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Passion, People and Principles

Integrity Impugned

post # 168 — August 22, 2006 — a Client Relations post

This happened thirty yeas ago.

I had been hired to assist the executive committee of a major consulting firm to discuss their strategy. There were 8 or ten senior officers of the firm around the table, including the CEO, who was due to retire in 12 months.

As I was generating various options for them to consider, the CEO suddenly said to me (in front of everyone else): “You just want to see us change so you can get consulting fees.”

I had no idea what to say, and said nothing. I was hugely offended. It’s one thing to dislike my ideas, but to question my ethics? Impugn my integrity?

On the other hand, don’t all clients and customers distrust the motives of all professional provides (and all other businesspeople?)

The air hung heavy and silent until one of the other executives picked up the conversation and moved on.

I carried on working with that firm, through the term of my contract, and no-one ever referred to the CEO’s remarks again.

I have often thought about what I SHOULD have done or said.

What would you have done?

What are you going to say or do when someone accuses you of only being in it for yourself?


Carl A. Singer said:

What a way to start a relationship.

Before determining how to respond let’s look to possible reasons for this statement. Off hand three come to mind: (1) This CEO had bad experiences with previous “change agents” (2) He somehow sensed that you had YOUR own best interests at heart, not his company’s or (3) he’s a game player and thought he’d give you a punch to the solar plexus to see how you’d respond.

Is he really impugning YOUR integrity or is he broad brushing his view of consultants — they all savor change because it generates revenue.If the latter, then here’s your opportunity to distinguish yourself from the herd.

Now the choices of response mode. (Always professional in tone, etc. – Question, should you be confrontational at all?)Points to get across include:

I don’t fully know about your past experiences with consultants, but I have YOUR best interests at heart.

I will do right by you, because it’s much more important to me that you be successful and that I can build a long term relationship with your firm as well as use you as a reference to help me grow my business.

A few more billable hours don’t mean much to me. I’ve got a full plate as it is. My success is driven only by your success.

Like you, I don’t believe in change for changes sake — but, like you, I’m not adverse to change when it makes sense.

I imagine there are situations where we’d pack up our briefcase, get on our horse and ride out of Dodge — but from your description this doesn’t sound that extreme. You have someone who is, indeed, challenging you and you may wish to meet that challenge.

One last point — and this may seem artificial — we’ve all been in situations that upon thoughtful reflection we say to ourselves “gee, I wish I had said such-and-such or done such-and-such.” We can’t relive the past but we sure as heck better learn from it.

Some people take this to an extreme, and I don’t know whether it’s good or bad. The politician or the candidate who’s going to appear in a debate or press conference is well briefed. He or she has rehearsed a carefully worded set of responses to every conceivable question. Same goes with a job interview or introductory states of a consulting engagement / relationship.

Is it artificial or just good planning and preparation to have a pocket full of semi-canned responses rather than thinking on our feet. Examples:

1 – what if client objects to your rate. I.e. Client says — “You’re too expensive” or “Your estimate is too high.”

You say ….. (canned / prepped — or extemporaneous)

2 – what if client thinks the project will take too long, or results are too far in the future. I.e., Client says — “I can’t wait 6 months for the results, I need them tomorrow”

You say ….

3 – what if the client say “XYZ”

BTW — I don’t like your tie. (You say ….)

posted on August 22, 2006

Colin said:

My ethics would lead me to say something like this [if I were blessed with the speed of thought at the moment]:

“I’m here because you’ve asked me to be here to help you implement changes that you feel are necessary, and if all of us together decide that you’re doing everything just perfectly as it is, I’ll be happy to leave as you can’t improve a perfect situation.

“If, however, we are all in agreement that this company is NOT in the most perfect situation, then I will be happy to continue the process we’ve started and work towards whatever changes that we all agree are the right ones.”

Certainly the right tone of sincerity would be required as to not sound insolent [satisfying as this tone can be, it does not usually help consultant-CEO relations], and hopefully everyone would take it as further willingness on your part to actually improve the situation instead of ignoring what is, in effect, an attack on your professionality, and even the usefulness of trying to identify and correct company problems.

posted on August 22, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

Hi David

I think I would react in the same way that you did – particularly in relation to questioning my ethics. In fact I’d be tempted just to say, “Hey, I don’t need this, if you’re not comfortable with me, then that’s completely fine. Nice to meet you and all the best for the future.”

In fact, that was my initial (unspoken) reaction when a senior executive at a new client recently asked me – ‘So, Duncan, we have intellectual property attorneys in countries X, Y and Z, why do we need you?’

What I call the ‘Maister Guarantee’ gave me somewhere to move. I just said, “You don’t need me. However, as you know, my consultancy comes with that guarantee. I’m willing to invest my time in your IP Strategy, not just the law, and I’m clearly happy for you to decide whether it has been worthwhile. I understand if you don’t want to, and that’s fine – we’re all busy people, so just let me know either way and we can get on with our day.”

He was happy with that.

