I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with some really wonderful clients. People I respect and adore, in companies whose foundational ideas are compelling to me and who are in a position to really do some good in the world if they fully act on what they stand for. Often my work involves helping them shape and clarify their core ideas (purpose, values, vision, mission, behaviors, etc.) and design cultures in which those ideas can be fully manifest.
Over the past few years I have noticed myself using the language of my clients’ values as if they were my own values. Referring to their values and behaviors in order to make a decision. Using them with my consulting teams to add a bit of poignancy to something we’d just done.
As a consultant, this gets interesting. Because I am not an employee of my client’s company. I am employed by another company. A pretty wonderful one. With its own values and foundational ideas that matter to me a lot.
This has led to some soul searching for me. How am I supposed to relate to the ideas and ideals of my clients? Admire them from afar? Internalize them? How should I think about the relationship between my clients’ values and the values of my own employer? What about my own?
All of this made me wonder whether we should be rethinking the relationship we have with our clients. I know that I feel a much deeper connection to my clients than simply being a professional service provider.
The era of professional consulting
Management consultancies are known and valued for the objective impartial advice we provide to our clients. This is central to our value proposition. Clients often come to us because we bring a breadth of perspective learned from across all of our clients and because we don’t “have skin in the game”.
This at-a-distant relationship seemed appropriate in an era when value was created through the application of best practices, and the qualities most differentiating were professionalism and integrity.
But we now live in an experience economy. Professionalism and integrity are now expected as table stakes and value is created through the design of brilliant experiences delivered through authentic human relationships.
The era of participant consulting
I believe consultancies can play a different role. We are at a moment when professions, industries and the nature of work are transforming. The known ideas, approaches and methods of achieving results are no longer working as they once did. The world needs leaders who can imagine a better future and rally people to take the bold and creative steps that will get them there.
These leaders can’t survive only on a diet of objective advice from impartial outsiders. They need partners who will work alongside them as they transform their organizations. They need people who will collaborate with them to author, visualize and design their future. And they need friends who feel emotionally invested in their success, who have deep empathy for the hard and lonely work of leading through the unknown, who will help them summon their courage when it gets tough and lift their spirits when they are exhausted.
To do this transformation work as a consultant requires skill, expertise, brilliance, and energy as it always did. But these are no longer enough. It also takes profound insight into our clients—their companies and themselves as people. We need to understand not just what we can learn from their annual report, from their strategy documents, from their market research. And not just what we can glean from interviews. We need to understand their jargon, their worldviews, their fears, dreams, aspirations. We need to be deeply aware of how they behave—how they actually get work done, and what it feels like to work as they do every day.
Consider the field of anthropology. Many anthropologists believed that the best way to understand human behavior was not to analyze it as an outsider. They believed that only by observing from within, as a member of a culture, could you draw out rich insights and profound understanding. They called this method “participant observation”.
Perhaps it’s time for “participant consulting”—an endeavor in which we engage with our clients not as disinterested impartial objective outsiders, but with a sense of kinship. As members of the family.
Perhaps it’s time to take it personally.
Our clients have to matter to us. Not just out of a sense of professionalism. Even more. We have to believe in what they stand for, value what they value, and feel motivated to manifest their behavioral ideals.
Many anthropologists who pursued the method of participant observation were accused of “going native”—of abandoning their scientific and scholarly standards as they came to identify personally with the cultures they were studying.
Whatever the merits of this critique of participant observation in social science, I would argue that impartiality is no longer a positive quality in consulting. If ever it was.
When I partner with a client, what does it mean if I do not come to feel a sense of kinship with them? What does it mean if their values don’t motivate me? What does it mean if I do not feel that their unique behaviors are worthy of emulating? If after weeks or months of working alongside a client I do not identify with their mission, how can I possibly expect their own employees to do so?
Much like anthropologists developed the method of participant observation because they believed that the best way to learn about a culture was by participating from the inside, I believe that consultants can only do their best work when they engage with passion, with empathy and, yes, with love, for their clients and what they stand for. When they really are members of the family in some meaningful way.
What I’m envisioning may or may not have implications for the business model and offerings of consultancies. Mostly, I’m thinking about the boundaries between “us” and “them”—whether such boundaries are really necessary, whether they should exist but be highly porous, where they should be placed and what this suggests for how consultants and clients ought to think about and relate to each other.
I know how I feel about this. When I’m in a great client relationship I don’t feel a hard boundary between me and them. It feels authentic to me. I feel that my interests and theirs are completely aligned. I enjoy being with them. I believe in what they do. I don’t feel any sense of “otherness”. I fully trust them and feel fully trusted by them. I don’t feel the need to “manage” the relationship any more than I do with a close personal friend.
And when all of this is happening, I feel most fulfilled and I do my best work.
I’m grateful to the clients that have given me such an invitation and welcomed me as members of their family.