Today I accidentally rang my best client at 2.30 in the morning local time. Oops. The response? She laughed groggily, I laughed and apologised, said I’d go, but she insisted on spending 20 minutes talking about the issues I’d rung her to discuss. I do not suggest that I have any expectation that my clients should welcome such calls, but the incident is, nonetheless, revealing. It made me think about the relationships I aim to build with my clients and the qualities I look for in them.
I guess that prospective clients are usually more focused on the question of the suitability of the consultant for the assignment in prospect than they are about how highly the consultant might regard them as a client! And fair enough! But the question is not as self-serving as it may initially appear.
The consultant’s life can be intensely frustrating. Frequently I find myself having more energy for solving the problem or realising the opportunity than the person whose problem or opportunity it appears to be. Sometimes the consultant’s work feels like pushing water uphill. Not infrequently I wonder why the client started on the programme or got me involved. It is not just that the client does not always take my advice – that’s fine and healthy – but that they don’t really seem to be focused on the matter. They seem to lack the will, time or determination to follow through.
So my life is, in large part, a search for what I have come to believe is a pretty elusive creature – the really good client. What am I looking for?
First of all I want someone who is truly ambitious, not so much for themselves, but for the organisation. I want to meet someone who really wants to make a difference to their business, church, government department, charity or whatever it may be. The degree to which the client can describe the change and the preferred future in any detail is less important than the commitment to change. If the leader (of organisation or department) will not anchor the change process it cannot happen, or not to a sufficiently successful degree. If the leader does not demonstrate in word and deed that this matters, no one will think it does.
So, secondly, I want to meet someone who is willing to lead such a change and commit themselves to it. They do not expect me or someone else in the organisation to do it for them. They do not delegate it nor do they lose interest in it. They see it through and they set the pace. If they are busy, they make time. If there are obstacles they push through them. If they do not the change won’t happen because neither the consultant nor anyone else can create it.
But, thirdly I also want to meet someone who understands that for all the energy they need to display in their leadership the role is primarily enabling and catalytic. They need to work through and with others and to the full extent possible make the organisation’s people trusted partners in the direction and process of change. If they will not the change is likely to be resisted or only half-heartedly implemented.
Fourthly, my ideal client does not see me as a ‘supplier’ but as a trusted partner in the process, someone who helps them make the ambition a reality by contributing an understanding of the organisational factors and processes that need to be addressed. Of course I have to earn the trust implied but there has to be a willingness from the off to build such a relationship and work in that kind of partnership. We must be able to have conversations in which frustrations are expressed, difficult issues named, in a spirit of common cause and confidentiality. And I need direct access, (not usually in the middle of the night!), but without going via a set of intermediaries. This is partly because the relationship and the access are indicators of commitment and ambition but also because these processes require pace, leadership and momentum – and these cannot be maintained via bureaucratic messaging.
Fifthly – and this one is often the crunch – I look for a client who recognises that the change starts with them and their senior colleagues. Whatever the problem is, whatever the opportunity is, it will almost certainly require behavioural and cultural change at least as much as process or structural change. Such changes need to be modelled by leadership if there is to be any chance at all that others in the organisation will adopt them too. The most awkward moment in most consulting engagements is the point at which the senior team has to confront this reality head on. It is at this point that many assignments falter and fail and I suddenly find that people are not returning my emails and calls. So many projects founder on the rocks of organisational politics and leadership unwillingness to confront their own behaviour.
I guess I now sound very demanding – what cheek from a mere supplier of professional services! But the issue is whether or not the project is likely to succeed and whether both the client and I will look back at the end of it and see it as a success – and as money well spent.
And, of course, do not let any of this put you off contacting me – I know that nobody is perfect and that emphatically includes me!
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