The guarantee takes courage, but is amazing (mostly because of the internal discipline it reinforces) – thank you David.



posted on August 22, 2006

David (Maister) said:

A few quick reactions to Carl before others join in.

First, Carl, I ABSOLUTELY think all of us need to rehearse. Back in “How Clients Choose” (in Managing the Professional Service Firm, I wrote (from the clients’ perspective):

If I interrupt you, deal with my question. I want to see how you handle yourself when I ask a question, not judge how practiced you are at your standard spiel. Most of you rehearse your presentations, but rehearse the wrong things. I’m not looking for how smoothly you can get through your practiced presentation. That’s not what influences my decision. Rather, I give great weight to how flustered you get when I ask hard questions. Flunk that test, and I’m not sure you’re the one I want to trust. What you should be rehearsing are your responses to my questions. (END QUOTE)

When firms do client realtions training (NOT sales training, in my view) this is the sort of stuff they should be helping with: the self-control of the adrenaline, successfully conveying what kind of persosn you really are.

I’d note, however, that as always, assertions and claims never work (“I’m honorable I am”.) I hate to say this, but it probably is about getting the tone and the body language right.

Which leads to the paradox I have wrestled with for 30 years. I succeed when people see my sincerity, but I need to rehearse to coney my sincerity succesfully.

Wierd, huh?

posted on August 22, 2006

James Cherkoff said:

I think such a situation can be a sign that you shouldn’t have been in the room in the first place. As an individual consultant I feel the work starts before the meeting to get the ‘agenda’ right – especially when meeting senior staff. This often means only attending a meeting when invited or when attending for free. That makes it difficult for anyone to question my presence.

posted on August 22, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I WAS invited, James. Just not by the top guy!

posted on August 22, 2006

Bill S said:

David, I think that your last point is very significant. Your champion was someone other than the CEO, and the CEO had yet to “buy-in” to the process.

So, in some ways, the challenge was directed towards you, but in another sense, it was directed towards your champion. The CEO was essentially (and implicitly asking) “Why did you bother to bring this guy to us?”

In this moment, the champion could have spoken up. “I’ve known David for x years, and he’s really a guy who . . . ”

David, I’m thinking that you’re right that maybe it was best for you to say nothing. However, I also think there was an opportunity for your champion to speak up. Your champion (should have) had a stronger relationship with the CEO and may have been able to leverage that credibility to get you over the trust hurdle with the CEO.

Now, if the execs were afraid to speak up to a shoot-from-the-hip CEO, then that’s a significant problem on it’s own.

posted on August 22, 2006

Dean said:

I am making some assumptions here so bear with me. It would seem that since no one really pushed you on the issue at the time, that the accusation was really designed to test you for a response. And presumably since you continued to work with them, they were pleased with what you were doing and did not perceive that you were just in it for the bucks. The point being that your intentions, your values must have bleed through and showed them reality.

I think that our actions tend to line up with what our intentions and values are. Those are what really show through to people, particularly in times of stress. Do we need to practice that kind of thing? Probably, because when you are given the slap of reality, like in the question you received, it takes the breath away and there is a need to be able to gain some space to think and having what you value and what your intentions really are firmly grounded and well understood from within can make the difference on how your true self manifests in the world.

posted on August 22, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

Nice one Dean.

Carl and David – is there a risk that over-rehearsing leads to focus on ‘the performance’ (which you rehearsed) rather than just being yourself.

posted on August 22, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Dean, your analysis makes me ask whether there WAS anything to SAY right at that moment. Maybe it’s rationalization, butlike you, I concluded that the best way to proceed was to say nothing (for fear of making it worse) and just proceed with honor an integrity.

I also worried about who’s side the rest of the executive committee would be on if I was on the “other” side of a discussion of this issue. Even if the rest of them didn’t distrust my motives, I worried that they would be more likely to be loyal to their CEO than to me, so it was better just to try and survive the moment.

But it hasn’t always worked out that way. Would you believe it happened again ten years later when another CEO was outraged that someone else had invited in a consultant (me) and had given permission to the consultant to criticize (no matter how implicitly) how they did things. In that case, I tried the silent routine, but it didn’t work.

The discussion crumbled and I was asked to leave the room within an hour. Now, I know I’m not the most interpersonally sensitive guy in the world, but I don’t think that was all my failings!

Thanks goodness it was twenty years ago.

posted on August 22, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Duncan: The quesstion of which is the bigger risk (over-rehearsing and being phony or under-rehearsing and being unprepared) comes down to each person’s interpersonal and social skills.

If you are the kind of person who has a track record of picking up on social clues, staying calm in the face of chalelenge, saying what you mean to say just as you’re saying it, then obviously you don’t need rehearsal. (But BOY! am I jealous of you!)

Other people need practice and tips on these things. That was my point in quoting from my earlier article – I think helping “non-naturals” with their emotional skills (or whatever you want to call it) is an important thing that firms can help their people with (at any age.)

I think the vast majority of my “failures” have come from getting the emotional / interpersonal tone wrong, not because of any lack of intelliegence in my advice.

