The importance of Flexibility for a Consultant

    1 FREE Audiobook RISK-FREE from AudibleIn our podcast we talk every week of some of the basic skills and attributes that a consultant needs to be successful.  This week we will discuss the need for flexibility in a consultant’s tool kit.

    1. What do you mean by being flexible?
      1. Well I’m not talking about yoga, but I wouldn’t rule that out either.  I hear it’s a great way to stay loose and flexible.
      2. But what I really want to relay here is that a consultant needs to have a certain mental agility for handle a changing environment and dealConsultants need to be flexible and have an ability to change direction quickly with changes as they happen.
      3. It’s a matter of being ready for anything.
      4. I don’t know if you’re an American football fan – not the kind of football they practice in the rest of the world which we Americans call soccer – but the kind of football you use your hands with.
      5. When a quarterback gets up to the line to call the snap, he has a play in mind that he’s called to his team.
      6. But if he doesn’t like the way the other team has their defense lined up, he’ll call an audible.  He’ll announce a play call change to all the other players on the field and they’ll change the play on the fly.  Some players may need to change their position.
      7. Sometimes they just need to do something different after the snap.
      8. But the quarterback has to be flexible enough to change on the fly and the rest of the team needs to be flexible enough to change when he makes the call.
    2. Why is it important in consulting?
      1. The business world in general is always in flux.  In the introduction of my book, Consulting 101, I mentioned that much of the advice I gave in that book could actually be applied to anyone in the business world.
      2. But in other business scenarios it is nice to have advice, where as for consultants, it is imperative behavior.
      3. So telling someone to be flexible really could apply to most business people. I just feel consultants need to be more flexible more often.  And there are many reasons for that.
      4. For one thing, consultants are often at the whim of their clients.  Clients demand more from their consultants and have higher expectations of their consultants.
      5. So when a meeting gets changed for a client, they’re often going to have the consultant rearrange their schedule to suit the client.  When the client’s boss asks for a schedule change, us consultants are all too often just at the bottom of the food chain.
      6. Another reason is that consultants need to adjust to changing trends.  It goes back to those higher expectations the client has for their consultants.
      7. For instance, when a client reads about a new technology or trend in their industry, they go to the consultant and want to know more about it.
      8. A consultant can’t get caught off-guard not being aware of the latest trends.  Now I understand that a consultant can’t possibly know everything about the latest technology and trends.  But a good consultant knows what’s going on around them in their specialty and in their client’s industry.
      9. Having enough basic knowledge in order to discuss things intelligently in an initial conversation is adequate.  Then you can say something like, I’ll pull in some experts from my firm to get you more information.
      10. Another reason that it’s so important for consultants to be flexible is that they’re often the first to feel the effects of change.
      11. When clients make cutbacks or make major changes, consultants are often the first ones affected.
      12. In most cases I’ve seen, when a company starts paring back their staff, they cut the consultants first.  There are always exceptions to this, but one of the reasons for this is that when a client starts cutting back they do it by canceling projects.
      13. Consultants are usually brought in for project-based work, so it just automatically affects them.
      14. Another example of that is something that I saw happen at one of the firms I worked at. We had proposed a project to an executive sponsor at the client.  He liked our proposal and told us that he was going to submit it to the executive committee for approval.
      15. The day before the meeting he almost assured us of winning the project.
      16. My firm began freeing up staff to assign to the project right away.  And between the day he told us that and the day it was to be approved, there was a big management shake-up.
      17. They got a new CEO and let several people in the company go.
      18. One of the people that was let go was the executive we were dealing with.  So we didn’t have a champion at the company anymore to sponsor our project.
      19. Consultants need to be able to adjust quickly to any changes like that.  Clients have their own priorities and agendas and if their plans change and those plans don’t include the consultants, the consultants are gone.
    3. What are the ramifications of being inflexible?
      1. Let’s talk about the traits of inflexibility. I know some people who are very inflexible.  I’m sure we all do.
      2. Inflexible people are often very opinionated.  They generally think their opinion is the only one that matters.  And as consultants, we’re supposed to have opinions, right?
      3. But if all you do is go around spewing your opinion and not allowing people to argue or disagree or even add to your opinion, people are going stop asking your opinion.
      4. And when clients stop asking you for your opinion, your chances of success as a consultant go down significantly.
      5. It’s ironic because many opinionated people are like that because they’re trying to gain credibility.  And it’s their opinionated-ness that ends up eroding their credibility.
      6. Another trait of inflexible people is intolerance of people who think differently from them.  This is similar to being opinionated.  But it’s a little bit different because they tend to discount opinions someone else has because they have a certain philosophy.  We see this in politics a lot.  If someone is liberal or conservative and you think the opposite way, they’ll discount anything you say.
      7. They often have a very closed-minded approach.
      8. Inflexible people are also adverse to change.  Once they have a plan for something, they don’t want to change it.
      9. Jeff, you and I have been in this business long enough that I think we know pretty well that most plans are obsolete as soon as they get published.
      10. Expecting things not to change is just unrealistic. So once again, if a consultant expects things to go as planned, they’re going to lose credibility with their clients.
      11. Inflexible people are also usually unwilling to compromise.  We also see this type of inflexibility in politicians.  It’s almost ironic that so much of this inflexibility talk is comparable to politicians, because after politics, they often become consultants.
