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Managerial Consulting Skills: A Practical Guide


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Managerial Consulting Skills: A Practical Guide

Author: Charles Margerison
ISBN: 0-566-08292-6
(183 pages, hardcover)

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Extract

 

Copyright © 2001, Charles Margerison.

Chapter One: Why Managerial Consulting is Important

Friendly counsel cuts off many foes - William Shakespeare

Successful managers and organizations today are dependent upon top class consultant advisers. This book highlights some of the skills and processes used by people who are effective in professional consultation.

It is therefore valuable to all those who either offer advice, or are in the position of receiving it, in order to improve organizational and managerial performance. This book is based on practical examples and illustrations of the factors that either aid or hinder managerial consultants in their work.

BENEFITS TO BE GAINED

The main benefits you gain will be in your influencing skills rather than your technical competence. The specific outputs that you will be able to point to will include the following issues:

YOUR ADVICE WILL BE USED MORE OFTEN

It is a common complaint of consultant advisers, as well as managers, that people do not act on information that they provide. It is not so much that people reject the advice, as that they very often ignore it.

Very often such advice can be accurate and relevant to the issues under consideration, but still nothing happens. If this is the situation you face, then you have to look carefully at the way in which you are seeking to influence the person, and the situation in which they find themselves. I have therefore focused on some of the strategies of conversation that you can use in order to be more effective. In order to influence others, you need to be able to control your own conversation and interpersonal skills as the starting point. There are various ways of doing this and, in the process, you will find that you will have a higher percentage of successful interventions.

MORE JOB SATISFACTION

Being in a job where you are giving advice to others can be frustrating, particularly if other people do not implement your proposals. You can often work long and hard and then find that most of the effort has been wasted because nothing happens. Improving your skills as a consultant adviser should also improve your job satisfaction, insofar as you are able to chart the stages of an assignment and make on-line corrections as you go. Again, the result will be a higher strike rate.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR OTHER CHALLENGING WORK

It is very rare that people will put challenging advisory assignments on your desk as a gift. You need to know how to obtain them in a professional way. By building upon the successes that you have, and presenting them in such a way that clients can see your competence, then you will inevitably get more challenging assignments. There are various ways of doing this without being a 'foot in the door salesperson', and these methods and approaches are outlined.

DEVELOPING WIN/WIN RELATIONSHIPS

It is important in any advisory work to establish a relationship where the client's identity is enhanced. Often people don't like asking for advice because they feel in some way they will be seen to be inadequate. The important thing about establishing a win/win relationship is that the client recognizes that your relationship enables them to make a real contribution to the solution of the problem and they gain personally from your intervention.

MORE PRODUCTIVE USE OF YOUR TIME

The job of the consultant adviser can be very time-consuming. It involves a considerable amount of time listening to what other people say as well as putting forward proposals. Therefore, if you are to be effective, you need to manage your own time as well as that of your clients. Various ways have been developed for looking at how projects should be managed to improve efficiency. One vital aspect of this is to raise the energy of those around you so that everyone is contributing to the advisory assignment, rather than it all being put on your shoulders. The processes for doing this are discussed in detail.

MORE USEFUL OUTPUTS

At the end of the day, clients judge our effectiveness on whether the results that they are achieving are better than before our intervention. We therefore need to be clear on what we are trying to achieve and how we can do it. All of this goes beyond technical knowledge and skill, to looking at the specific consulting processes. These are described in detail and guidelines are given on how you can use them.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY CONSULTING AND ADVISORY WORK?

While some people, like legal advisers, accountants, and management development professionals spend most of their life in consulting and advisory work, line managers also spend a good deal of time advising and using consulting skills. For example, managers regularly have to consult with colleagues in other departments to gain information and give advice on how to proceed. They may also be involved in project groups or task forces to come up with recommendations for a committee or board of directors. Equally, managers have to coach and advise their staff on such matters as work performance and careers. Therefore, the skills and processes of consultation and advice are widely used.

WAYS YOU CAN CONSULT

In any consulting assignment, there are four roles from which you can operate, as shown in the model.

Model 1

The consulting activity can be undertaken from either an advisory or an executive role.

Role A: This is the conventional notion of an external consultant who provides special advice on contract for a time to clients.

Role B: This is a more recent consulting role, developed in the construction and computer industries particularly, where a project manager from an outside organization has responsibility for delivering an assignment, but acts as a consultant to the clients and a line manager in his or her own organization.

