Consulting manager: dictator mode vs. democracy mode

Increasingly, I have been using this simple, but stark, analogy to talk about team management.  Increasingly, seems like there are two ways to get outcomes.

  • Democracy mode (what do you think?)
  • Dictator mode (do what I say)

As a manager, I want to get the most our of my people.  Get them focused on the goal, trust them to do the heavy lifting, and really own the results.  The problem occurs when that general openness, affability, and penchant for humor is misinterpreted as low standards or a slack work environment.  It is not.

It is not a difference in communication style.  Either you have earned and kept my trust, or I will have to really manage you. . which is painful for me and painful for you.  If I am prescribing all the actions, the end-product will be worse.

How can 1 person’s brain > the creative energy, passion, and hard work of an entire team?   It cannot.  That said, there are two ways to get results, both needed. . .

Democracy mode.  One thing I love about consulting is it is full of smart, intellectually curious, driven, and creative people.  Basically, I want my teams to understand the mission, understand the context, develop rapport with me and the client, then basically go out and do their thing.  Leaders make leaders.  You want to surround yourself with people who are smarter and work harder than you.  

This graphic is simple, but the idea is that the consulting team (red line) gains more certainty over time.  In the early days, it is a lot of data gathering, research and thinking. Over time, the team becomes more confident and their hypotheses pan out.  For large parts of the project, a manager’s job is to let their people do the work.  Let them go. 

Consultants mind Democracy mode

I love democracy mode.  You get to know your team; learn their work ethic, logical structuring, and how beautiful their mind is.  Basically, why box someone in who has the capacity and willingness to rise to the occasion.  Love the energy of a new project – willing to do the work, hungry for client face-time, eager to win. Democracy done right.

Ideally, each consultant writes up their own work stream plans and charter.  They give the manager the confidence that they know what they are doing and deserve trust. They check-in from time to time, but they think ahead of me AND the client.  Like boy scouts, they are prepared.  We are proud of consultants like this.  Hire as many as you can find.

The less I am involved and the better the results, it is a win-win for everyone. Consultants get exposure, experience, and a sense of accomplishment.  I get results with less of my time spent.  I can focus on coaching them on ways to get the extra 20% out of their performance and keep them humming.  Let the consultants do the work.

So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.  – Pete Drucker

Dictator mode.  This is where senior managers sadly, earn their paycheck.  This is when the project needs a strong hand.  It needs structure and scope.  The client does not need to see the confusion within the ranks of the consulting team.  The team does not need to “spin” because they are following wild leads or have not done the homework.  In parenting talk, this is the tough love part.  “You need to listen to me because I am your parent.  End of discussion.”

Projects have life-cycles. There are ups and downs and each of these management “settings” have their time and place. Generally, I operate in democracy mode because for three reasons:  1) I am an optimist and will err on the side of trust  2) I am lazy and would much prefer work-stream leads to worry about the details 3) I love coaching, and would rather spend my time on the person, not the content.

Does this always work.  Hell no.  As I tell people, I love 100% consulting about 60% of the time, and 100% hate consulting 40% of the time.  It definitely attracts people who like the buzz of work, natural dopamine from achieving stuff.

Consultantsmind Dictator Mode

1. Start of the project:  At the beginning of a project, there is a fair amount of unilateral decisions that need to be made.  What to put in the proposal?  Who to staff on the workstreams?  How to restrict / entertain different personalities, requests,and variances.

For big 4 or big 3 consulting firms, these norms are already hard-coded.  People know what professional expectations are.  People know what not to wear to the client site. People know what an acceptable status report looks like.  Less dictator mode needed.

2. When people get stuck.  Somewhere in the middle of the project, junior consultants start to spin, get lazy, or loose focus.   Late on a Wednesday afternoon, if you ask them, why are you doing that [activity], they explain that it is a part of the work plan, or someone told them to do it.  Wrong answer.  If you don’t know WHY and WHAT, your HOW will suck.

  • If your manager is worrying about it more than you are = problem
  • If you are not proud of the work you are doing = problem
  • If you are scrounging for work to do = problem

3. The final push.  For me, every project has an “oh sheesh” moment, when the team gets spooked by a vocal client, or a stumble in the data.  Negativity can be contagious. The most confident (almost arrogant) consultant can quickly become a naysayer and timid sheep.  This is where experienced managers – who have developed rapport with the client – need to step in and start ordering people around.   Got to keep people producing.

