Consulting Mastery

How the Best Make the Biggest Difference

Keith Merron (Author)

Publication date: 06/01/2005

Consulting Mastery
  • Shows consultants how to go beyond simply solving clients' problems to creating fundamental and lasting organizational change
  • Draws on interviews with 14 master consultants to explore what distinguishes masterful consulting from ordinary consulting
  • Takes the reader on a five-stage journey to becoming a master consultant
  • Shows consultants how to go beyond simply solving clients' problems to creating fundamental and lasting organizational change
  • Draws on interviews with 14 master consultants to explore what distinguishes masterful consulting from ordinary consulting
  • Takes the reader on a five-stage journey to becoming a master consultant

Most consultants are content to solve problems. Extraordinary consultants alter the culture of the client organization itself, changing the way the organization operates. Keith Merron shows that the most powerful tool for making a real difference is the consultant's inner stance--the attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, goals, and strategies that underlie the consulting practice. In other words, it is the inner qualities of the consultant that differentiate a great consultant from the rest of the pack.

Consulting Mastery explores the deep inner shift required to become an extraordinary consultant. Through vivid examples, Merron contrasts the goals, strategies, and tactics used by most consultants with those used by masterful consultants to reveal the qualities and characteristics that will help you make the biggest difference with your clients.

If you yearn to have a bigger impact on your client organizations, or even on the world as a whole, Consulting Mastery shows how to transform yourself from a problem solver to an empowering partner. Following a natural flow of learning, it details the conceptual foundation of consulting mastery, provides a vision of mastery in action, and outlines a clear path to attaining mastery in oneself.

  • Shows consultants how to go beyond simply solving clients' problems to creating fundamental and lasting organizational change
  • Draws on interviews with 14 master consultants to explore what distinguishes masterful consulting from ordinary consulting
  • Takes the reader on a five-stage journey to becoming a master consultant

Read more and meet author below

Read An Excerpt


PDF eBook:
9781605097206

$34.95
(member price: $24.47)

Other Available Formats and Editions

$34.95 (member price: $24.47)

9781609943332


$34.95 (member price: $31.46)

9781576753200



Bulk Discounts
Rights Information


Featured Books



More About This Product

Overview

  • Shows consultants how to go beyond simply solving clients' problems to creating fundamental and lasting organizational change
  • Draws on interviews with 14 master consultants to explore what distinguishes masterful consulting from ordinary consulting
  • Takes the reader on a five-stage journey to becoming a master consultant
  • Shows consultants how to go beyond simply solving clients' problems to creating fundamental and lasting organizational change
  • Draws on interviews with 14 master consultants to explore what distinguishes masterful consulting from ordinary consulting
  • Takes the reader on a five-stage journey to becoming a master consultant

Most consultants are content to solve problems. Extraordinary consultants alter the culture of the client organization itself, changing the way the organization operates. Keith Merron shows that the most powerful tool for making a real difference is the consultant's inner stance--the attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, goals, and strategies that underlie the consulting practice. In other words, it is the inner qualities of the consultant that differentiate a great consultant from the rest of the pack.

Consulting Mastery explores the deep inner shift required to become an extraordinary consultant. Through vivid examples, Merron contrasts the goals, strategies, and tactics used by most consultants with those used by masterful consultants to reveal the qualities and characteristics that will help you make the biggest difference with your clients.

If you yearn to have a bigger impact on your client organizations, or even on the world as a whole, Consulting Mastery shows how to transform yourself from a problem solver to an empowering partner. Following a natural flow of learning, it details the conceptual foundation of consulting mastery, provides a vision of mastery in action, and outlines a clear path to attaining mastery in oneself.

  • Shows consultants how to go beyond simply solving clients' problems to creating fundamental and lasting organizational change
  • Draws on interviews with 14 master consultants to explore what distinguishes masterful consulting from ordinary consulting
  • Takes the reader on a five-stage journey to becoming a master consultant

Back to Top ↑

Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Keith Merron

Keith Merron is the founder and Managing Partner of Avista Consulting Group, an organizational consulting and leadership development firm. His work has positively impacted Hewlett-Packard, Freddie Mac, AmeriGroup Corporation, MedCath, Wang Laboratories, General Public Utilities, WorldCorp, Endocare, CSAA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and more than 200 other organizations. He is also the author of Riding the Wave: Designing Your Organization for Enduring Success.

