Don’t be a consulting mailman

Mailman is a word that I have used many times this week.  It has come to be a short-hand way for me to say overhead.  Like the post I wrote about not supervising others here, if you find yourself merely sitting in meetings where you are only taking notes, setting up calls and logistics for others.  You are not adding value.  Questions to ask:

  • Are you bringing new ideas to the client?
  • Are you making PowerPoint pages to distill thinking down?
  • Are you connecting with the client, and getting them to open up?
  • Are you coaching junior consultants?
  • Are you taking risks that the client applauds?

You are a mailman if you don’t have a value-added role, and instead are creeping into meetings, and delivering messages from here to there.  You have become a human email system.  If you find yourself sayings things like:

  • I am not too familiar with this topic, but. . .
  • I will have to ask him, what he thinks
  • Let me run this by her and let you know
  • Let’s get A and B on the call, and discuss
  • Well, she is really the one who knows the answer, but. . .

Time to reassess what it is you are doing on the project.  Chances are you are project managing, and doing it badly.  Overly involved in the wrong things, not trusting your people, and generally just playing mailman.  Taking messages from here to there.

Decision rights.  Effective organizations know who does what.  Great HBR article on using an organizational structure to facilitate and accelerate decisions here.

Bain talks alot about decision rights, but the framework is simple.  People can either.  . .R.A.P.I.D.  Recommend, Agree, Perform, give Input, Decide.  Think about your role on the project, and if you are R, A, P, I, or ..D.  Read about Bain tools here.

If you are not doing one of those 5 things with decisions, you are a mailman.  You are just shuttling information back and forth.   Don’t be a mailman.

Confession: I have been a mailman recently.


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I am here to make you successful

This is what consultants should be thinking.  This is what consultants should be demonstrating through their work.  When you have earned the right, say these words:

I am here to make you successful.  

There are all kinds of people in this world – selfish, petty, greedy, angry.  All kinds.  This is also true of consultants.  Every client has a story or two about a consultant who just “did not get it.”  Money spent, egos hurt, politics, and always change.  Our job, as (good) management consultants, is to have principles, smarts and a good heart. Mean it when you say it. Be-do-say.

This is not just platitudes.  This is hard work.  Think about what it will take to implement, Ask yourself some of the hard questions to visualize the effort:

  • Who is your customer?  All the executives or specific people?
  • What will ultimately make the client and her organization successful?
  • What is their time horizon?  6 months or 6 years?
  • How much change is needed?  How much relational equity do I need to create, and how much equity do I need to spend?

It’s not easy, nor should it be.  As professionals, we attract problems.  No matter how difficult it is, this heart-to-heart is perhaps the most important.  Once the client starts to doubt your intentions, nothing good.

Remember Marvin Bower, the godfather of McKinsey and Company, understood this level of professionalism.  Quote from the McKinsey website:

Bower held both a JD and an MBA from Harvard University. He adamantly believed that management consulting should be held to the same high standards for professional conduct and performance as law and medicine

We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.  Be bold, and don’t bore them. Remember, we are here to make them successful. Gotta remember that.


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Drucker says, “The knowledge worker cannot be supervised”

Everyone who reads this blog, knows that I am a huge Drucker fan.   This quote from The Effective Executive, published in 1967, sums up how good consulting groups run.

The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He can only be helped.   – Peter Drucker

An effective consulting team or group is made up of competent, cognitive thinkers, who trust each other, and build credibility and trust with clients.  It is a loose affiliation of free agents who “jam” and make executives and clients’ lives easier through their work.

They are not a Dilbert hierarchy of mangers watching, tracking, measuring, project managing other people.  It is not full of status reports, and dashboards of progress.  It is not SG&A or overhead.  As Drucker said, [consultants] can only be helped.

As a consultant, my question to you is:

  • How have you helped your fellow team mates today?
  • What are you doing to build your practice?
  • Have you codified the learnings from your last project, so it helps others?
  • Are you always responsive when other consultants reach out to you for help?
  • During your day, what % of time was spent 1) solving client problems?  2) helping others 3) doing administrative duties?

As a manager, my question to you is:

  • Are you coaching your team, or micro-managing them?
  • Are you showing your team what good managers look like?
  • Are you giving away credit, and taking more of the blame?
  • Are you protecting people weaker than yourself?
  • Are you extending grace to junior consultants who make mistakes?
  • Are you giving truth and feedback / pushback to seniors, on behalf of the team?