And I think many of us could use help with this. I don’t think guidance (teaching / training / call it what you will) needs to be restricted to things of the rational mind.

posted on August 22, 2006

Carl A. Singer said:

Bill S.

This points out a most important preparation step — sometimes hard to implement — before going into a meeting (or a company, in general) get your G-2 (intelligence.) Who are the players, what are their agenda(s). Who is YOUR sponsor / champion. What cross-currents are present. That’s just the “people” vector. Same re: issues, etc. Same re: style / intangibles.


posted on August 22, 2006

Leo J. Bottary said:

Some comments just shouldn’t be given any oxygen. Given that it was suffocated so quickly in the moment, I think you did exactly the right thing. Had another executive decided to keep it alive in some way, I might have decided to swim downstream with this one depending on the group. Something like, “what can I say, you know us consultant types.” It not only demonstrates that you can roll with a punch, but sends a message in a light-hearted way that you’re better than the moment and would not allow yourself to be minimized by it.

A retort that may have offered more bite would have been, “And if we can get rid of a few more of you guys by the end of the year, I can make some real money.”

posted on August 22, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Did I point out that in the original story – thirty years ago – that it was itself a firm of consultants? It’s a funny old world!

If anyone’s interested in particpating, I’d love to use this thread to make a list of those client GOTCHA! moments that we ought to rehearse or build in to role playing simulations.

Carl got us started in the first comment on this post (eg “you’re too expensive”) but what are some of the other interaction moments we should build a program around?

posted on August 22, 2006

Karen Love said:

Sometimes a “no response” is a response— This particular statement needs to be acknowledged and dealt with so the possibility of “hangover effect” is reduced substantially!

With a laugh in your voice and complimenting the CEO for speaking as a fiscally responsible exec, the real message is then sent.

“Dear CEO, This could be looked at with a different eye and this conversation that we are having now will enable you to prepare the message that must accompany the results of my consulting project.”

If Maister’s wise counsel was not offering value, the client would surely have fired you on the spot.. this was not the case and project was completed. so you would have put this to rest 30 years ago and would not been able to have an active blog commentary on this “real world” situation.. Your challenge helps all your reader today to be better prepared for what can happen.

Thanks for sharing this!

posted on August 22, 2006

Lisa Guinn said:

I think you did the right thing, and here’s why, with my own ideas.

First, you have to let the comment hang in the air, and let everyone feel the discomfort — while managing your own discomfort. If no one takes the bait, then you still have choices left.

In general, if no one else wants to follow up, I think ignoring the comment is best. Let it die on the table, and follow up later.

But if you believe that the comment must be addressed at the table, then ask questions of the CEO, to try to find out what is really going on. Start by asking if he wants to pursue this topic now — that way, if he is just trying to rattle you and has no substance, he has an easy out. If you start by questioning him when he was “joking” or testing, he will become defensive. You will be unable to reach agreement at that point, because there is no substantive issue to agree about. He can’t lose face in front of subordinates.

If he wants to talk about it right now, then I’d ask for more information about the problem. (Not about me!) If he thinks there isn’t a problem, then that’s why I am being minimized. I would try to stay focused on the problem and the proposed solution. I would try to “hear him out.” In this situation, justifying yourself is not going to work. To the last, I would act as if he couldn’t possibly be questioning my integrity — that is unthinkable!

At many times, consultants end up in disagreement with a client about what the problem is, or what the solution is. If the client doesn’t buy in, then I try to terminate the engagement as amiably and inexpensively as possible. They called me in for my opinion/expertise and I gave it. They aren’t ready to deal with it. That’s not necessarily an indictment of either party.

posted on August 22, 2006

Jordan Furlong said:

If the committee looked like it had a sense of humour, I’d probably smile rakishly and say, “Hey, you’re paying my fees whether you change or not, so it’s all the same to me.”

In the other 99.98% of the world’s boardrooms, however, I’d take steps to make sure this isn’t just between the CEO and me. After all, the CEO didn’t ask me a question — he dropped a statement into the room, and the room ought to deal with it.

After letting the comment hang in the air for a few moments, I’d ask all the executives, “Is this an issue that this group is concerned about? If so, should we discuss it before we go any further?” That would give the other executives the opportunity to express either their agreement with the CEO’s sentiments or their assurance that they have no such concerns. And I get a chance to see which way the wind is blowing.

If the consensus view is the CEO’s, then any of the excellent responses provided above would be a great way to start. If not, then I can resume my address, perhaps bolstered by the committee’s impromptu vote of confidence. Essentially, I’d have turned the CEO’s attack into an early opportunity to gauge my potential clients, and maybe even to help show where the real power in the room resides.

But above all, I’d make sure that the responsibility for dealing with the CEO’s statement is shared by everyone, not just me.

posted on August 22, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Karen – welcome back (and thanks.)

Lisa – welcome, but what a challenge! You say:

“let the comment hang in the air, and let everyone feel the discomfort — while managing your own discomfort.”

How ON EARTH does one learn how to do that, if not through practice? Even WITH practice for many of us.