Back to Top ↑


Table of Contents

Preface

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Seeking Greatness in the Consulting Profession

Part One: Understanding Consulting Mastery

Chapter 1: The Decay of the Consulting Profession

Chapter 2: The Master Consultant's Inner Stance

Part Two: Mastery in Action - The Master Consultant's Relationship to the Client

Chapter 3: Client-Centered Consulting

Chapter 4: Seeing the Client as a System

Chapter 5: Shared Ownership of the Process

Part Three: Mastery In Action - The Master Consultant's Relationship to Knowledge

Chapter 6: Applying Knowledge

Chapter 7: Conveying Knowledge

Chapter 8: Helping Clients Help Themselves

Part Four: Mastery in Action - The Master Consultant's Relationship to Self

Chapter 9: The Keys to Self-Mastery

Chapter 10: Honesty at the Deepest Level

Chapter 11: Deep Learning

Chapter 12: Bring Your Whole Self, in Full Partnership

Chapter 13: Playing a Big Game

Part Five: Attaining Mastery

Chapter 14: Mastery and Being

Chapter 15: The Road to Consulting Mastery

Appendix A: The Interviews and Their Impact

Notes

Index

About the Author

Back to Top ↑

Excerpt

Consulting Mastery

INTRODUCTION SEEKING GREATNESS IN THE CONSULTING PROFESSION

The greatest discovery of my generation is
that a man can alter his life simply by
altering his attitude of mind.

—William James

SAM, AN EAGER YOUNG CONSULTANT, was leading his first client engagement. Bright and aggressive, with a fresh MBA under his belt, he had been under the tutelage of one of the best partners in his consulting firm for three years. Now, having received a set of important distinctions and a proprietary consulting process, he was ready to strut his stuff. He did everything his partner taught him, and it seemed to work. He showed the clients all the important and relevant research that pointed to the flaws in the client organization. He used a team of bright consultants to gather and analyze data about the client, its competitors, and key trends in the industry. He showed the client the changes it needed to make to get ahead of the industry in its market space. At each step along the way, the client seemed eager, interested, engaged, and impressed with Sam’s know-how.

At the final meeting, Sam’s report was well received and a team of leaders in the client organization almost instantly accepted the recommendations he made. They assured Sam of their commitment to implementing these changes and even adopted Sam’s sensible timeline that balanced a high degree of urgency with awareness that these things take time. At the end of this meeting, Sam was one happy consultant.

Months later, he could not have been more disappointed. For the first few weeks, the client began making plans to implement the recommendations. However, an unexpected dip in sales, coupled with some missed product development deadlines, caused the client to shelve some of Sam’s recommendations. They assured him it was a temporary problem, and they would get back on track as soon as this temporary setback was addressed. They never did.

It was obvious to Sam that the process and the expertise he provided were right on target. The fault, clearly, lay in the client’s lack of ability to deliver on its end and to stick with the plan. In debriefing with the partner about the failed effort, the partner pointed out some things Sam could have done differently, offering clever tricks of the trade that might have made a difference. The partner also pointed out that these things happen and that it was part of the learning process. “You are destined to do great things,” the partner said. “Don’t let it get you down.”

The partner’s sage counsel was welcome, and Sam was eager to tackle the next client opportunity with renewed vigor. Little did he know that it was almost inevitably doomed to fail. It would make money, but it wouldn’t make a difference. Nor did the partner have any inkling of this. No one else in the firm did either. They were making plenty of money, in fact, with enough financial success that this and other failures were easily shrugged off. The failure pattern was left unexamined while the consulting firm got to continue the game.

Sam’s story is repeated time after time in consulting engagements all over the world. Many consultants have seen outcomes like Sam’s many times yet find themselves in the same scenario. Caught in the same pattern that most of the consulting world is following, they cannot see an alternative. As a result, many, if not most clients are either cynical about consultants or angry about how intractable the whole system is. Yet they too continue to participate in the pattern, hoping that the next time they hire a consultant, the outcome will be different. It rarely is. I am reminded of the famous definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.


THE RULES OF CONSULTING

The rules for “successful” consulting were created a long time ago. Someone unknown, perhaps a trusted advisor of a king, first conceived them. About 100 years ago, they were reformed and applied to business by Frederick Taylor. Clarified and made universal by James O. McKinsey, Marvin Bower, and others in the middle of the 20th century, the rules were popularized in the late 20th century by a slew of consultants who used them to earn riches beyond belief. Few have written these rules down, yet almost everyone in the consulting profession knows them, follows them, and benefits from them. Almost always, the current rules of consulting are based on the claim that the consultant has specialized expertise, crucial to client success. They are as follows:

image

On the face of it, these rules of consulting look just fine. But how much do these rules truly benefit clients? Most consulting firms claim the benefit is great. I am not so sure. What most consultants and firms only seem to pay attention to is the transaction between client and consultant, rarely recognizing the sizable residue or unintended consequences of the way the consulting game is played. Something is missing in the world of consulting, but few of the financially successful consultants can see it or if they do, would want clients to see it. Take a look at the record, they would say; you can’t argue with success! What those consultants won’t show you is their list of failures. It is extensive.


