post # 291 — January 24, 2007 — a Client Relations post
In my consulting career, it is often the case that I quickly realize that I have been hired for more than just the purpose I’d been told. As a consultant, my clients often tell me they want help in developing strategies and systems to move the company forward on its declared goals. But what isnâ€™t said is that, all too often, different groups within this company are at odds with each other and I am a tactic or a weapon in this battle (or worse, a war.)
In many, if not most consulting assignments (even many speaking assignments) it is apparent that, as a person who has an extensive written history, it is known that I already have many views on common issues. This means I am a threat to at least one group within my client firm, possibly to all sides. Since I’m already “on the record” on many issues, it’s hard for me to come off as impartial.
It used to surprise me, but I now accept that all business problems have â€œsidesâ€ or â€œpositions.â€ Each department (marketing, operations, procurement) wants you to adopt their point of view and help them prevail. It works vertically, too. Management wants you to explain to â€œthemâ€ (the workforce) why they should go along with the corporate policies, while the juniors want you to help management understand why they (the juniors) are close to burnout.
The polarization doesnâ€™t have to be between formal groups. In a majority of my consulting assignments, the battle is between individuals who just have different operating philosophies (hunters and farmers, for example) and who want my help in figuring out a way for them to coexist. (Sometimes they can and should, sometimes they cannot and shouldn’t)
All this real-world complexity must be addressed. I suspect that there is no such thing as a politically-insulated position for a consultant to be in. Itâ€™s ALWAYS about politics, and like it or not, youâ€™re involved. (This is just as true for internal staff like HR and marketing. We like to think what we offer is our intellect, but really weâ€™re all marriage guidance counselors — helping people live together.)
Even though I have decades of exposure to the realities of corporate politics and gamesmanship, I find it astoundingly hard to navigate my way through it. It requires muscles and skills in which I was not schooled. I never had a course in mediating, politicking, bargaining, shuttle diplomacy, representing people to each other. And Iâ€™m not sure I want the job of arbitrating other peopleâ€™s lives together.
Iâ€™m not saying this is avoidable. It isnâ€™t. Itâ€™s the normal human interplay of egos, diffrences in preferences and turf. Itâ€™s not often about logic, rationality, analytics, experience, frameworks and all the other things that consultants like to think are their stock in trade.
As I think Ben Franklin once said, you donâ€™t persuade by appealing to peopleâ€™s sense of reason, but to their interests.
As an advisor, I really have to ask myself what am I bringing to the table if I am working with smart people who are divided not by a lack of understanding (they are not missing facts, logic or conceptual frameworks.) What they are missing is agreement about how to run their joint (firm) affairs. And that disagreement is not driven by a lack of clarity, but a real difference of vested interests.
Take, as a relatively pure example, a fight over the design of a compensation system in a professional firm. Everyone can PRETEND itâ€™s about itâ€™s about the logic of which systems best promote the long-run health of the firm. However, the truth, 99 times out of 100, is that when a firm goes outside to get an advisor, they are looking either for a diplomatic mediator who can bring opposing sides to agreement, or (on occasion) one side is trying to hire a consultant who already agrees with them so that the internal battle can be fought.
All this raises some very interesting question for those of us who earn our living as advisors.
Do you HAVE to be a skilled mediator to be a good advisor?
What do you do if youâ€™re not?
Is it OK to accept an engagement when you know you are being used as political weapon?
Is it ethical to accept an assignment if you think your work will lead to the break-up of that firm by proving to people that they shouldnâ€™t be living together?
Is there ever a way to not be politically involved?
Is there ever a way to not have a political impact?
Update: this discussion is continued in a new post entitled Politics Part II.