Here is the point:

  • Nothing is better than a well-functioning team that operates 90% of the time in democracy mode.  Consultants are SMART and problem solvers
  • Know yourself.  Dictator mode comes hard to a lot of people, including myself
  • Inspire.  Try to coax people into a more self-reliant, confident and accountable posture.  Ask them, “Are you proud of your work?”
  • Be comfortable not knowing details, “No that is okay, I don’t need to know. As long as you are confident in the data and analysis, that is fine.”
  • Be humble. “Look, you know the content better than I do, what do you think?”
  • Be stern if necessary.  “Look, you have not done the research and it shows.”
  • Roll people off the project if needed

What are your thoughts on this simple idea of democracy mode and dictator mode of consulting team management?

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Only benefit of window seats – clouds

For most road-warriors, aisle seats are the way to go.  Better in almost every way.  They have more leg-room, more freedom of movement, and easier exits.

Today I did discover 1 benefit – clouds.

20150409_175622 20150409_175709 20150409_175718 20150409_175740

Hack: Free movies on Delta Studio

I have flown Delta for 15 years, but just recently discovered Delta Studio.  For those who don’t know, you can watch free movies and TV shows using GoGo Inflight Wi-fi.

  • Phone: Download GoGo app.  Connect to wifi, open app.  Click of Delta Studio.
  • Laptop: Connect to wifi, open up the Internet Explorer.  Click of Delta Studio.

If you are not tired, or don’t have to work on PowerPoint, it’s awesome.  Some of the movies showing in April.  My wife watched Les Miserable on her flight yesterday.

Delta Studio

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“I’ll go [get lunch], I am the cheapest person here”

When one of my consultants volunteered to go pick up food for the rest of the team, this made my day . . .because he understood the way consulting works.

Leverage.  This junior consultant, let’s call him Ted (pseudonym), implicitly understood how consulting firms make money.  We work on a leverage model where senior resources win the business, scope the problems, free the way for junior consultants to effectively do the work.  Namely, we give the work to the cheapest person on the team who can reliably do it.  Ted was essentially saying, “Hey I am the grinder.  It’s more efficient for me to go.  I have the lowest opportunity cost.”

Ted is a good guy.   He’s polite.  He opens doors for other people.  He gets the car and warms it up on cold days.  He would go and get lunch for people just because of his personality, no one would be surprised.  And yet, listen to his reasoning. . .

I’ll go, I am the cheapest person here.  He gets it.  It is not just a matter of respect for authority, some Confucian ideal of harmony or hierarchy.  No, it is about team economics.  Is someone makes $10 a hour, and someone makes $5 a hour. . .the $5 per hour person should do as much as possible to free up the $10 per hour person.

Starbucks mac and cheese

Thank goodness someone gets it.  When junior consultants start to feel privileged and don’t want to do certain kinds of work, it is a sign of a problem.  It shows a certain disconnect between 1) the work that has to be done for client service, 2) the team’s agreement on who should do which work 3) the setting of goals and expectations on what each person wants to learn on the project 4) the storming / norming / performing needed to efficiently get the work done.

Sacrificial attitude.  I am a big believer in servant leadership; namely it is the manager’s job to get out of the way of his/her people.  Give people the tools, the direction, and the trust to do their jobs.   I do my best, but it was great to see that sacrificial attitude by team members today.  Love to see it in the work place.  When the CEO of Lenovo gives his $3M bonus to the lowest-paid workers here, or a partner slows down enough to spend quality time and coach a consultant, it makes you hopeful.

Teach your clients opportunity cost.  I told this to my client a few months ago.  He was caught up doing some menial activities – and I had to reiterate that it was a waste of his time.  He should be delegating it to someone “cheaper” than himself.  I said, “If someone else can do the job, you should give the work away.  You should only be doing the work that ONLY YOU can do.  If you are doing this, the company is overpaying to have it done.”

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Cherry blossoms

Monday night in the hotel.  Lots of work, but not in the mood.  Instead, thinking about the cherry blossoms I saw with my wife this weekend.  A much better thought.

cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms 2

cheery blossoms 3

cherry blossoms 4

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Accenture, “Digital Business Era: Stretch Your Boundaries”

Accenture had a good week.  Their stock hit a 16 year high, as they boosted their forecast for both revenues and profits.  Go A-C-N.   While looking for their quarterly investor presentation, I stumbled on something entirely more interesting.