It’s a great point, it’s true, but WOW! – it would terrify most of the accountants, consultants, lawyers, IT people, invetsment bankers – heck, everyone – to realize that they need to learn how to do that.

posted on August 22, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Jordan, here’s the thing. I have this theory (or actually both theory and experience) which says that over 90 % of everything done in a meeting is posturing and only a rough approximation (if it’s close at all) to what people really think and feel.

Carl was right about the importance of G2 (intelligence) and scoping things out before you atually join battle.

So, if you accept that, then the last thing I really want to do is pose the question to the group in real time. Their answers are going to be all surface and for consumption by each other.

My hypothesis is that I need to get to the nearest coffee break, lunch break (or whatever) and find a way to ask each person ONE-ON-ONE (in confidence) “What just happened there? is that a real issue?” In other words, your questions, Jordan, but asked at a different time and in a different place.

Back in the days when I was a smoker, I could do it on the pavement outside the building or wherever we were banished to. I’ve had more than my fair share of hushed bathroom conversations, too.

posted on August 22, 2006

David Koopmans said:

Now there is a topic everyone seems to relate too! I’m not sure that there is much point in trying to analyse what the right response is to someone essentially being a bully. abusing their position to embarass someone. David, I think the adrenaline contol you mentioned in one your responses is probably the most valuable advice. In five years of running my consulting business I have experienced one client who questioned my professional skills as well as my ethics. I told him that I wouldn’t cop it and severed the relationship. But then, he wasn’t my lifeblood, just a small assignment I probably shouldn’t have picked up in the first place.

I like the topic though because I believe it is this highly emotional area of business that is often most challenging, especially if you are essentially selling yourself, or your brainchild.

posted on August 22, 2006

jaylpea said:

David, in response to your question of other “GOTCHA!” moments, a possible suggestion for rehearsal:

I once had a client – in the process of complaining about an issue – say: “I suppose you don’t care cause you’re leaving” (the client had recently been advised I was moving to another consultancy firm). I was also hugely offended by this as it was not true, but with only 2 years experience at the time, I was too shocked to know how to respond and the moment past (all I could do was vent to my Manager & family about it later).

posted on August 22, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

After reading through everyone’s ideas, I think I would have to say that the best strategy would be to play the comment down. Your silence was probably the best way to do it, even if it was unintentional, since humour can often fall flat or further inflame (as I have previously discovered to my cost).

Had you launched into a conversation in the meeting, it would have only served to reinforce the point of view, potentially turning it into a real issue. As it stands, it looks like it wasn’t important enough to really merit any further action anyway.

Worse, what if everyone DID feel the same way as the CEO, or even worse again, took his side so as to not offend HIM? Talk about finding yourself in front of a lynch mob!

The only way to deal with it – if it really is an issue – is one on one with the man himself after the meeting. That takes courage, but at least you have a chance of resolving the issue, if it exists.

If it turns out that everyone feels the same way, then maybe it’s a battle that’s not worth fighting. The ROI probably wouldn’t stack up.

posted on August 22, 2006

Petri Darby said:


In my early relationship with a client company, I was invited to an executive leadership meeting. This apparently was not an exclusive club because there were over 20 corporate representatives in the room. The conversation turned to how the company had burned relationships with a key referral audience and how the majority in the room were in favor of rebranding the company (new name, logo and corporate identity) and reintroducing themselves to that audience as a solution. The CEO asked my opinion.

I indicated that the company name indeed seemed generic, the logo unremarkable and the colors bland. And that the worst thing the company could do at the time was rebrand. I told them that they needed to focus their resources on repairing relationships, which can only happen with time, offering value without asking for anything in return, and humbling themselves. I pointed out that by offering up this strategy, I was actually removing a lot of immediate revenue opportunities for myself on the table.

I always enjoy sharing such stories with clients as early in a relationship as possible to reinforce that I just don’t suggest short-term solutions when there are none that can be effective. I’m sure you have plenty of comparable anecdotes to share.

posted on August 22, 2006

Leo Bottary said:

I’m reading all these comments on a post referencing a story that happened 30 years ago – it’s like an episode of Without A Trace.

posted on August 22, 2006

James Cherkoff said:

I agree with David K – your phrase adrenalin control is something I’ve tried to master. I call it Jedi breathing or focusing on the control of my physical reaction first and then my mental. Sounds kooky – but it seems to work…;-)

posted on August 23, 2006

Lex McCafferty said:

I wonder how much, if anything, the fact that the CEO was leaving in 12 months had to do with things? Perhaps he was afraid of that and just taking it out on you? It would be interesting to know if how he behaved was typical or not of his general behaviour.

Anyway, here’s one approach: “Well, thanks for that feedback. (pause) It may be true that I want to see you change so I can get consulting fees, (pause) and what’s even more important than the changes I want to see are the changes you want to see. What might they be?”

Sometimes, I find that what people say unsolicited is more about them than about me. A lot of ‘feedback’ is like that. So while you may have felt that your integrity was being impugned, maybe it wasn’t really. Maybe it was all about this guy leaving in 12 months, or who knows what was going on inside his head?

