Consulting is often a frustrating experience for clients—and no more fulfilling for the consultants concerned even though they get their fee. But consulting doesn’t have to be like this. A consultant-client relationship that flourishes is actually a good indication that effective consulting is taking place. It reflects the client’s sense that his or her aspirations for the assignment are being steadily realized and the consultant’s sense that she or he is fully contributing. A healthy relationship and successful outcomes go hand in hand; management consulting can be a practically and emotionally rewarding experience for clients and consultants.
Positive consultant–client affiliations develop in a particular way as assignments progress. Based on research, this article lays out the way that happens. Before now, research into successful consulting relationships has analyzed a few critical success factors or provided practitioner narratives (such as those of Peter Block and Geoffrey Bellman). In contrast, this research offers a concise, structured description of the association as it develops.
The description synthesizes the detailed experience of several consultants, including the author. The methodology utilized—known as phenomenology—was qualitative rather than quantitative so the authenticity and complexity of what people said have been retained. From it, an aide memoire has also been derived so that consultants and clients can assess the health of their own consulting relationships.
Description of Flourishing Consulting Relationships
Here is the synthesized description of what consultants said about flourishing consulting relationships:
1. From the start, we find substantial common ground with our clients in terms of our mind-sets, values, beliefs, interests and behaviors. We have a sense that each is coming from broadly the same direction, that we share similar views about the world, talk the same language and see eye-to-eye on issues. The clients and us feel passionate about what we are doing, that something is at stake that both value.
2. We go through a process of emotionally engaging with the client as the relationship gets going: letting each other in, reciprocating gestures and showing affirmation of each other’s ideas. We come to like, respect and feel accepted by one another. We ‘hang in there’ with a strong sense of personal connection despite the peaks and troughs experienced thereafter. There is mutual affection. We enter into each other’s minds, emotions and perspectives and empathize with one another, even learning from the frustrations we have with each other. We come to trust each other. Neither feels superior or wants to be in charge. We become energized about what we are doing, enjoy working together and think more of giving than getting. We become relaxed about bringing up contentious matters and encourage challenge. We articulate what we honestly think about a proposal or idea and learn from each other.
3. Together we become a team. We co-own the project, embedded together in it, joined at the hip. What the client wants is what the consultant wants. We get into each other’s pockets. We include each other in what we do and share the work. We feel a sense of responsibility, and want the best for, one another. Both are committed to the relationship. We take risks and suffer setbacks together. Consultant and client share a relationship in which we ask each other’s opinions, value the other’s experience, throw ideas around and try them out in an on-going dialogue, tossing them to and fro many times and refining them in the process. We use the differences between us to our advantage. Our skills and experience become complementary and are synergized.
4. Client and consultant conspire together and find an effective way forward in the same direction. We have a common purpose, aim, plot and script, within which we can both improvise as we work in the client organization and with its stakeholders.
You may be thinking that this is all about relationship building rather than tough real work of assignments, but the two cannot be separated. The consulting relationship is the vehicle for the work and each party brings their own skills and perspectives to it. As the assignment progresses, it develops and its context changes. The inevitable tension created between client and consultant’s perspectives can be used generatively—if we recognize this, we can use it to our advantage.
Indeed, if our respect and sense of responsibility for each other are sufficient then we don’t need to manage each other and instead can combine to place most of our attention on the work and the wider client organization. This is something like a sports team or a section on the battlefield does—they focus most on the outcome they are trying to achieve rather than each other. That doesn’t mean they are unaware of each other—they certainly are. But they don’t waste emotional energy managing each other, because they each already know what the other can do and that each will be there for the other.
Aide memoire for your own relationships
Here’s the Aide Memoire for assessing the health of a consulting relationship:
First, are we (consultant and client) standing on common ground?
• In terms of what the work means—our values and beliefs as they pertain to the assignment
• Possessing the same information about the context of the work
• Having presented each other with all the evidence we judge is relevant to the issue
Second, are we fully engaged with each other?
• Aware of each other’s emotional state, our ups and downs
• Being honest with each other
• Valuing and trusting each other enough
• Empathizing with each other
• Able to use our different experience and abilities to challenge each other, clearly yet fairly and sensitively
• Balancing our power evenly
Third, are we united as a team?
• Co-owning the project we are doing together
• Building ideas together in dialogue
• Taking responsibility for our impact on, and caring about, each other
• Using our talents to complement each other’s
• Changing each other and growing
Lastly, do we act in concert in the wider client organization?
• Having the same objectives
• With a common plot (strategy)
• Pursuing the same solutions
I set out in this to find out more about when consulting goes well and I hope I have given you some pointers you can make practical use of. I am not suggesting that all consulting relationships can be positive, but if one you’re having feels like it’s going downhill then I hope my analysis gives you some ideas about your options.
Richard Davis started his career as a British military officer. He has become a consultant specializing in organizational change, in which he holds a professional doctorate from Hult. He has practiced as an organization consultant in defense, engineering, financial services, healthcare, education and international development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.