Role C: This is a role which has grown rapidly in most organizations over the last few years. Today, there are many internal advisers on various issues such as finance, safety, law, marketing and so on.

Role D: Here, a full time executive can act as a consultant to his or her colleagues in a coaching and supporting way.

THE TASKS OF CONSULTANT ADVISERS

The job of consultant advisers is essentially to help improve individual and organizational performance. In doing that, they may use very different methods. However, all of them will be involved in finding out what the problems or opportunities are, assessing the options and providing some guidance and information. This may seem a rather simple threefold approach, and in some cases it is.

However, when you see the problems and opportunities within the context of the politics of organizational life, then the consulting process is a complex one. It involves talking with many different people, at different levels, with different perceptions, in order to grasp the main facts and feelings about the issues. It then involves a careful assessment to see what can be done that will make an improvement. Then comes the difficult job of feeding back the data and helping the clients make an improvement. If it was not difficult, they would not employ you in the first place.

As a result of your efforts, some change should occur and it should be for the better. Examples are:

  • The client learns how to do something new.
  • Costs are reduced.
  • Productivity goes up.
  • Safety improves.
  • Quality standards are improved.
  • Profit increases.
  • Output increases.
  • Job satisfaction improves.
  • Absenteeism is reduced.
  • New products are developed.
  • Skill levels are improved.
  • Wastage declines.
  • Employment increases.
  • Rewards improve.
  • Sales increase.

This is only a partial list but each item is measurable and important. It is by making such improvements that we can sustain and increase our standard of living. Such improvements enable us to compete efficiently and effectively. The changes that can emerge from sound managerial consultation and advice do make a difference to the way we work and live.

Moreover, we need top class advisers, whether they be internal or external, because that is the only way the busy manager can keep up to date. Peter Drucker has said we live in the information age. To be successful we need the best advice and the best advisers. This book shows how you can both give and receive advice in order to stay ahead and be successful.

Sophocles said, 'no enemy is worse than bad advice.' We need to be skilled in understanding our colleagues and clients if we are to help them choose the correct directions and the best means of reaching their destination.

WHO ARE THE INTERNAL CONSULTANTS?

Most organizations today employ internal consultants. The accountant is an example, but there is a growing number of other internal consultants. At a meeting with internal consultants from a large oil company I asked the participants to outline their roles. The range of jobs they did was most impressive and I have summarized some of them below.

  • Bill was a business development adviser providing information on market opportunities.
  • John was an internal auditor looking at efficiency and effectiveness processes.
  • Ron was an information systems adviser helping introduce user requirements to production.
  • Jean was a training adviser concentrating on technical development skills.
  • Elizabeth was an occupational hygiene and safety specialist concerned with improving work practices as well as advising on health issues.
  • Alan was a coordinator for the computer information unit helping ensure that the network arrangements were up to date and being used properly.
  • Mark was a management development adviser concerned with career planning and management programmes.
  • Susan was a public relations adviser ensuring the company magazine was providing information to the media.
  • Ian was an industrial relations adviser working to establish a policy throughout the organization on consultation and negotiation.
  • Gary was the corporate lawyer advising on contracts.
  • Ray was an engineer advising on new work processes and production systems.

These are just a few of the internal consulting roles which now exists. Each of them has a different technical element to the job, but the consulting elements are very similar. They all have to understand their client's needs, gain relevant information, provide advice and most of all have the interpersonal and organizational skills to influence change.

WHO ARE THE EXTERNAL CONSULTANTS?

The external consulting role is more established and widely known. In this book, I shall concentrate on consulting from my point of view, which in the main has been from an external situation. The emphasis will be on the organizational behavior aspects and interpersonal skill required.

External management consultants have many skills to offer of a technical nature, but they will all need to be good at managing client relationships and organizational behavior. These skills combined with the technical skills make for a first-class consultant.

The technical knowledge and skills will involve external consultants from the following roles being invited into organizations:

  • corporate law
  • financial planning
  • accounting
  • marketing
  • health and safety
  • training and development
  • public relations
  • scientific research
  • engineering planning
  • operations management
  • recruitment and selection

This is an incomplete list, but it gives an idea of how widespread the managerial consulting role is.

WHAT MAKES AN EFFECTIVE CONSULTANT?

We have all had experience as clients and, therefore, should have a good basis on which to assess a consultant. For example, we have all had to receive advice from our doctor. Most of us have taken advice from solicitors and accountants. I have had work done on houses in which I have lived, and therefore, taken advice from architects. Whenever we go on holiday we may seek advice from a travel agent. All of this is over and above the advice we gain each day from friends and colleagues.