I guess I’d be pretty defensive or shocked if a comment like that came out of the blue but as far as integrity is concerned, I’d be the judge of my own.

posted on August 23, 2006

Steve Pearce said:


Your post seems particularly topical in the UK right now when the game of cricket is in crisis over a smiliar question of integrity impugned. Readers will be able to find the details elsewhere on the web if they are interested, but basically a suggestion of sharp practice by the umpires led the captain of one of the teams to refuse to carry on the with the game – this led to the match being forfeited and awarded to the opposition for the first time in the sport’s 100 years of international competition.

The lesson, perhaps, for your post is this. These things can spiral out of control quite unnecessarily. Absorb personal attacks, respond to them by all means, BUT GET ON WITH THE GAME. In your scenario I would have responded: “That’s quite a statement you’ve just made. What leads you to believe that I am unethical?”

I am assuming, David, that this guy made an assumption without any supporting evidence. If so, he would be forced to admit this. I might continue: “For the record, then, I only get paid when my client decides I have provided real value. And I only work with clients who provide me with real, as opposed to manufactured, challenges. Generating fake work for the sake of a quick buck wouldn’t actually benefit either of us, would it?”

This situation is actually a huge opportunity for you to get your ethics on the table. Maybe that’s why the client said what he did? Look at it from the client’s point of view and don’t get precious: there are thousands of sharks in this business – the guy wants reassurance that you are not one. The key is to demonstrate your integrity rather than your wounded pride.

Your integrity hasn’t been impugned, it has been challenged. And it’s up to you to demonstrate you can deal with the challenge and then (unlike the cricket captain) move on.

posted on August 23, 2006

Rolf van der Meer said:

Hello everyone, great discussion going on here! In hindsight, it is always easier to come up with a good answer – I’d probably be perplex and silent in the event, both in David’s example as in the one posted by jaylpea…..

One idea would be to indeed see the remark of the CEO as an opportunity to address something that several people in the room may think (maybe they’ve had some bad experience with consultants in the past), but usually do not speak out loud. Something like “I know this is always a major concern when working with consultants and I thank you for addressing this concern. Let us invest a few minutes to visualize the benefits we want to obtain for your company in this process.” Maybe the fear can be allayed by stating clearly that you will only continue the consulting work if the project decided at the meeting is in your area of expertise and that, before going the next step in the project, the benefits to be obtained outweigh the consulting fees. Possibly, the CEO’s remark reflects an insecurity whether the company will benefit from the consultancy project at hand. Visualizing might be a way to not just address not just the concern of the CEO but also to get back into the right direction (where do we want to go in this project), using the inputs from everyone.

Greetings from Berlin, Germany!

posted on August 23, 2006

Johnnie Moore said:

David, thanks for kicking off a very interesting discussion.

There are lots of well-considered thoughts here. However, what strikes me about your experience is that you were in shock. It’s not easy to strategise instantly in a state of shock. I’ve been practising doing this when someone says something surprising (pleasant or not) and I’m not sure what to say.

I simply invite them to say more. “That’s interesting.. could you say a little more about that..” This acknowledges the person instead of defending; gives me a little time to think; and often elicits more information. If the remark was intended as an attack, it sometimes encourages the person making it to reflect a little more and soften.

I’m generally uncomfortable ignoring provocative remarks, I don’t generally like to support groups in avoiding talking about things.

posted on August 23, 2006

David (Maister) said:

So where do I learn this “Jedi breathing?” Seriously, are there exercise you can do that help you deal with adrenaline surges in stressful situations (that you don’t yet know are about to occur)?

Would a valium pill help?

posted on August 23, 2006

Hyokon Zhiang said:


A great story. And I am pleased to know that you also make mistakes like me.

I have a slightly different hypothesis. I think the CEO’s comment has to do with the “strategic options” that you described to him. According to my experiences in the management consulting industry, successful consulting firms have an image of a heroic consultant. They have war stories of founders or very senior partners. And the war story goes like this (I am making up a story). “Our founder went to the meeting, and explained passionately about the strategy that the client should pursue. They did not agree and seemed hesitant to change. Our founding partner told the management team that ‘they’ are the problem. And walked away (from the room and from the relationship).” The young elite strategy consultants like worship this kind of story. They say “We are different from our competition. We tell clients even what they hate to hear, when we believe that is true.” They look down upon consultants who ‘ask’ a client ‘what he/she wants to do.’ They say they are a vendor, not an advisor. Well, I was like that too. I felt proud when I gave clients a critical presentation in a straightforward manner. I think I enoyed it, thinking that I was one of rare “courageous” consultants.

But all that changed after a long and large project. Because the goal of the project was “change” (not “recommend”), I had to really think what it took to change. Two things helped. At one training, a very senior partner gave a striking lesson. He said “when you have a different opinion with your client, compromise.” It was shocking because all I have been hearing and admiring was “no compromise”, “no bull shit”, “true north”, etc. And I read your book, True Professionalism. There you say that we should give clients options and pros and cons even when we think one option is best. Those two lessons and my real experiences convinced me that I should compromise. At one meeting, my team members were angry that clients did not want to take our recommendation. The young (younger than me) consultants said “Hyokon, let’s recommend our conclusion and leave if they do not want to do it.” My answer, which became one of my favorite phrases, was “our goal is to survive and save the client, not to become a dying hero like in a movie.”