      12. But a consultant needs to know when to give in a little, maybe on the design of a solution or to resolve conflict with a client.  We often hear that being uncompromising is a positive trait, like ‘we will not compromise on quality’.  That sounds great, but if a consultant is uncompromising with everything and only wants to get their own way, clients will just stop dealing with them.
      13. This is a trait I see very common with consultants because they think they’re supposed to be the experts. If they have a design and the client comes up with a better idea, consultants feel almost inadequate if they give in and admit that the client has a better idea than the consultant.
      14. But the consultant’s role is to facilitate solutions.  They’re expected to have some expertise and be able to add value.  But they can also add value by drawing ideas out of others.
      15. And compromising on those solutions actually makes for a better consultant.
      16. Finally, people who are inflexible often want to stick with a standard routine.  They may take the same route to work, work in the same office building.  They arrive to work at the same time and leave at the same time every day.
      17. It’s just not going to work if a consultant is set on a fixed routine like that.  A consultant has a variable schedule that can be different from one day to the next.
      18. I think we’ve talked about the story I’ve told when I got a phone call on a Thursday night at 9:00 to be in another city the next day.  The next day at 9:00, I was at a new client in a new city and ended up serving that client for about six or eight weeks.
      19. It’s just the nature of consulting.
      20. Now, one thing I want to add – and I hate to single a group of people out – but that’s part of why it’s hard to find IT consultants.  IT people are often very logic driven and are more likely to be tied to routine and maybe a little inflexible.
      21. I’m an IT consultant myself and a recovering developer, so I can definitely relate.
      22. But one thing I will say is that that is a changing stereotype as IT becomes more mainstream.  When I first started out in IT, I wouldn’t say that Information Technology was new, but IT people were the only ones who knew technology well.
      23. Now days, knowledge of IT and programming principles are more common.  Non-IT people know how to program and understand technology concepts.
      24. So the people in IT aren’t just geeks like we were when you and I started out.  So I think IT folks are much more likely to be more flexible because they’re not the outliers that the previous generation was.
    4. Can you train yourself to be flexible or is it just in your DNA?
      1. I think it’s easier for some than for others.
      2. But I think it can be learned because it’s really just a mind set or an attitude.  Some people are just more set in their ways than others, but I really believe that’s a choice.
      3. If someone wants to be more flexible, they can be.  But beyond the choice to be flexible, there are things firms can do to teach flexibility to those willing to learn.
      4. I remember a conversation I had with one of my first managers in consulting.  He had been a fighter pilot in the Air Force and talked about the mode he was in when he was flying.
      5. He said you always had to be ready for something to happen.  You could get shot at or something could happen to the plane while you were flying.
      6. He compared that to consulting.  Anything can happen that is different from what you expect or from what you want to happen.
      7. Being flexible really requires someone to always be conscious of the likelihood of change.
      8. I think that when I started out in my career I was very stubborn and inflexible.  I learned how to be more flexible.  So based on that experience, I think you can learn it.
    5. So how would you teach a consultant to be more flexible?
      1. The first step is awareness.  Like the fighter pilot I just talked about.  You need to teach people to always be aware and be proactive.
      2. In project management, we call it risk analysis.  At the beginning of a project, I always get the team together – clients and consultants and anyone else – and talk about risks.
      3. We get everyone’s input on not just the biggest risks, but all risks and list everything that could go wrong.
      4. Then when we’ve identified as many as we can, we talk about mitigation strategies. For each risk, what is our plan of action if this risk becomes an actual issue?
      5. This is a mindset that consultants need to get into. They need to always be thinking about what could happen and have a contingency plan ready for it.
      6. You obviously can’t think of everything, but you can identify majority of things and have contingency plans designed.
      7. You also have to try your best to teach tolerance.
      8. I remember an interview once with Orel Hershiser.  He was a major league pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers when they won the 1988 World Series.
      9. He said that every time he goes out to pitch a game, he goes out there with the expectation that he’ll pitch a no-hitter.
      10. More often than not, he gives up a hit.  And when he does, he says, ‘OK, now my goal is to pitch a one-hitter’.
      11. And with each hit he ends up giving up, he focuses on how he’ll deal with it moving forward, rather than focusing on the hits he’s already given up.
      12. It’s important to teach consultants that they can’t worry about what is out of their control, and the past is out of their control.
      13. They need to focus on what they can change moving forward.
      14. If you can get that type of thinking into their head, they’re going to be more flexible and be able to deal with changes in their expectations as they occur.
    6. Any final thoughts on flexibility?
      1. Flexibility implies being able to deal with a certain level of chaos in our lives.
      2. I have three kids and I’ve learned a lot of flexibility from that.  There has been many a Saturday where I had planned on watching a ball game or doing something that I had planned for myself.
      3. Only to find out that one of the kids had an activity or some type of emergency that demanded my attention.
      4. That’s been good training for me to be more flexible at work.
      5. You can learn to be more flexible without the expense of having children.  It takes a little knowledge of the benefits of flexibility and some self-awareness to know when you’re being inflexible.

    Next week: Being on the bench.

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101 provides you with 101 useful tips to optimize your professional performance and jump-start your consulting career with success.


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