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What Not To Do / Consulting  / My Cardinal Sin as a Management Consultant
bill phillips - building client relationships

My Cardinal Sin as a Management Consultant

In my view, and my painful experience, THE cardinal sin in management consulting is to forget or misinterpret who is your client.

This is a story of how I insulted very deeply my client, without even realising it for nearly three years. It cost me my business and filled me with a feeling of shame and guilt that took a long time and a lot of self-reflection to grow out of. But first, the background.

The context

For some five years I had a great working relationship with a national semi-public sector organization. As a result of having developed a solid reputation working with a Regional Director and his team, I became involved in training Directors and Senior Managers, and later middle managers in Coaching skills, aimed at raising the standard and quality of management and leadership nation-wide. By this time, my contract for the coaching program had been renewed annually three years running, and I had trained about 100 leaders and managers per year so far.

Although the project had been initiated by the National Training Manager, its on-going management had been handed over to one of the Senior Training Officers, and ours was a very cordial and mutually respectful relationship (or so I thought).

The ‘client’s’ requirement

This Senior Training Officer had been conducting some team development work with a Regional Director other than the one I knew and asked me if I would put together a Coaching Skills workshop for this team. When I met the Regional Director to discuss what he needed, he told me he knew of the work I had done with the other Regional Director, and really, his team was not yet ready for the Coaching training, that here were still some vital issues that needed resolving first. With my ego suitably stroked, I agreed to see what I could do, and met with his team members to get the lie of the land. The agreement we came to was that we would clean up the remaining team issues, then run the originally planned coaching workshop.

The Crime revealed but not perceived

The Senior Training Officer asked if he could sit in on the day booked with the team, and I was delighted for him to do so. It would be a great opportunity for him to see how I worked with a team, hopefully learn something of interest, and perhaps help him consider directing more team coaching work my way in future. At the end of the day, I invited him to say what he thought. He was very tall and I am quite short in stature. He looked down at me from a great height, shook his head slowly from side to side and said in a slightly downbeat voice, “That wasn’t a coaching workshop Bill.” The Regional Director jumped to my defence explaining that he had asked me to round off the remaining team issues first, because his team had not been ready to go straight into the Coach Skills training.

The fallout

It was a long time before the penny dropped. A few months later, a more junior training officer had taken over tendering for the coaching skills contract and had given me some spurious feedback on why my bid had not been successful and it had been given to another provider. I couldn’t believe it. This was a well-received and highly effective training which had had a marked effect across the whole country. And during the following months, I had been offered contracts by several managers across the country, only to have them call me back the following day to say they were now not allowed to hire me, because someone in the organization had had a bad experience with me. I had no idea who that could be, because all of my experiences had only ever been positive. I kept in touch with the Senior Training Officer. Our exchanges seemed cordial, but I never did any more work with that organization – ever!

Because such a large percentage of my income was generated through them, and I was not capable of replacing it in the short term with an equally profitable client, I decided painfully to close that business a few months later, rather than file for bankruptcy.

The lesson

Arrogance, ego and self-importance robbed me of valuable relationships, and cost me my business. I had just not noticed that, when the Regional Director asked me to work with his team first, that really constituted what should have become a new and separate contract. Instead, I was behaving as if he, the much more senior person was my prime client…. Wrong!!!

You will almost certainly have had those times when, just as you are waking up in the morning, a thought occurs to you with a fabulously creative solution, or maybe a stunning revelation about something important. It was in one of those moments some three years later, that my unconscious mind told me, “You should have gone straight back to your client, the Senior Training Officer, and asked him what he would like you to do about the Regional Director’s request. HE was your client, not the Director!!!”

Like a whack with a sledge hammer, it’s hard to believe that it was only in that moment that I found out who was the person who had suffered a bad experience with me. Until just then, in my mind it had remained a mystery. It was only right then that I realised the insult implied; that his work with the team had been cast aside as ineffective, and I had appeared to step up and “finish the job properly!” How unbelievably arrogant that must have seemed. How unbelievably arrogant it WAS!

My spirits plummeted that morning. I was so ashamed. I began to wonder was I really cut out to be a management consultant? How could I be guilty of such stupidity? How could I so easily be distracted from who was my real client? How could it take me so long to notice?

Self-reflection

My subsequent self-reflection revealed that deep down, I did not agree with the team building diagnostic process he had used, believing the different one I worked with was more valuable, accurate and therefore superior. I had also believed my own experience and years of study had elevated me to a level of competence that was way beyond his, and I had deep down, hoped that if he saw me operate, he might be impressed and push that kind of work my way in future. My attention was so far diverted from noticing what a destructive effect such egocentric behaviour was to have, I had not even noticed when he had said to me that he had not witnessed what he had hired me for. My mind was so occupied with having “successfully” addressed the real issue at the content level, I had not conceived of how completely I had screwed up and demonstrated a devastating lack of respect to my client, a man who had been the source of so much interesting and profitable work. He had trusted me, and I had let him down.

What I learned

That the quality of relationship with my client is even more important than the quality of my work. They will even hire someone less competent and sacrifice value for money for a whole organization because of hurt feelings. It was a superb lesson in recognizing that as an external consultant of any kind, it is my client and their needs that are paramount.

To believe at any moment that my capabilities, expertise or experience are superior to theirs is to miss the point completely. It is always about joining their team in whichever way they want me to and contributing honestly and with integrity to support their success. They are always my boss, and they always know better than I do what they need, even if it is my job to help them articulate it! One way to understand respect is to accept another person completely just as they are – without expecting or wanting them to be different. That is what we owe our clients.

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