Maybe the CEO was a believer of the dying hero. And so thought you were not professional enough to give your opinions but were giving him just options (“whatever you choose”). I wish you could have given “True Professionalism” to him.

By the way, the Korean edition of the book that I translated will be published in a week or two.

posted on August 23, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Great stories, Hyokon. I recognize a lot of consultant behavior, in large firms and small, in what you describe.

And I’m VERY excited about the new Korean edition of True Professionalism. Thank you!

posted on August 23, 2006

Prashant Subhedar said:

Hi David,

My reaction would have been to sulk (like the cricket captain mentioned by Steve)in my early days and yes think that this guy’s juts cynical because of all the politics that he played to get to the top.

I think you did the right thing by keeping quiet and carrying on with your work. I a not that old in in consulting but have experienced similar situations where it is best to rol with the punches. The people who have invited me have ended up in profuse apologies about their bosses after the meeting. Our experience with not retorting has been quite postive for not only has our work been appreciated later, the same people who questioned our capabilities have later referred us to other customers.

Your book,”Managing…” has been of real help. I was discussing some of my business development issues with a friend who is from a top Management Institute in the country and his advice resonated word for word with that in your book. I believe its a bible for every wannabe consultant.

posted on August 24, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks for the kind words about my book, Prashant.


posted on August 24, 2006

Ludwig said:

Yes, what a way to start a relationship.

It is difficult to imagine the reason of the CEO’s agression. One would assume that, if they invited you to be there, it’s because a thoughtful selection process have allready taken place. However, not saying a word is like granting acceptance to the CEO’s “wellcoming”.

I would just have mentioned that the result of our work, will give them the peace of mind for their decision to hire us.

posted on August 24, 2006

Joseph Heyison said:

I’ve used this short, pointed reply, which goes down well with aggressive CEO’s and most others:

“I only do well when my clients do well.”

In your case, I might use: “If you think I’m gold-plating, don’t pay me.”

The CEO doesn’t believe (or pretends not to) that your interests are aligned with his, so explaining why is a waste. In general, any response of more than 10 words to a CEO is useless. They’re rarely reflective people.

posted on August 24, 2006

David Law said:

The CEO was rude, and not very original. When I hear those remarks (“you’re only in it for the money” etc) my typical response is to jokingly agree, suggesting that we look forward to finding and creating problems for the client that they can then pay us to fix. People get the joke and we move on.

If someone is serious about this sentiment, as that CEO seemed to you, then I think the only serious response is to say “You’re wrong, that’s not how I operate. If you really believe it, then let me give you a last piece of advice – for free: find an advisor you trust.”

That may sound like grandstanding, but it’s just good customer service: if the CEO expresses the view you’re not trustworthy, then your effectiveness as a “trusted advisor” is pretty well damaged from the start. Best to let them find someone the CEO really does trust.

posted on August 24, 2006

James Cherkoff said:

Jedi breathing is my codename for a few simple Yoga breathing exercises I have dallied with. Just the act of slowing down and concentraing on something other than ‘the room’ is very helpful. It also allows me to tap into Knowledge, Self-Discipline and, of course, The Force ;-)

posted on August 25, 2006

Brijinder Singh said:


This is my first post on your blog. Marvellous topic and discussion.

People (even CEOs<: )) tell us a lot about themselves and their place in the world when they speak. So - possible reasons for his words and tone?

1. Annoyance at his executive who brought you in ‘without permission’

2. Generally combative shoot-from-the-hip approach – willing to shoot, probably unable to receive same

3. Truly worried about change-related initiatives and irritated with his executives’ lack of input or activity

4. Just an ornery fellow who became CEO – was doing the best he knew how

5. CEO woke up from a Rip van Winkle nap and was brought disoriented to the meeting.

The CEO was probably hanging dirty laundry out to dry – if he had a problem with you being brought in, he needed to talk to your sponsor instead of taking a cheap shot at you. If that was too uncomfortable for him (I have seen CEOs walk down a different corridor to avoid walking by a ‘troublesome’ senior exec!), he could still have had the grace to grill you separately.

He seems to have chosen to kill two or more birds with one stone. Kicking your sponsor and you in the teeth along with putting everyone else in the room on notice with one comment was not bad!

What could you have said? If you had been contentious – implicitly or explicitly, you’d have fallen into the dysfunctional tempest and almost certainly lost. Standing your ground would have been contentious – Aikido, giving way, would have been best.

IDEALLY – you would have gotten enough background on what had been going on in relationship to the issue they called you in for, where the CEO and other execs stood on it, etc and you would have had the information to respond calmly and constructively in a context-informed manner. For all you know, part of the reason for your presence was a disconnect between the CEO and execs.