Digital Business Era: Stretch Your Boundaries here.  This report is thought-provoking and relevant to all management consultants.  They surveyed 2,000 business and technology executives and divided the 120 page report into 5 major themes:

  1. Internet of Me
  2. Outcome Economy
  3. Platform (R)evolution
  4. Intelligent Enterprise
  5. Workforce Reimagined

All of us feel the intellectual curiosity of how the next digital revolution is changing business.  Some of it we understand, most of it, we don’t.  Our clients struggle with these issues daily – especially if they are CIO, CMO, or CTOs.  As consultants, we need to understand the context, and preferably have a point of view on it.  I took the 29,000 words in the report, took out the most mundane 10 words (like business, company, data) and came up with this word cloud:

ACN Tech Vision Wordle

This is a time of enormous excitement, speed and disruption.  Accenture notes that 52% of companies from the Fortune 500 have gone bankrupt in large part because of digital disruption (remember Circuit City, Blockbuster etc. . ?)

For those even mildly interested, this is a readable report.  For those who work in Strategy, IT, marketing, enterprise risk, or R&D – r.e.a.d this report, it’s free here.

In the introduction of this massive report, there are 13 “takeaways” which make up an executive summary.  The words in blue color are my commentary, not Accenture’s.  Open to all comments, feedback.

1. Beyond the cloud: stop talking about cloud—the value is in using it.  Amen. This is so true, and sadly, most business people refer to “the cloud” as if it was a mystical place where problems solve themselves.  No, it just has enormous computing power, and storage in a remote location . . .with real-time connectivity.  It’s a ultra-powerful utility. The question is now, what will you do with it?

2. Design for analytics: formulate the questions, and design for the answers.  For all the talk of “big data”, honestly, even “small” data is difficult to gather and analyze.  Most companies have the hardest time getting legacy systems to spit out structured data in usable ways.  Last week, I spoke with a director who spends 2 hours every month, just putting together 1 report because the data is not extracted with a mind for reporting.

3. Relationships at scale: moving beyond transactions to digital relationships.  This touches on CRM (customer relationship management) which is not my area of specialization, but ACN’s argument is simple.  All this SOMOLO (social, mobile, local) data is useful for commerce and marketing, but what is it doing to drive loyalty and life-time-value-of-customer decisions?  Are you gaining real loyalty or just selling better?

4. Seamless collaboration: right channel, right worker, right job. As Peter Drucker said so famously 40+ years ago, “The knowledge worker cannot be supervised.”  This applies now more than ever, as companies rely on their employees, working in teams to collaborate, and create ways of working smarter, harder, and closer-to-the-customer.

5. Active defense: adapting cyber security defenses to the threat.  Accenture argues that even though this field is constantly changing – with the bad guys getting ever craftier – companies need to start with the basics and implement today’s best practices immediately.  The average company is woefully behind-the-times in security.

6. Data velocity: matching the speed of decision to the speed of action.  I found this point to be oddly liberating. There is a flood of data – but in reality – the data which will be acted upon is just a fraction of the total.  This means that the velocity of data analysis is constrained or filtered by the reaction / implementation time of the client.  Put another way, there is no reason to freak-out of all data. . .when in reality, there is a finite (and much smaller) sets of data which will drive management action.

7.Software-defined networking: virtualization’s last mile.  Dude. Gonna skip this one.

8. Digital-physical blur: extending intelligence to the edge. The Internet of Things (IoT), where connected devices are everywhere, allowing consumers to better shape their experience (if they want), Later in the report, they talk of Mercedes linking up your car to your NEST thermostat at home, so it warms / cools your house on your way home. Likewise, with a Los Angeles parking app which tells you which of the 7,000 smart parking spaces are available in real-time. M2M (machine-to-machine) communications is getting cheaper and communication protocols are maturing.

9. From workforce to crowdsource: rise of the borderless enterprise.  Extending collaboration beyond the 4 walls of your company – embracing consumers, suppliers, and even competitors.  Not a new idea, but ACN calls API (applications programming interfaces) the “secret sauce of the digital economy”

10. Data supply chain: putting information into circulation. Enterprise data is woefully under-utilized because it sits in silos. ACN poetically describes the need to better coordinate the supply chain of data from one system to another.  Frankly, if clients could systematically do this, consulting revenues would drop by a third.

11. Harnessing hyperscale: hardware is back (and never really went away).  Skipping.

12. Business of applications: software as a core competency in the digital world. ACN puts this very well, “there is a sharp shift towards simpler, more modular apps.”

13. Architecting resilience: built to survive failure, the mantra of the nonstop business. With the need for systems to be on 24/7, there is a level of robustness and redundancy. They describe it as, systems need to be “designed for failure, not designed to spec.”  

Consultants love buckets. Accenture does too.  This is the evolution of their digitial trends over the last few years.   Very graphical, and shows how ideas flow, flux, and adapt.  Good for Accenture to see this as an organic evolution.

