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Passion, People and Principles

The Consultant and the CEO

post # 394 — June 28, 2007 — a Client Relations post

R Shawn Callahan, Founder of Anecdote Pty Ltd in Australia, has a question for all us. He writes:

“For the last month or so I have been working well with a client and her staff helping them develop their brand strategy. My client heads a division of a company. A couple of weeks into the project I’ve become aware that my client has an abysmal relationship with her CEO, whom she reports to. I also quickly learned that the CEO is a tyrant and displays many of the characteristics Bob Sutton described in his book The No Asshole Rule. The CEO makes the lives of her staff miserable. They are both terrified and befuddled by her unpredictable, bullying and overbearing behavior.

“Last week my client went overseas for work and the CEO has decided she wants to run the branding project during my client’s absence. The CEO attended a meeting of the leadership team I’m working with and she proceeded to denigrate her staff telling them that their opinion meant nothing and then proceeded to attack the project. The staff all looked at me to say “sorry” but couldn’t say a word.

“My question for you and your readers is this. How involved should a consultant get in trying to help a group of people who can’t make headway because the way the CEO behaves?”


Shawn, others may disagree, but my opinion is that you have virtually no choice. You were not hired to help the group deal with their boss, and it’s neither practical nor “the right thing to do” to try and take on that role. You’re gonna lose!

Maybe, if you really have superior psychological, political, interpersonal, sociological, emotional and intervention process skills, you could pull this off. But the odds are incredibly low. It’s one thing to be explicitly hired as a process consultant to help an organization function, with the CEO’s explicit consent. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to take it on as an extra challenge on a project where you were hired to do something else.

And if that means the project you were hired for is doomed, well, it’s doomed.


Anyone else have different advice for Shawn?


Carl Singer said:

Hindsight is so devilishly clever in situations like this — nonetheless here are a few thoughts:

1 – I agree with David, your engagement was to paint the house, not to rebuild the foundation. (A mediocre analogy at best.)

2 – Fundamental in an engagement — know who the “real” client is and what their expectations / motives, etc., are.

3 – I harken back to Sy Syms (an East Coast discount clothing seller) — “An educated consumer is our best customer” — a variant (see article on my website re: 7 characteristics of successful projects) is that good customers make good projects.

QUESTION: What to do when you find yourself involved with a “doomed project” ? I imagine that answers will range from “cut and run” to “hang on tight” — David, I’d really like to hear what you and your readership have to say.


posted on June 28, 2007

Stephen Downes said:

The project is doomed, no matter what. It’s pretty much irrelevant what you were hired to do. Your task has now become to provide the best service possible, whether or not it has anything to do directly with the project.

Make plans to exit the project with as little financial loss as possible. Work with the staff with an eye to recruiting them away from that company, either to expand your own, or to support one of your clients with better management.

posted on June 28, 2007

Frank Roche said:

David, I agree with your advice — the consultant was hired to do branding, not CEO intervention. On the other hand, part of any consulting project is the change management aspect, and part of that is helping the client work toward success. That might mean helping the senior staff include the CEO in the process in a way that she likes to be included. If she’s a real misanthrope, then there’s nothing to be done. If she’s just “difficult,” then there are ways to make everyone successful. It takes work, but in consulting, little is easy.

posted on June 28, 2007

Steve Roesler said:

This is a classic situation (although that doesn’ help Shawn!).

David, I would concur with your assessment and description of the related issues and options.

Here’s one thing that Shawn can do to, at minimum, to maintain his solid professional reputation and stay “clean” in the midst of an ugly (yet alluring) situation:

1. Without engaging in “who shot who(m),” touch base with the CEO and calmly note that there is a difference in outlook between her and the client. In order to serve her company well, it would be most prudent to establish how best to proceed when the client returns and the difference can be sorted out.

2. Contact the client, state that there are differences that need to be worked out before proceeding, and that you will be available to talk in detail upon the client’s return. While it is tempting to get down in the mud with the client about what a jerk the boss is, don’t. Everyone alread knows that. At most, acknowledge that the boss certainly has strong opinions and can present a challenge.

