Effective Consulting Step #1: Personal Connection

In my last post I made the case for what I believe are clear hallmarks distinguishing “good consulting” from “bad consulting”. Before going deeper let me clarify that this subject applies far more broadly than just consulting. It could just as well apply to teaching, counseling, coaching…really any role in which you’re using your insight or expertise to help someone else.

With that in mind remember that at the end of the last post I outlined a step-by-step thought-process to onboard a person on the journey of change. The first was “building a personal connection or relationship.” I also call it “the heart.” Why is it so important? Clearly relationships are where the magic happens…let’s go deeper to see why…

Image result for personal connection

First, they allow people to become vulnerable and feel safe in expressing their frustrations, needs, hopes and often lead to the discovery of the true problem or opportunity. In many cases it allows them to vent what may seem like mundane details or frustrations and expose how some of these non-obvious factors are interwoven, or at least linked in their minds (note this is often where you find out that the true problem is often not what was initially expressed!).

Second, relationships build trust to accept the recommended course of action and embark on the road to change. It’s simple but profound…the fact that you take time to actively listen & engage shows you care, that you’re willing to really immerse yourself in their situation, set aside preconceived ideas, give of yourself and humbly learn. Therefore you’re building a platform of credibility and EARNING the right to be heard and (hopefully) heeded.

So how do you do it? Here are a 3 essential practices:

  1. Stop talking – listen: resist the urge to jump in. Ask open ended questions and let them talk. Periodically summarize so they know you’re actively taking it in.
  2. Develop empathy: this means not only “listening” but immersing yourself emotionally into their world to see, hear and feel what they’re sensing (“walking a mile in their shoes”). What might this look like?…meet their clients, talk to their colleagues, spend time with them in the field, go with them to a meeting, have a picnic with their family. Get as many inputs as you possibly can.
  3. Test your insights: as you do the above, you’ll begin to develop tons of insights and conclusions that you need to summarize and test with the person (note: regularly summarizing & journaling is so important – otherwise you’ll get overwhelmed by quantity or only remember the last impression you had). Remember, insights are not recommendations but things you’re learning, developing a point of view upon that could potentially link to root causes or related factors. Talk them over with the person, get feedback (ask: “how does that sound to you?”). Keep learning.

I’ll be the first to admit, for a problem-solving-oriented-mind the above can be extremely challenging and require a significant amount of patience & discipline. Especially this phase can often feel like time is being wasted – personal networking, lots of chit-chat, rabbit trails, waiting for something to happen, working together on “trivial” side-items to build credibility, etc.

However there are NO shortcuts, it’s the necessary grunt work of relationship-building that pays for itself in spades – building a platform of trust & acceptance through which you will get a clear grasp of what’s at stake…plus gain “access” in order to influence & build buy-in for the significant actions that will be needed to change.

So, if you’re getting ready to start working with someone, put the above to the test. I’d love to hear examples of how it works for you!

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Consultants – Please hide your tools!

Can you imagine the following scenario: you go to the doctor to have an issue addressed…the doctor walks in the room, briefly introduces himself, looks quickly at your problem, then starts talking about all the techniques he’s ever learned in medical school…He gets more and more excited, opens a drawer and explains the design & purpose of each tool he has in his office. This would be really weird…not to mention downright scary, right?

However that’s exactly what you’ll find that many smart, well-meaning, but unseasoned consultants do (it’s a tell tale sign…an easy trap even for the experienced to fall into as). They’re so enamored and excited by the power of their techniques and tools they “dump” them on their client.

jack-of-all-trades

The result is inevitable – rather than appearing smart, trustworthy and credible (which is a noble goal!), they scare off the client who feels overwhelmed, confused by all the options and “didn’t sign up for this heavy approach.” Both sides have lost!

How could it have ended differently? Back to the doctor example…suppose the doctor sits down, gets to know you a bit (family, work, kids…), lets you talk in depth about your pain and symptoms, conducts a careful examination, shows you an x-Ray of the problem…then proposes the procedure he has in mind, why he thinks it will be effective and what it means to you (…length, impact, recovery time, etc). You’d feel completely different than the first example, right?

So what’s the lesson to be learned for “good consulting?” I’d like to propose the following sequence and “prioritization of connections” with your  client (which we’ll take step by step in subsequent posts):

  1. Personal connection (people – heart): relationship, empathy, diagnostic (“who & where we are”)
  2. Focus on the fundamentals (why – head): mindset, goal of goal, underlying principles (“what are we here to do”)
  3. Process (what – eyes): approach, time-phased plan of attack (“how is it going to work”)
  4. Tools (how – hands): what will use to get the process done – just the part they need to know (“working through it together”).

Beware, the telltale sign of inexperience is to take the above in reverse order. Have you seen it done, or done it yourself (I have!)?

We’ll work through these in future posts, but for now think of this approach in your next client engagement. I’m sure you’ll see the difference! Let me know how you put it into practice…

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Bringing anatomy to life: the hard- & soft- tissue of an organization…

In my last post (yes, it has been a while!) I discussed the soft and hard tissue of an organization and tried to show their complementarity and alignment (take a moment to re-read it since this post will assume understanding of the main points). In fact it goes far beyond that. Just like a body, the health and interaction of both is critical to the life, well-being and survival of an organization.

While it makes sense in theory, I’d like to suggest a few propositions and axioms that provoke your thinking and bring the “inter-connection” to life. Do you agree? Can you think of others?

  • There’s a saying: “people join companies but leave managers.” Translation – people typically join for the hard tissue but will leave for the soft tissue.
  • Building on the above: “hard tissue is evaluated/measured; soft tissue is felt.”
  • As industries become more competitive the soft tissue often becomes the tie breaker or key differentiator…not only because “culture is king” but it actually drives and enables the hard tissue to flex, react, correct/recover, heal, develop…
  • Soft tissue is sensitive and requires compatibility to stay healthy…if not, it can literally bring the hard tissue to its knees. While people in an organization can change their behavior, companies who place a high priority on soft tissue may find it necessary to separate from leaders and employees who are simply incompatible with the culture (or threaten it). While this is can be excruciatingly difficult and requires courage, “people change” is often the acid test of ones commitment to culture.
  • Despite the rising valuation of soft tissue, it’s important to continually adjust the mix of hard tissue (ex. processes, strategy, incentives, people, goals…) to nurture and provide structure for the soft tissue to take root. Managing and adjusting the interactivity of both must become a key management priority (see conclusions below).

A key conclusion: because hard tissue is the traditional “bread and butter” of most management training & practice (tools, approaches, methods, processes…), many leaders find themselves unstructured, poorly equipped and ill at ease with managing soft tissue (often seen as a fuzzy science). While its value is on the rise, the competency and tools to intentionally nurture it is lagging.

If classic management teams spend 90% of their time today on hard tissue, there are progressive teams already shifting to 70/30 (hard/soft). Will it ever be 50/50? Where’s yours?

I submit the shift will continue with leading companies first intentionally nurturing the soft tissue, then advancing to managing both hard- & soft- tissue as a system and “organic whole.” In my view, those who succeed at this feat will have heavy odds in their favor of strong leadership positions in their respective industries.