PRACTICALLY & TRULY – the only way to respond wisely and effectively would have required more information. In that setting, information would have required a grounded and exceptionally calm demeanor – sort of like David Carradine’s in his Kung Fu series – that truly deflected the attack without taking it in the least bit personally AND without ANY attempt to defend. It IS possible for mortals to do this.

Let me change tenses – Understand quickly AND provoke/induce at least a mini-discussion – and you gain a lot. You’ve been calm and subject-focused when the ‘normal’ response makes everyone personality and attack-focused.

Slightly deflecting but related lines like these might start a discussion:

“This is an intelligent and perceptive group of executives. I doubt I can push through anything that has no merit for you and all merit for my pocket! But should we not explore the need for change? or Do you think this is a waste of effort? Or Do you believe no change is actually necessary? “

After you find, with a tiny bit of luck, and a bit of skill, where the CEO and the other executives stand (if they do not speak, it’s pretty bad!), you can see what to do.

But, while shrinking into a small, invisible ball seems like the best response in the moment, it is not helpful. Worse, it is not possible. I have tried it a few times.


posted on August 27, 2006

David (Maister) said:

A useful post, grasshopper. (You and I betray our age with the David Carradine reference, Brijinder. Unless there has been a revival!)

Anyway, welcome to the conversation. Your comments are helpful.

posted on August 27, 2006

Brijinder Singh said:

Thanks David. I watched reruns of Kung Fu in the eighties!

posted on August 28, 2006

shuchetana said:

That’s an amazingly great response, brijinder.

I think it’s good to have a few stock answers prepared, and the one you suggested is really great.

I’m running a list of stock answers on my blog, but those are for interviews. I think preparation works, if you can deliver sincerely, i.e. believing in what you say.

posted on August 29, 2006

Brijinder Singh said:

Thanks Shuchetana.

I believe if one could tweak one’s role in the consulting process (or life), get away from believing that one needs to be magical or perfect, AND if one could stop allowing people like the CEO to crash one’s state of mind with just one comment, almost no other preparation would be necessary. One could easily respond appropriately in tough situations like the one David walked into.

Even little bits of progress towards this personal model have made for comfort and effectiveness for me in difficult situations. Amazingly, my “odd”/”adroit” responses get appreciated even by people who otherwise are locked in automatically reactive modes.

posted on August 29, 2006

David Kirk said:

Just bumped into this blog while catching up. Tonnes of really great ideas here, some simple and useful, others perhaps slightly more idealistic.

My experience of this was having an inexplicable feeling of anger. Adrenalin pumping, defense mechanisms up. The meeting went badly. Only afterwards did I realise that I was feeling that way because of implicit comments about my integrity.

There are many different things you can do, and many different ways to react. Different people can win with different approaches. For me, the first step in common to all successful strategies is to understand yourself and understand what is going on, why you are feeling that way and to understand that it is biological for the adrenalin to rush, but you may want to ignore that and try to make a decision based on something other than stress. With that first step, you enable yourself to implement these other great ideas. Without it, you’re a prisoner to your caveperson self!

posted on November 29, 2006

Alan Chapman said:

My boss, who is an accomplished consultant, tends to respond by questioning the ethics of consultants who do strategy work and then put themselves forward for downstream work. He explicity states that he excludes himself from any downstream work. This may be a little extreme but it is quite effective. Of course, one could make it less extreme by saying that you will not actively pursue any downstream engagements. That way if the organisation wanted to engage you the onus is on them to chase you.

posted on June 6, 2007

Ian Scott said:

I’d suggest it’s folly to respond with a statement to a statement, particularly one that might impugn your credibility.If such comments remain unaddressed they have the potency to damage and disrupt the good work you’re trying to achieve.

I’m of the belief that seizing control by asking questions, doing so immediately, thus gaining control over the disruptive sender is the solution

  1. First accept what has been said – ” Oh really?” then question – “How?”
  2. Then provide succour – ” I understand”.
  3. Restate accurately the answer to Q1 but reframed . “So does that mean… you have had bad experiences with consultants in the past or that you are simply suspicious of consultants?”
  4. Check your restatment – “Would that be correct?” if this is not correct simply ask Q1 again and proceed until the answer is “Yes” to Q4

Propose an assumptive solution – ” So can I assume that if you had not had these bad experiences you’d have no issues with me or my company?” and force a response ” Is that correct?”

Now is the time to make a statement – “Plainly I have no connection with your past bad experiences, my own eminent record of client satisfaction is self evident”

Final Questions 1 & 2 - (1) ” So on that basis could we continue?” (2) ” Well if there are no further issues I’ll move on”

If the sender continues after this, they’ll just be looking for trouble or have a real issue with you – maybe its then time to recheck the appointments book!


Ian Scott

posted on June 9, 2007

Abhisek Mukherjee said:

The post and the following comments are mainly related to consultant-CEO relationships. I am less than two years old in the consulting world and I would like to share a few observations about ourselves which make us somewhat unpopular with client middle managers: the executives young consultants typically engage with (at least in large firms). And given that CEOs have been in middle-management in their younger days, maybe their interactions with younger consultants from their early days caused them to develop the kind of impression they have about consultants when they became CEOs.