Therefore, we tend to know what we like and dislike in consultants. When teaching a consulting skills course, I asked the participants what they rated as important. The following is a representative list to which you may wish to add your own points:

Effective Consultant Ineffective Consultant
Listens to understand. Appears superior in attitude.
Accepts data without contradicting what client says. Decries what client says as being unimportant.
Initially non-judgemental. Criticizes or blames client.
Concentrates on the assignment as a priority. Has many 'irons in the fire' at your expense.
Takes time to assess problems. Shows impatience.
Gets to know the problem or opportunity. Proposes instant pre-packed solutions.
Summarizes accurately what clients say. Interested in own views, not clients'.
Gives confidence through gesture and behavior. Lacking confidence.
Fulfills promises. Fails to deliver.
Adopts positive approach. Only points out what is wrong.
Works to facilitate action improvement. Works but no positive change emerges.

I am always surprised at the consistency and consensus amongst the replies. This I believe signifies that a cultural standard exists for acceptable and unacceptable consultant adviser behavior.

Clearly, consultant advisers need to be knowledgeable in their field but still put the client first. That is, their expertise should support client needs, not dominate them. Over recent years, the medical profession has been seeking to learn this. It is often referred to as 'having the right bedside manner'. Patients clearly want their doctor to be a top expert, but primarily they want him or her to treat them as people. In the past, too many doctors have been accused of being poor advisers, not because they were technically at fault, but because they turned off the clients by their behaviors.

Therefore, there are two essential elements in consulting. One is technical knowledge, and the other interpersonal skills. These I shall refer to as content and process. As a consultant, you may or may not need technical ability in the area of your client's business. For example, I act as a facilitator to chemical companies, banks, airlines, electricity authorities and other organizations. They require that I have interpersonal and process skills, but not necessarily that I make a technical contribution. If you can do both you are a 'specialist'.

Model 2

TWO ASPECTS OF CONSULTING - PEOPLE AND TECHNIQUES

Remember, most successful consulting involves the management of relationships. Over and above your technical skills, people assess you and the way you behave. Either they find you easy to work with, or they will look for some way of resolving the problem or opportunity without you.

So look for the points that switch your client on or off. You can often tell by their body language. They will lean forward or backward, they will smile or frown, they will open their hands or close their fists. All are signs and signals. If you can pick up these signals, and also relate them to the verbal cues and clues, then you will have one of the most powerful managerial measures within your grasp. To know when people are reacting positively or negatively, and how to cope with it, is an important consulting skill. The principles outlined in this book provide guidance on how to cope in the challenging role of a management consultant.

Increasingly, the modern organization demands that we become more effective in influencing others. The days when a person's position could ensure that they had authority to command others are disappearing. Today, organizations are based more and more on professional expertise where people of equal standing in different professions and vocations need to work together. In this sense, we all have to consult each other. The hierarchy is being superseded by a laterarchy of interdependent relationships.

The marketing professionals have to gain advice from, and give advice to other colleagues. So it is with engineering, production and personnel. We are all involved in consultation as either a client or a consultant. We need to develop consulting skills as an integral aspect of managing.

PUTTING KNOWLEDGE INTO ACTION

The traditional concept of the consultant has been the person of 'knowledge', with the manager the 'executive' who made decisions and took action. Today these distinctions are beginning to change. The consultant, particularly the internal consultant, has to influence people to gain action. Equally, the manager has to consult and counsel.

Model 3

The model above shows the roles that have to be adopted. Often a manager will call upon a consultant to operate in role 1, as information provider, because he or she has encountered obstacles in area 3. The consultant may help the manager become more effective in area 2 before getting back into the action phase.

Consultants have to learn to manage and managers have to learn to consult. Both therefore need to be able to gather knowledge and turn it into effective action. The important thing is that they work in complementary roles, and the consultant should learn when and how to influence without taking over the manager's executive accountability.

This is particularly difficult for the internal consultant. It is no use just citing knowledge of the law in safety to production managers. The consultant must bring people together to discuss what the problems are and what can be done to uphold and develop regulations. This needs to be done in conjunction with the managers, who ultimately must see decisions made and carried out. In this sense, the consultants are in a joint venture. The name of the game is improved action.

This will mean internal and external consultants must be involved with the day to day politics of an organization and build influence networks to get things done.

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