3. Ask the client to contact his/her team members to let them know you that obvious internal differences need to get sorted out before proceeding. It is reasonable to ask the client to let team members know that you have been in communication and look forward to continuing your support once the differences are sorted out. That way the team members know that you remain committed to the project and also have wisdom about the boundaries of your role.

While it is tempting to want to rescue a group from an obviously ugly situation–(and rescue one’s project at the same time)–it is unwise.

1. It is not the role for which you contracted.

2. Once you take sides, you become part of the internal dynamic. If the company is, indeed, run by a bully, the environment is a win/lose one. You stand a good chance of being on the losing end. Even if you understand that you did your best–but lost because you got involved –it will impact your sense of self for a while after the engagement. Is that what you want to permeate your heart and mind in the days that follow?

Finally, allow me offer up a consulting principle that has held me in good stead for a number of years after having ocassionally not made the right judgment calls early on. I know the profoundness if my operating principle may cause some to take a personal day or visit with their sprititual counselor after reflecting upon it– but here goes:

“Never get between the dog and the fire hydrant.”

Best wishes with this one, Shawn. And David, kudos for your usual well thought-out counsel.

posted on June 28, 2007

Stuart Cross said:


I’ve never faced this situation myself, but my reaction to the situation as presented would be to talk to the client, explain the situation and offer some options

  1. Stop the project (or at least pause until issues have been resolved internally);
  2. Carry on regardless and let the client handle the consequences (although this seems futile);
  3. Review and change the scope, possibly around developing new options based on the CEO’s perspective.

At least this gives the client some choices and control about the way ahead without you having to get involved in directly managing the CEO.


posted on June 28, 2007

Shawn Callahan said:

Excellent advice gents. I appreciate the thoroughness of your responses. I must admit I’m amazed at this situation and can’t see how the project can proceed. I will wait until my client returns and see what makes sense. My colleague also suggested a principle not unlike the dog and the fire hydrant which goes like this: never wrestle with a pig. You will both get dirty but the pig will love it.

posted on June 30, 2007

Herman Najoli said:

Peter Drucker once said, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

posted on June 30, 2007

Tom Nixon said:

I agree with the comments here. We had a similar situation earlier this year – presenting an almost complete project to the CEO of the client’s organisation only to have the rug pulled from under us and the entire project put on ice. There’s really not much you can do about it when the person at the top isn’t bought in to what you’re doing and pulls rank. Luckily for us our main contact at the client eventually talked the CEO round and we have agreed to make some changes to the project so that it would be accepted. But it was all very much out of our control. You have to trust that your contact at the client organisation really has the power to run the project but it’s not always that simple.

Good luck with it, I do sympathise.

posted on June 30, 2007

Josh Simmons said:

I feel Steve hit it right on the nail. You want to come away from this situation with your reputation in tact. If the CEO truly is a tyrant she may even blackball you if you try to get in between her and the proverbial fire hydrant ;).

I wish you the best of luck!

posted on July 1, 2007

Scott McArthur said:

Best advice I can give anyone in this circumstance is “don’t forget – if you are acting as a true trusted advisor sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind!”

Happiness is the answer!


posted on July 1, 2007

George Dinwiddie said:

Anyone else have different advice for Shawn?

Yes, in addition to whatever you do about the project, try to find some common ground with the CEO and make friends as well as possible. This will open the possibility of communication. Perhaps sometime in the future further work will be possible.

I also recommend Naomi Karten’s book, Communication Gaps, and How to Close Them.

posted on July 3, 2007

Wally Bock said:

No matter what the situation, my mother always would ask: “What good can we make of this?”

In this case there may not be much good. The relationships with CEOs and people in the company may be damaged. That’s why I think a key bit of advice above is Steve Roesler’s post about trying to find a way to gracefully exctract yourself.

posted on July 4, 2007