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Monday, Sep 30, 2002

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Using the consultant to your advantage

How do you make use of the services of your external consultant effectively and wisely? The relationship between the internal facilitator and the external consultant should be a fruitful one, which should work for the success of the organisation as a whole. Excerpts from the book, Making a Difference, by Bruce Nixon, tell us how that could be achieved.

The relationship between an insider who is facilitating organisational transformation and an external consultant can be an empowering and rewarding one. It can make all the difference. But how can you justify the time and cost involved?

Remember, there are always powerful forces within an organisation resisting change and socialising you into conformity. Also, whilst structural changes can be made rapidly, making changes in the culture of an organisation and the attitudes and behaviour of people may take much longer. People may want to do things differently but they also have a lot of resistance. For all these reasons it is extremely hard for someone inside the system to change it without support from outside.

My experience, first as an internal consultant for many years, and later as an external consultant, is that there are essentially five ways in which a good external consultant can help.

  • Facilitating you in making a bold organisational diagnosis and in developing a challenging strategy.

  • Giving you the skills and confidence to deliver the strategy.

  • Giving you long-term support to think wisely and persist.

  • Providing the perspective of someone outside the system.

  • Doing work which really demands someone from outside.

    Having external support when you are making your diagnosis and developing your strategy will help you fully trust your thinking, break free of the conforming influence of the organisation and take bold (and yet astute) decisions about strategy. An outsider can also challenge you where you need to be challenged. Often they can see things clearly, which you are too close to see. When I worked with my last employer, I had difficulty fully trusting my thinking and summoning the courage to take the bold action that was required. I was not unique in this respect! Yet I did take that bold action, partly because I had solid external support over a long period.

    You may not yet have the skills or experience to do some of the things required (such as real time management development or large group interventions) and it will help to work alongside and in partnership with an external consultant in developing such interventions. I believe much better work will be done if the external consultant does the work with you rather than for you. Each of you has something unique to contribute, which will make for a far better outcome. You, the internal consultant, have a unique understanding of the organisation, a wide network of contacts, trust and credibility and you provide leadership.

    The external consultant's experience and confidence gained from having done these things before may give you and your organisation that degree of safety needed to successfully take a step into the unknown. But I believe the job of the external consultant is to work with you, hand over these skills to you and then step aside, make way for you to do if yourself. She/he needs the confidence and maturity to know when to withdraw.

    However there may be some work that really demands someone from outside the system. Top management may feel it needs an outsider. Sometimes you may simply not be able to help your clients with issues that need the help of someone from outside. You may be too close to the problems, too much part of the system to see the issues clearly, too easily seduced into colluding with your clients. This is a judgement, which you and they need to make wisely. It may be a good solution for you and the external consultant to facilitate together.

    Although the external consultant has withdrawn from working alongside you directly with your clients, you may still benefit from long-term support or `shadow consulting' — say, someone who helps you review your work, work through blockages (your own and the organisation's) and decide what new directions need to be taken. My experience is that in the early, exciting phases of organisational transformation, things often go well. There is a great deal of optimism, energy and enthusiasm. Gradually, dependence and resistance can take their toll on you. Often the internal facilitator grows weary, stale and gets `stuck'. There may be problems in transferring ownership to the clients. Mistakes are bound to have been made, difficulties and setbacks experienced. Wise advice may not have been taken (people need to do things in their own way and find out for themselves). Perhaps at this point the organisation is confronted with some of its most fundamental difficulties yet may be unaware that this is happening. Often at this stage there may be a desire to avoid issues and try something different, offload the external consultant and try someone else — to look for another way, a better magician who will do a better job and rescue us. Or the organisation may decide to continue without outside help. It questions whether the outsider is adding value and believes it should do it without outside help. Perhaps that will be another way of avoiding. You may collude with that and believe they should manage without support. That may be your blockage. All this will be happening without awareness. It is a critical point in the transformation work — a crossroads. One road can lead to avoidance and ultimately cynicism. The other can lead to a deeper relationship with the external consultant, deeper learning for the organisation and ultimately success. It takes wisdom and maturity to decide astutely that you need to bring back the external consultant to help overcome the blocks.

    Phases in the relationship

    The client/consultant relationship begins with the client in a relationship of dependence on the consultant to provide expertise and support. The relationship is not as simple as that of course because the consultant is heavily dependent on the client to provide her/him with work, income and opportunity for fulfilment and learning. And the client always has the upper hand. So both parties are in fact dependent on each other. The wise consultant will work from the position of empowering the client and handing over her/his skills and expertise, thus enabling the client to do the work for her/himself with a view to ultimate interdependence and partnership. This first phase is usually very rewarding and enjoyable.