Drucker help

BP 150/100

So my blood pressure was WAY high this week.    Lots going on with work – some good, a lot bad.  A big part of consulting is knowing how to deal with stress, lean on team mates, and get grace when you make mistakes.  As a friend says, “we are in the business of attracting problems, right?”  If clients did not have problems, they would not hire us.

For all those consultants out there, bumping around with customers, creating new consulting services, trying to “put a dent in the universe” and drive change. . . . listen to your body and take good care of your health.  No reason to be a sick hero.

Things that I am reminding myself, being positive:

  • I’ve got good healthcare with my company, time to use it
  • Sometimes a “small bad thing” is preventing a “larger bad thing”
  • Pretty thankful for the health I do have
  • Slowing me down, less frenetic nervous, and more calculation
  • Forcing me to take better care of myself (less booze, less coffee)
  • With troublemakers in my life. . “at least I am not married to them”
  • Need to rely on others, consulting – and life more generally – is not a solo show
  • Want to meditate, pray, and center.  Focus on what’s important

I cancelled a long weekend vacation, so I am get a physical tomorrow.

Consultants, watch your health.

Do you have what you need?

This is my favorite expression.  Do you have what you need?

I usually ask it of at least 3-4 people a day.  It’s simple, but clear.  I believe it encapsulates the following thoughts:

  • “I am busy, but I want you to be successful.”
  • “Is there anything on your mind, you need to talk about?”
  • “Is there anything I can help you with now, or tomorrow?”
  • “I look forward to working with you”

If this is what am known for professionally, I would be very proud.  Making other people successful, and amplifying their good work.  More assists like John Stockton.

Do you have what you need

Challenge: Before you leave the office on Friday, IM your boss, and ask them a simple question, “Do you have what you need?  Anything you need before Monday?”

  • Yes, they need something, and it’s your chance to get them out of a bind
  • No, they don’t need anything, but know you want to be helpful and are committed

Afraid to ask that question of your boss or your team mates on a late Friday afternoon? A few things cross my mind, none of them good:

  1. You don’t particularly like your boss or team.  You harbor the fear of meaningless, and thankless work.  Possible, but not a good sign of the work climate
  2. There is a ton of work, but there is a culture of avoiding work.  Lack of accountability and a lack of reward for work.  Also, not good,
  3. You are afraid that this simple question will spin off into personal discussion, and ineffective chit-chat, unrelated to work.  Also, not good.

Do you have what you need?  Ask it.  Be helpful.  The majority of the time, people smile and say thanks for asking.  Sometimes, they need some advice.  Sometimes, there is something substantial you can help with.  Always, you feel better for asking.

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Consulting formula: think + write + communicate + revise

On a large project with so many moving parts, people, stakeholders, and organizational history that I sometimes get lost in the activities, status reports and project management mess.   Stop.  I need to come back to the basics of consulting.  This post is written to myself, for myself.  Gotta get back to basics:

think write communicate revise

Think.  Clients pay us to think through their problems broadly and deeply.

Write.  If you can’t put it into words and visuals, you aren’t saying anything.

Communicate.  Share the storyline with the client and experts.  Vet the story.

Revise.  Consulting is about modeling your way to the answer.

These are simple lessons that I have not been applying to my project, and it shows. Back to basics.  Have a great Friday all.

Managers are the glue, be greedy for work

I gave this advice to a newbie manager this week.  The manager kept acting like an individual contributor, as if that was enough to succeed.  He kept saying, “well, I do this” and “I do that”.  Wrong point of view.  No sense of managerial duties.

Managers are the glue.  Good managers give the consulting firm leverage and profitability because they know how to run teams.  They are able to take assignments, and efficiently farm them the work out to people lower in the pyramid. . . people with less experience, less opportunity cost (read: lower wages) who can responsibly get the work done.  Managers work too, but more importantly, they run the factory.

