I was a higher education brat.
My dad was an administrator. He wore a number of hats: Accountant, Registrar, Business Manager, Auditor, Executive Director – all of which meant he was the one in charge of the numbers. Only once did he step away from the academic fold, on a brief foray into Management Consulting. He lasted all of six months.
Not that he wasn't good at management, and accountability, and efficiency. He was great at that stuff. And when he was in charge, things got done, on time and to the letter.
He knew his business, and he knew other peoples’ businesses just as well. Drop my dad into the middle of a busy McDonald’s for a cup of coffee and fries, and in ten minutes he would have mapped out the work flow in the entire operation, identified the choke points, and fully evaluated the management for efficiency and laziness, identifying ways they could increase their profit by up to twenty percent. That sort of thing was life and breath to him, and he could make it work – when he was in charge.
That’s the problem with being a consultant. Consultants often have the answers, but they seldom have the authority to implement their solutions.
During his experiment in consulting, my dad learned the practical limits of his expertise. “If you want to deliver more widgets in a week, do A, then B, then C. In that order.” His clients, the few that he was able to corral in his six months on the job, would all listen patiently. They would commend him for his insights. They would thank him for his time.
They might get around to doing A, or B, or C. Never all three. Seldom in proper order. When he came back for a follow-up visit, things were usually no better than before. It was always, of course, his fault. “We did what you said,” they would say. “And we just didn’t see the results you promised.”
Dad, the Consultant, the Expert, was flummoxed in short order. As the boss, he never faced such conundrums. He decided what needed to be done, and ordered his employees to do it. Since his clients were in fact his bosses, he couldn't order them to do anything.
I should have learned from my father’s experience, but let’s face it – how often do we actually learn from others’ mistakes? Maybe you do (and if you do, I’m jealous), but I’ve had to do my learning the hard way: up close, personal, and through diligent repetition of my own stupidity.
Over the years, I have often worn the Consultant’s hat. How do we get more attention in the community? How do we boost sales? How do we alter public opinion on this or that policy? Like my dad, I have found that implementation is key to a successful outcome. Like him, I have also discovered that authority to carry out recommended policies is seldom given to the consultant. All too often I have also watched as my clients chose not to implement my recommendations, and wind up with a disappointing outcome.
I used to get discouraged by this. In fact, I used to get very upset. Why ask me (or anybody) for help, if you're not willing to follow through? It makes no sense!
It also doesn't matter. It’s my business to provide answers. It’s my clients’ business to respond in the way they choose. I get that.
For a long time though, that understanding didn't help a bit. Being blamed for bad outcomes didn't make me feel any better, and it didn't help at all to grow my reputation as a consultant.
Put Up or Shut Up
I was whining about this to a friend one day, recounting a long list of grievous affronts to my professional, consultational integrity. It was a bad day. The chat went something like this:
“@#$%!!! Don't they recognize a great opportunity when it’s put right under their noses? Can’t they see how much money they’re wasting?” (And on and on.)
“But these ideas would work! This plan would solve their problems! Don't they get it?”
“Maybe they do, maybe not. But clearly you don't get it.”
“What the @#$%! is that supposed to mean?”
“What I mean is, if your ideas are so @#$%&ing brilliant, why are you wasting them on people who don't recognize their value?”
He continued: “Put your ideas to work on your own business. Prove their effectiveness. Then you get the full benefit of your own recommendations, and you won't have to worry one bit about other peoples’ opinions.”
I know. It’s obvious. Except when it isn’t.
It was time to learn from my own mistakes.
Since then I’ve spent much more of my time consulting for my own business, a place where I find my ideas are much more appreciated, and I only get blamed for things that don’t work after they’ve actually been tried.
Yes, I’m still asked to consult from time to time, and I still give it my best effort. And I’m usually pleased with the outcome. But mostly, I’m too busy doing other things to worry very much about it.