you will not have many successful engagements, no matter how much expertise you may have.


Preferred Consulting Practices Ė A brief outline for conducting successful management consulting engagements.†

Flawless Consulting Fieldbook & Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, by Peter Block and 30 Flawless Consultants; San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000  More info/order

A few who do it well:

Spectracomm Ė A Dallas based management consulting firm focused on helping businesses and organizations build emotionally intelligent teams.

Being@Work Ė A Detroit based firm that specializes in Executive Coaching


© Copyright 2003 - 2008, Donald J. Bodwell.† All rights reserved. Email: