The Consultant role is one of exerting influence to change the what of operations, limited to areas where you have been asked to help. Gaining the sponsorship to fix the right problem is important, as is gaining the credibility needed for influence.

This is a follow-on to my introduction to helping roles. If you came straight into this article, please start there and come back.

If you’re working as a Contractor and looking for some career progression, maybe you’ll be looking at the Consultant role. Or perhaps you’ll be in the Contractor role and calling yourself a Consultant. Or — as too often happens, and certainly was true of me ten years ago — you’re falling into the trap of having made the jump to a Consulting role but still thinking like a Contractor.

In all of these cases, you’ve got a rude awakening coming.

Here’s the secret of consulting: you don’t get to do anything any more. And you have no authority to make anyone else do anything either. But at the same time, you have to have a very clear vision of what could be and what’s needed to get there. Hmm. Sounds like a recipe for permanent frustration to me. And it certainly can be.

As we saw in the previous posts, this is a helping role, and you are only able to help where the client has asked for it.

Influence, Not Applause

The value you bring is influence with stakeholders who can effect change; making solutions happen through other people who can direct that From today, we work like this instead. Done right, your fingerprints may not even be on the change at all. But the change will stick better. Gerald Weinberg puts it well: when you finish your assignment, you want your immediate clients thinking Who was that masked man? But your sponsor will see the change, and will remember. And that’s the person with the chequebook, able to bring you back for the sequel.

So here’s the question you have to ask yourself. Which is more important: making change happen, or taking a lap of honour for it? And if you’re building a consulting business, which is more likely to win you business?

This also applies to your Intellectual Property — the ideas you bring to the table. In some senses, they (and the knowing how to make them happen) are your Unique Selling Point; the reason why the client employs you, and not someone else. So it’s easy to fall into a cycle of feeling you have to protect your IP up to and beyond the point of engaging lawyers. And that feels really good to do.

But hold on a moment. Again, think: what are you trying to do? Are you trying to gain influence for your ideas, or credit for them? Nothing is a stronger influence than to have people spreading your ideas and owning them. It spreads your influence far more widely than you can with your limited 24hours a day, 7 days a week capacity, and will sustain your influence in your client’s organisation long after you’re gone. Again, a much stronger recipe for sustainable success.

And while it’s very tempting to think that the client’s buying your insight, when the real problem is nearly always with people, not with your heavily trademarked method. So what will win you repeat business is your effectiveness at unblocking the people problems and making your client more effective, whether or not that’s apparently through your IP.

Besides, are you saying all your intellectual progress is in the past?

First, Identify the Problem

In the consulting role, the situation is more conducive to helping than in the contracting one. Generally the client (or at least, someone in the client organisation with budget for you) has recognised that there is a problem. However, they may not have realised what the problem is, and may be asking you to help with something else entirely.

In many cases, the presented problem is one of method, process or technology. And you’ll be presented as an Expert in fixing that process, or introducing that method or installing that technology. You’re a What PersonWhat should we be doing?.

The hard bit is digging down and finding out exactly what you’ve got license to dig into and gain influence to change. The most important conversations you’re going to have are with your sponsor at or before the start of your engagement. Agree with your sponsor what you’re expected to change and who you’re expected to talk to. More importantly, get a shared understanding of what you can’t change, and who you can’t talk to. More importantly than getting clear sponsorship for your work, this will give you some insight into the situation in the client organisation, and you don’t have to be a psychotherapist to work out that off-limits areas are the areas of greatest pain, and therefore likely the ones most likely to need change.

Because nearly all problems aren’t process, method or technology at their heart. They’re about people and relationships. Oh they may have symptoms of those things, but generally, smart people working together well will be effective irrespective of the specifics of how and what. The people and relationship problems are nearly always at the root of the problem. This project was a particularly strong example of this. I was brought in to improve the process of identifying and selecting candidates, but the real problem was a fundamental breakdown of trust between supply and demand organisations, mirrored in the relationships between interface roles.

Second, Seek and Confirm Sponsorship

To bring about any change, you need permission not only to investigate, but to initiate change. I worked in an organisation for a good couple of years, struggling to help it change, before I realised that while I was on the hook for the benefits of change, I wasn’t being given any permission to make the changes required to achieve them, which required a number of significant shifts in the assumptions and constraints being used to operate the organisation. When I realised this, I headed rapidly for the exit. My sponsor’s behaviour hasn’t changed though, and my successor in the role is in exactly the same situation.

This can give you a bit of a problem. The root of the problem is often one when (at best) you don’t have a request to help or (at worst) you’re actively barred from investigating. To be most effective, you’re going to have to change this.

Soon after the start of your engagement, when you’ve started shaping where the real problem might be, expect to do some work with your sponsor to walk them through your preliminary findings, and exploring the reasons for constraining your scope, with a view to gaining agreement to expand it.

It’s also important to understand why you’re being brought in. Some consulting engagements are with sponsors who have a pretty clear idea of what the problem might be. But they want a second opinion. Or they’ve already made the decision with their gut. Now this translates to the limbic brain, which makes most decisions, but it doesn’t have access to language or rationality. So the help they need is not in proposing solutions, but articulating and justifying them. At its most extreme, this exhibits as wanting someone external to take responsibility for the decision: The Consultant Told Us To and so have someone external to the organisation to blame if it goes wrong. Surprisingly, this may not be a barrier to gaining repeat business with that organisation.

If It’s Not In Writing: It’s a Rumour

We discussed above gaining sponsor agreement for the scope of your engagement. When you do this, make absolutely sure you confirm back to the sponsor what you’re hearing. Send them an email with it in writing asking for their approval. While you may be sure where you’re being asked to help, your sponsor may not be so sure. Fix it in writing, not as a legalistic document you can pull out later, but to fix it the same way in everyone’s mind.

Third, Inspire The Change

While she’s the one with the chequebook, your sponsor isn’t the only person you’re helping. You’re also helping the people whose work is facing the problem, and whose input and support is going to be critical in diagnosing the problem and making any solution real. To them, you’re an effete, overpaid know-nothing with far too high an opinion of yourself, and a 90% bullshit vocabulary. Is it any wonder that there are so many Dilbert cartoons about consulting?

But you’ve been positioned as The Expert to them, imposed by someone senior in the organisation. And that grants you a huge amount of power in the relationship. The most important thing you can do with that power is give it away. Not to use it. With such an uneven power relationship, they’re cast into a dependent child role, and you’re the imposed parent, bringing your imposed solutions that they will reject at every opportunity. So the role of The Expert is one you want to push away, and so is the role of The Doctor, with a pill for every ill (and often the same patented pill until you understand context well).

To get to the point of being useful to these people; the point where they can ask for help and accept it, you have to establish your own credibility and humility at the same time. You have to build up their relative sense of power, and establish yourself as Regular Folks Who Can Do a Day’s Work. So you’ll have to put in the effort as if you were a contractor for a while in front of them. Listen a lot. Talk a little. Demonstrate a lot that you understand where they’re coming from because you’ve been there before. Learn before speaking every time.

This isn’t the value you bring, it’s table stakes before you can even start the real work of analysing problems and proposing solutions.

Consulting Skills

Obviously you need to have deep expertise that you demonstrate through your actions. But to be able to effectively diagnose problems and come up with realistic solutions, you’ll need to understand the context that the work is happening in, both here and in similar and different contexts. And you’ll need experience of change succeeding and failing to understand the limits of solutions and how they will impact unrelated areas. And above all, you’ll need to know and be able to effectively articulate all of this and why your proposals are credible. So we talk about the effective consultant being T-shaped. Deep in one area, but with significant breadth as well.

Layer on top of this a much greater awareness of relationships than Contractors need, and particularly a self-awareness for how you are being perceived by others.

Consulting is a complex set of skills that require a strong sensitivity to context and awareness of relationships. It’s a game of influence without power, and often without recognition. It’s not a role that everyone can find fulfilling, or be able to succeed at. It’s also quite a challenge to grow into from the much simpler Contracting role. But it can be transformative, achieving much wider change than working at the coal face can ever allow.


  1. Tack to @marcusoftnet for the original insight that Contractor and Consultant roles use the same word in Swedish.

  2. Want to know more about how to make your helping relationships more effective (from either side)? Here’s your reading list
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Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
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