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Passion, People and Principles

Client Politics

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 isn’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 “sides” or “positions.” 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 “them” (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 doesn’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. It’s ALWAYS about politics, and like it or not, you’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 we’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 I’m not sure I want the job of arbitrating other people’s lives together.

I’m not saying this is avoidable. It isn’t. It’s the normal human interplay of egos, diffrences in preferences and turf. It’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 don’t persuade by appealing to people’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 it’s about it’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 you’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 shouldn’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.


Nitin said:


Very rightly said. It is often said that consultants give us back what we already know.

The only things that they bring are

1. Validation

2. Buy in by the management

3. Less opposition by other poles

I also believe that any change in practise needs to be done through an organisation development excercise and the cosultant is normally acting as an OD facilitator to build in the belief in the system and raise a campaign for collaborative effort.


a consultant has to be an OD specialist too and in practicing consulting this comes in automatically .


posted on January 24, 2007

Bryan I. Schwartz said:

David, < ?xml:namespace prefix =" o" ns =" "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office"" />

I am both a consultant and a person who uses consultants. When you have more than two people in a room (perhaps only two), you have politics. Is the “debate” part of the political process or the conflict that must be mediated? I am amazed at how adept professionals handle conflict outside their firms and yet a secretarial assignment can become a turf war.

As you know, it is not the compensation that needs to be fixed, it is the people and the governance system. If you had the right people doing the fair and right thing in the context of a system, they would not need a consultant. You obviously have the selfish people in charge or the unenlightened following what some other firm is doing, failing to consider their own culture and deciding that copying that approach blindly is a good idea.

I think they believe they are engaging you to fix compensation but you are there for an entirely different purpose. You are there to provoke the conflict, not provide answers. You are there to ask questions. If a person does not have a headache after talking to a consultant about their business the consultant is not pushing hard enough or they don’t get it. Further, anyone who relies completely on a consultant to tell them what to do should just get someone else to run their business for them. You are a tool in the toolbox as a consultant, not the answer person. Some in the firm intend to meet your arrival with a “see, I told you” but in fact you are there to talk about how both sides are not seeing the big picture. They will want something tangible in exchange for payment, i.e. a beautiful plan. In fact, the best thing you can do is put the conflict on the table (not give them the answers). If the firm blows up because of that you have saved everyone time. If you handle conflict like I have seen you handle conflict, you will be doing what you always do, which is to point out the blatantly obvious and shove it in someone’s face because they refuse to see it.

Thankless job? Not for the right firm. How do you know if it is the right firm or not? It depends on how fast and hard the conflict comes. Big fight results in either more dissent or a new understanding to avoid the conflict. Either way it is forward progress and is/should that be the entire point of a consultant?

You are not a consultant or a mediator, you are a truth seeker. The truth will set them free or kill them.

Bryan Schwartz

posted on January 24, 2007

Steve Roesler said:

Hello, David,

This March marks the 30th anniversary of the incorporation of my consulting business. I only mention that to provide a sense of the number of engagements that have taken place. Your questions are meaningful ones, so let me take a crack at them as best I can:

1. It doesn’t seem that one would HAVE to be a skilled mediator to be a good advisor. To offer counsel in content areas, for example, wouldn’t really require mediation skills. However, a good advisor should certainly recognize when mediation is desirable for the client and be willing to suggest just that.

2. If you’re not, it would be helpful to one’s practice and to clients to be able to have trusted mediators in your stable of professional relationships. Clients would be well-served by a solid recommendation or two and an introduction for exploratory purposes.

3. Wow. I usually find out—or figure out—at the last minute, that an attempt will be made to use me in some political way. I’ve never been able to discern that at the very beginning of a discussion. It may not be apparent until a meeting starts. In the beginning of my practice I know I tried to use diplomacy to gently bring the factions together without naming the issue. I got eaten alive as far as effectiveness was concerned. Now when I realize what the real deal is, I name what I see happening and offer to formally change my role to that of mediator. The caveat: We discuss what the real issue is and I meet with each person (or group) to discern their position and why they are holding it. Only then do we come back together to work it. That IS effective because it’s honest.

4. I have accepted an assignment that I knew could lead to the breakup of a business. It was important to state up front that I saw that as a possibility. The client then had to decide whether they wanted to proceed. We did proceed, it was dicey at times, they are still together, I ultimately opted out of the engagement. Two of the partners in my opinion should not continue together. There is something in their unhealthy relationship that meets some strange need in each. They have high turnover as a result but are still in business. Drove me nuts.

5. Since organizations are political by the balance-of-power dynamic that defines all relationships, I’m not sure it’s possible to be 100% politically divorced. But you don’t have to play dirty politics.

6. As in 5, I think by definiton our professional impact—regardless of the type of intervention—has to have some political impact if we are being effective. Our presence should have a strengthening effect on one or more individuals. That should then cause some disruption in the political status quo.

Thanks for the thought-provoking questions. They are certainly poignant and universal ones confronting consultants everywhere. And if we aren’t thinking about such things regularly, we should be.

posted on January 24, 2007

RJON said:

One of my favorite quotes, by one of my favorite authors (besides you David, is by Ayn Rand: “We can avoid reality, but we cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.” And now that the stage is set, here are my thoughts based on having many times experienced what you wrote about in the original post, albeit with small law firms and even solos where I’ve been invited in by spouses and even by the solos themselves to validate their points to staff – or vice-versa. . .

Do you HAVE to be a skilled mediator to be a good advisor? YES. That’s not to say you have to mediate. But you must have the skills of being able to understand problems in all of the dimensions they exist in and maintain a healty dose of skepticism. Most mediators I’ve worked with understand that every dispute has three sides: My point of view, Your point of view and The Truth. The best ones are able to get everyone focused on how well all the grooves and curves of The Truth fit together with their own objectives.

What do you do if you’re not? Get some practice at understanding problems in all three dimensions in which every problem exists: Time, Money & Reputation.

Is it OK to accept an engagement when you know you are being used as political weapon? If you speak the truth and offer your best advice for the good of the FIRM and not necessarily anyone particular faction, it shouldn’t matter to you how your words are used. I will say I’ve had the experience of the person who brought me in, not being too happy when I called it like I saw it and when my advice for the best interest of the firm didn’t fit their agenda, so it’s best (for your mental health) to always be candid with whomever from the firm brings you in.

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 shouldn’t be living together? See my response above.

Is there ever a way to not be politically involved? Yes, but the consequence is that you’ll end up being terribly boring. At the end of the day, if you’re not pissing someone off, you’re probably not trying hard enough to stretch the firm. Afterall, most of the people who hire us are smart. So what do they really need us for except to challenge the status-quo, offer fresh, objective, challenging, thought-provoking perspectives on how and why the law firm is the way it is, and solid advice for how it could be better.

Is there ever a way to not have a political impact? Remember, there is a difference between being politically “involved” and being politically motivated. Some of the definitions of the word political include: “. . .1) of, pertaining to, or involving the state or its government; 2) having a definite policy or system of government;and 3) of or pertaining to citizens: political rights.” I prefer the second definition. In the context of an advisor to a law firm or anyone else for that matter, being “political” can mean having a definite point of view, a philosophy, a set of values. Love them or hate them, could you ever really respect a person or take their advice seriously who didn’t have these attributes?

And if you DO have a point of view, a philosophy and a set of values that you bring to your work, how can you hope to – why would you want to – avoid having an impact on your client?



posted on January 24, 2007