Yes, it is an over-simplification, but not by much.  The mantra of “finders, minders, grinders” model is largely true.  If consulting is a pyramid (it is. . .) then we have roles:

  • Partners/principals look for work, help scope the projects
  • Senior managers/managers develop and execute plans, keep clients happy
  • Senior consultants/consultants, frankly, do a lot of the analytics and work

Become the “go-to” person.  As a manager looking to rise in the ranks, your mission is to become a “go-to” person when partners/principals are looking to get proposals finished, and projects delivered.  You know how to get smart on a topic.  Every time you have a call with a partner, you take great notes, you build on their assumptions and thoughts.  You have impactful conversations and convert partner thoughts into proposal and PowerPoint decks.  In short, you are a pleasure to work with.

Develop a brand.  Everything is branding.  With partners, you are the manager who can get proposals done well and early.  With your peers, you are someone always willing to help out, give fair feedback, and take time out of your day to listen/commiserate.  With consultants and analysts, you help train them on hard skills (e.g., excel, powerpoint, research), but also give good career and life advice.  With HR, you are the one who can do case interviews and write mid-year evaluations on time.

Be greedy for work.  In my simple mind, upward career progression is related to taking on more work.  You make your boss’ life easier, and you continually look for more work that is higher impact (read: more profits for the firm).  This is no easy task since you are probably already working 60-70 hours a week.  Two things goals and two different approaches:

1. More difficult work. You start migrating to more difficult and ambiguous work. Instead of focusing on an inputs (e.g., creating a presentation, doing research), you are focused on outputs (e.g., sales meetings, recruitment, sales and profits).  This is some combination of your existing experiences, your network, the market, your mentors, and dumb luck.  You need to read a lot, listen to podcasts.  Constantly get smarter.

2. More work. You volunteer to help on more proposals.  You get leverage through your network of analysts and consultants who are willing to work weekends for you.  You know how to recycle existing content from proposals and presentations.  You know how to consulting with hypotheses – savings your teams hundreds of hours of consulting.

More work

As the funny expression goes, “if you want something done, give it to someone who is busy.”  Be the busy person who can take on more work, more difficult work.  Increase your capacity to deliver profits to the firm.  Be authentic and a great consultant.

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Consulting advice: Be, do, say

Be. Do. Say. I heard this for the first time 3 weeks ago.  It resonated. In the overly-marketed world we live in, there is incessant advertising noise and not a lot of authenticity.  Through the clutter, which brands and people can you really trust?

Companies and products all purport to have the solution.  They talk about unique selling propositions, value chains, core competencies and other MBA babble. Perhaps a more authentic and long-view question to ask is, “Who are you, who are you becoming?”

Be do say

Be.  Rather than talking a big game to prospects about what you can do for them (SAY), why not focus more on yourself?  Man in the mirror.  If you are so good that they cannot ignore you (plug for Cal Newport’s book), then you have a chance of making it.

The best marketing is always a great product.

Employee satisfaction = customer satisfaction. I remember reading that customer satisfaction starts with, and cannot ever exceed, employee satisfaction.  How will you delight customers, when your staff is unhappy?  Grumpy staff = grumpier customers.

Dave Ramsey, financial radio coach and entrepreneur advocate, says that it’s important to have a team, not employees.  “Employees come in late, leave early, and steal stuff while they’re here.” (laugh, but true).  Instead, you want “a talented team with members who are dedicated to a common vision. . . He’s learned that what’s on a person’s resume isn’t always as important as what’s in their heart.”

This is doubly true in consulting since our product is our people.  Are our teams smart, aware, fun, and eager to do great work?  Are we giving our people the direction, tools, feedback, support, and honesty for them to continually get better?

As Gandhi implied, BE the change:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”  – Gandhi

What is the master idea?  Joey Reiman, a branding consultant, talks alot about the “master idea” that motivates, inspires and holds organizations together.  It is a deep-seated need to have purpose.  It is almost Joseph Campbell in proportion.

Joey talks about BE.DO.SAY here and reiterates the fact that companies spend $500 Billion a year on marketing and advertising . . . and in reality talk is cheap.  A lot of this money should better be spent on BEING better and DOING better.  Not just talk.

Counterpoint:  For consultants to innovate – bring new things to market and our clients – we need to have a tolerance for failure.  It is impractical and unprofitable to refine our offerings to the point of academic obsolescence.  Analysis paralysis, right?

Key question: how to judge when we are focusing on BEING and DOING better, and when are we just wasting time with R&D and over-thinking?  As Muhammad Ali said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

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