Evolution of Technology

This report shows consultants at their best.  Accenture (disclosure, don’t work there) takes a super broad topic, distills it into easily understood elements, provides real-life examples, and even provides videos, podcasts, and multiple ways to interact with the content.  Complete 360 experience – which just reinforces the message that technology is ubiquitous, and not a separate discipline, but the underpinning of everything.  Whew.

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Careers after consulting

There is no better general business training than consulting.  You work with super smart people, interact with clients daily, learn excel ninja skills, and get more valuable daily. The key question is what happens after consulting?

Charles Aris is a search firm based in North Carolina that specializes in placing top-tier management consultants who go into industry. They have job boards here, which gives you a flavor for the kinds of work top-end management consultants get to do when they hang up their Briggs & Riley rollerbags.  Their mailing list is worth the trouble.

Post Management Consulting Jobs

Oh, they also have a great salary survey here.  You will be surprised at how much big 3 consultants can make, if they stick it out 6-8 years after MBA.  Interested now?

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Some rough manager days

I have not blogged in a month because of international travel, 3 concurrent projects, and honestly, some of the toughest manager days I have ever had.  Got some new folks, a fairly ambiguous project, and a lack of thinking.  Sad, but true.  A lack of real thinking. Here is an unfiltered list of the #%^# I said to my teams over the last 3 weeks.

  • You are not thinking through the problem.  You need to think more.
  • If you are not proud of your work, then we have a problem.
  • If it’s not up to your expectation, then why would it be good enough for the client?
  • The client is paying $2K for your time today; you need to have a $10K day
  • I wanted to like this, but I don’t.
  • If you are confused, I will take 50% blame for it
  • Does it make sense to you?  How would you explain it to your nephew?
  • Don’t say that.  It’s not important what I think; does it make sense to you?
  • It’s not just the letter of the law, what is the spirit of the law?  What the purpose?
  • What about the false negatives? Are you basing all your analysis on just the data you got, but no judgment on the data that might be missing or we didn’t get?
  • Right.  It’s ambiguous, that’s where consultants use their judgment
  • Wouldn’t it be better to show the sub-total, and another section called “other”, so it shows a grand total of 100%?

Frankly, it was time for some tough love.  Consulting is an apprenticeship model, and I am confident these guys will be better because of it. There were a few highlights too, but not many. This is how I felt this month (except for the bald head and cane).

Managerial Emotions

As a side-bar, I am a big fan of team consultants.  Some consultants are SAFE – smart, aware, fun, and eager.  I love consultants who think through problems, fill in the white spaces.  I love consultants who go the extra mile, and do the work because it advances the thinking of the team.  I love consultants who are eager to learn from their seniors and soak in the coaching, the ones who are getting better daily.  Consultants who run hard and give their managers leverage.  Consultant – damn it – be a professional.

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Be different

Working in the hotel lobby – Courtyard Marriott.  No one else is here at midnight except the front desk.  Be different.  Oh, yes, those 2 Blue Moons are mine too.

Courtyard Marriott Blue Moon

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Business travel in the winter

Yes, I am currently staffed on the East Coast in February.  #$^@#$ it’s #$%#$^ cold. A few words of wisdom for the newbie consultants traveling to into the cold:

Staying warm

  • Buy some 180s.  They are ear warmers that don’t mess up your great hair
  • Win major points with your team by bringing the car up front and warming it up
  • Wear your heaviest clothes on the plane, find a good place to tuck it away
  • Travel with a Contigo thermos; bring K cups if the client has a Keurig
  • Dress in layers- it is easy to “overheat” in the car or coming in from the cold (LS)


  • Get a larger rental car and load it up with consultants; less sliding on snow
  • Park with your windshield wipers up when it snows; they will get stuck to your car
  • Leave your rollerbag in the garage; don’t drag that dirty thing in your house
  • Carpool – no reason to have 3 rental cars on the road, if you can prevent it
  • Leave the client site while it is still light out; finish up the work at the hotel

Getting home

  • Book the 2nd to last flight home on Thursday.  The last flight is your back-up
  • Check your flight status often; expect delays
  • Be willing to pay the penalty and change flights, don’t get snowed in
  • Stick to airline & hub combinations (e.g., Delta, ATL)
  • Most airlines let you use wifi free to watch movies; Delta Studio here

Looking sharpsnow

  • Mix and match clothes; it won’t all fit in your bag. Re-wear.
  • Bring some portable shoe polish, and leave it at the client
  • Dust the crappy salty snow off your black pants
  • For longer projects, leave some clothes in a hanging bag with the hotel; they don’t mind
  • Use scarves to brighten up
  • Don’t be afraid to go with the “old man” vest look.
  • Wear those partner/principal jackets and turtleneck

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