I have noticed that it is a custom among consultants of giving elaborate introductions about themselves when they meet a client. Brand name college, brand name business school, top prior clients, etc. I suppose this is done to show “how good” we are. However, the client executives mostly perceive this as showing off. They feel that we are trying to show how “superior” we are to them, especially if their own resumes have “more humble” brands. This sows the seeds of hostility.

Second is our love for “proprietary methodologies.” On more than one occassion, after showing a number of process charts and templates, I have heard clients say: “But that is common sense.” In our defence, common sense is indeed uncommon and often our methods and processes add the discipline which differentiate successes and failures. But to the client, it just appears to be a smooth-talking brand-name MBA trying to appear smart.

When I was recruited for the firm I work for, the partner interviewing me had spend 40 minutes quizzing me about how I will deal with a middle-manager 20 years my senior whose work I am supposed to “improve.” It was one of the toughest questions I have faced in my life.

I guess clients like consultants who dress, speak and act like they do and are willing to share a beer with them at the end of the day. A consultant should perhaps never fall in love with the client, but it helps if the client feels that the consultant is “one of us.”

Perhaps I have wandered off. To summarize, professional firms should pay a lot of attention to how younger consultants engage with client managers lower down the ladder. These managers grow to become CEOs and their opinions about consultants are formed in their earlier days. The day-to-day interactions of the younger consultants with the client teams may have a greater role to play in how the client perceives the firm compared to how occassional partner-CEO meetings are conducted.

posted on July 12, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Great comments, Abhisek. Thank you.

posted on July 12, 2007

Anand S said:

David, a very practical example and true, that these are never dealt in training / skill building sessions.

The situation and our ability to respond depends heavily on our “emotional intelligence” and i’ve found a few practical insights from the book “Emtional Intelligence” very helpful.

The key to these situations is our ability to a)recognize our emotions (how we feel at that moment), and b) develop keen awareness of the feelings and be able to manage our response appropriately.

I believe that the simple knowledge of how we feel at a given moment in intself leads to half the solution since manytimes we dont control our adrenaline simply becuase we react in impulse without realizing how we feel at the moment.

having expereinced simlar situations, i’ve found my emotions to be typically some of these a)anger b) deep embarrassment, c) fear of being dismissed easily. With these kind of emotions controlling me at that time, i’ve found my faculties are not best equipped to get into an argument. A pause, a few silent moments helps me to stablize while also giving the time for others to register the “accident”.

I’d prefer to be silent and move on.

posted on August 9, 2007

Stever Robbins said:

If the CEO hasn’t bought in to your presence, the meeting won’t accomplish much, so I would be willing to change gears to address the problem. Silence seems way, way too risky. It’s the one response where I have no control over or knowledge of what’s being communicated.

You seem to want to respond from a place of integrity. Rehearsed responses, as you note above, aren’t integrity. Your intentions may be good, but integrity is being true to your real responses. If you’re caught off guard, a high-integrity response could be, “Wow. I’m taken aback by that comment and unsure of your intention. Could you help me understand?”

You interpreted the comment as questioning your ethics. Maybe you were wrong; maybe the CEO was just stating the truth as he saw it. If so, add it to the discussion. “A change recommendation will give me business, so I may be biased. Others here may have biases for or against change. How can we as a group insure our solution isn’t unduly influenced by those?”

Or, if he was right (and you never say outright that he wasn’t, only that you were offended), you could stay in integrity by removing the conflict of interest, “Let’s agree here and now that change management consulting will go to other consultants.”

You could also defend your integrity and bring it into the discussion, saying courteously, “That’s not how I work. If, however, you fear consultants at your firm give advice for the sole purpose of generating new fees, perhaps we should add that to our strategy discussion?”

At worst, they’ll ask you to leave. But maybe this consulting CEO considers biased recommendations perfectly good business practice. Wouldn’t you want to know that? It’s relevant to the strategy discussion and may be relevant to whether you want to keep them as a client. It could also suggest he doesn’t know how to establish a trusting client/consultant relationship, which becomes another topic for the strategy discussion.

From your discussion, I get the impression you were more afraid of losing your fee than of standing up for your integrity. Which, by the way, means that the CEO’s implied “You’re willing to sacrifice integrity for income” might have hit home because it was true, as you demonstrated by sacrificing your self-integrity to preserve the income from that client.

The problem here is that you weren’t confident in the moment. Why not take some assertiveness courses, and/or improvisation classes, so you learn to generate confident, flexible responses on the fly? Joining a comedy improv troupe–which I did as a hobby–was possibly more useful than my Harvard MBA in terms of usable business skills. I know I can always respond with confidence, and then I need only concentrate on my integrity, knowing the nonverbal part will be there when needed.

And P.S. this stuff IS learnable. I was a socially inept MIT geek for years. If I can do it, anyone can do it.

posted on September 4, 2007