Personal Development

Effective Consulting Step #1: Personal Connection / “Heart”

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…

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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!


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.


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…


Where’s your trash pile?

In a recent study featured by Harvard Business Review a manager was cited who routinely asked his employees the above question in their performance evaluation. Those who had trash heaps of “good efforts gone awry” were rewarded and encouraged to continue to have courage to forge ahead. Those who didn’t (aka “small trash piles”) were admonished to aim higher, push harder and take more initiative and risk.tumblr_inline_nuo9bzxitv1rajhbn_400

What’s the rationale behind such a “reckless” question? Isn’t it better to “manage by objective” and handout trophies for spectacular performance?

Let’s cut to the chase…if you want to raise a workforce that’s safe, slow, incremental and perfectionist – YES; if you want a learning and innovative organization that takes risk…and yes, sometimes fails spectacularly…BUT reaches far beyond the current paradigm – NO.

Why? Just think of the chef’s kitchen – vegetable peelings, pots, pans, dishes…or the artist’s studio with pictures, sketches, drawings, crumpled papers…

An old German saying captures it well: “wherever you cut wood, you’ll find sawdust.” In other words “trash” (aka failure) will happen whenever serious work is being done. It means new things are being tested, risk is being taken, learning is happening.

Here’s the bottom line – there’s no great performance and no breakthrough unless there’s trial & error, risk & failure (if so, it’s being hidden). Every failure is a step closer to success. If you don’t have a good-sized trash heap you’re not stretching far enough.

So as we’re just coming out of the “January review- & objective setting- season,” I challenge you to have courage to ask the “trash pile question.” Ask yourself…your spouse…your children… your subordinates. Help them recover from the shock of the question by breaking through the existing “performance paradigm paralysis” and framing the “trash heap” positively.

What‘s being learned? What should we try next? How could it lead to the next iteration of progress?…what if it ends up in the trash heap again?…some of it will – guaranteed!…but, so what! – we’ll try hard, learn, keep moving, one failure closer to success – GO for it!

Picture: theramtimetimes