    The next stage is the prelude to moving out of dependence and it may be characterised by conflicts and what might be described as `irrational' behaviour. This can be painful for the consultant who is highly dedicated to the work and has enjoyed a constructive and rewarding relationship. It seems strange how two people who got on well now seem to have difficulties which can only be explained by something going on at an unaware, unconscious level.

    The next stage is when the client in one way or another breaks loose and declares independence. They no longer feel they need your help. This is where `shadow consulting' or support role may be appropriate but the client may decide to have none of it. It is quite possible that the work may actually suffer as a result of the client's independence. But this stage is in the nature of things. The client may well do the work extremely successfully. Or the client may look for a different `mentor', putting her/himself back into the dependent stage but with someone else. This may be painful for the first consultant.

    Finally, the client/consultant relationship may mature into interdependence — the strongest and most constructive position for relationships at work and in the home.

    If you can achieve it, this is a mature relationship of equals, where there is real honesty, sharing of responsibility, lack of pretence, admission of difficulties and not knowing what to do, not expecting perfection of putting the external consultant on a pedestal, ready forgiveness of mistakes and learning from each other. It is joint exploration, a journey together. Often the relationship does not reach this stage or does so only after a break.

    With the benefit of past experience, I now often think to myself: Will this client let me stay with them long enough to achieve a successful outcome? Or will they unintentionally sabotage the work by dropping me too soon? What can I do to prevent this without seeming to be clinging to the work?

    As we have said before, awareness helps considerably. At the beginning of a long-term piece of work, it is a wise investment for the internal and external consultant to share their expectations and vision for the relationship — how they want it to evolve, their respective roles and how they can best support each other. This can create a kind of charter.

    This discussion can be informed by the four-stage model, then both will be aware of the phases the relationship is likely to go through and better able to talk openly about any difficulties that may emerge and manage it constructively. They will be able to agree the best role for the external consultant at each stage. It will also be wise to plan regular reviews of how the relationship is working and what constructive steps they want to take.

    It may be difficult to spend time and money doing this but, considering how much is at stake in a long-term intervention, it is a wise investment. It may also be wise for the external consultant to arrange for external support or supervision to the available for her or himself. The external consultant can get stuck too!

    A long-term relationship

    On the whole, transformation work takes a sustained effort over long time. It is facilitated by a long-term relationship with an external consultant who helps you develop a long-term strategy and supports you through the ups and downs of seeing it through. That consultant becomes increasing valuable as she/he gains a deepening understanding of the organisation and of you, the leader or internal consultant, and can lightly and humorously help you deal with your blockages.

    You may learn a lot about different approaches and add to your repertoire of skills by working with a succession of external consultants. But that will not necessarily help with the hard work of transforming an organisation. Acquiring knowledge and skills is interesting but what makes a difference is using them. You need to ask yourself whether there is something you are avoiding by having a succession of partners or constantly searching for different approaches.

    Because of all the hazards along the way, and the danger of getting too close and too involved in the system and its difficulties the external consultant may need supervision. The best consultant has to be completely there and present for the client and yet, at the same time, able to stand outside the situation.

    This can be difficult to do over a long period of time, especially when we are deeply involved and committed and our living, our reputation for competence and our self-esteem are on the line. It is hard to detach yourself if you care a lot about what you are doing. And yet, if you do care passionately, detaching yourself and letting go may be precisely what you have to do.

    Finally, can I put in a perspective here from the viewpoint of the external consultant? It seems to me that more and more successful organisations are valuing their suppliers as important stake-holders — as important as customers, employees and other stake-holders. They invest in their suppliers, aim for long-term relationship because, in the long term, that will not work or produce value and quality.

    Simple things make a big difference to the relationship and do much for the image of the organisation (suppliers are usually customers to), for example: being paid on time or early; responding to phone messages (after the work is ended); investing the time to review a piece of work when it is finished and rigorously decide whether the goals were achieved, what can be learned and what further steps need to be taken; keeping in touch to brief the consultant on progress and review further opportunities for collaboration; and jointly reviewing the fee rate, rather than bargaining it down as low as possible.

    Remember, the external consultant's `huge' fees have to cover pension, vacations, sick pay, frequent unpaid work, office services and a car — all usually covered by your package. A partnership that feels exploitative or instrumental is a contradiction in terms. You need win-win relationships with suppliers as excellent companies have discovered.

    Picture: Shaju John

    (Excerpted from Making a Difference by Bruce Nixon;

    Publishers: Roli Books Pvt. Ltd,

    New Delhi; Price: Rs 295.)

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