IT’S NO LONGER WORKING WELL

Expert-based approaches* to consulting remain preeminent because they have worked well in the past, and continue to work well in certain situations, particularly those where there is a clear line between cause and effect and where the variables are definable and containable. Yet in so many other situations, I believe the structured, expert based approaches fail. The world is changing so rapidly and the challenges organizations face are so knotty that the structured methods rarely work. They try to impose a set of processes in conditions that no longer fit. Moreover, the validity of those approaches in so many situations goes almost entirely unquestioned in the consulting profession. Why? Perhaps for no other reason than that we as consultants, along with everybody else, tend toward the comfort of sameness and avoid the nether world of uncertainty. As a result, while there are indicators that the consulting profession is no longer meeting the needs of its clients well, we have been slow to heed the warning signs.

The signs are legion. They include:


  1. Demand for consulting is declining, and as a result, consulting firms are being forced to downsize.
  2. Many consulting firms are falling out of favor as their practices are subjected to deeper scrutiny. Witness the Andersen Consulting debacle with Enron.
  3. More and more books have been published that debunk the sovereignty of the consulting profession.1

Indeed, as I write this book, I believe the consulting field is in disrepair. A recent article in Consulting News reported that consulting firms are bidding on more projects and winning far fewer, while simultaneously experiencing an increase in the length of their sales cycle and a decline in their average engagement size. The situation is expected to get worse. Leaders of large consulting firms report that many clients have gone for a long time without consultants and don’t miss them. And without the “next big thing” to sell, consultants are having a hard time fighting the indifference. The article also reports that clients have been complaining they were routinely oversold in the late 1990s—sold things they didn’t need.2 Anecdotally, I see more senior consultants struggling for business now than I have seen in the 25 years I have been a consultant.

Since the profession does not have hard data on the success or failure of consulting efforts, it is hard to pin down the emerging downward trend. There are, however, some strong indications. For the first time in decades, for example, growth in the Gross National Product is outstripping growth in the consulting industry.3 And revenue growth in the largest consulting businesses, while robust in the 80s (20–30% annually on average), has slowed to a snail’s pace.

I believe these troubling trends are a direct outgrowth of the fundamental rules upon which most consulting firms base their practice. These rules form practices that are destined to continue to erode the confidence in and effectiveness of consultants. In particular, the causes of this erosion are two-fold: (1) The fundamental beliefs and assumptions that underlie the current rules, and (2) The rules behind the rules, often unseen by clients.

image

FIGURE 1: STEADY DECLINE IN THE CONSULTING INDUSTRY4

QUESTIONABLE ASSUMPTIONS

Many of the flawed assumptions underlying many of the consulting profession’s practices have been known for a while. Ten years ago, for example, Nitin Nohria and J. D. Berkeley found that in the majority of cases, research shows that many of the fads, including TQM, Process Reengineering, MBO, and others “rarely produced the promised results.”5 And a myriad of articles in the early 90s showed how TQM efforts too often fell well short of their aims. Most of the research on the subject suggests that less than one-quarter of the TQM efforts produced tangible and enduring results.6

In spite of the apparent growing failure rate, the consulting profession continues to seek the next big thing that they can offer and consultants continue to blame clients for poor execution. In so doing, we are subject to the same tendency as other industries: We avoid examining the assumptions and biases that underlie the way we approach our work.

One fundamental assumption, for example, is that knowledge, and the structured transfer of knowledge, is the most appropriate thing a consultant can offer. Is it, though? It may in fact be the least essential thing we can offer. Perhaps it only provides the illusion of comfort. Perhaps we are only peddling the appearance of a useful methodology, as Harold Hill fraudulently peddled the “think theory” of music in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.

Another unquestioned assumption is that there is magic in tools and techniques. Consultants unfailingly cite them, and the authority from which they derive, rarely exploring whether these tools really make a difference. Clients and consultants alike jump on the next bandwagon of consulting ideas, hoping to find that elusive magic pill. Rarely do those who follow this path recognize that real solutions do not lie in magic pills. Clients often want easy answers, and many consulting firms are all too eager to send young consultants, still wet behind the ears, to dish them out. The results are too often disappointing to the client. One CEO I know, for example, refuses to hire consultants any more. He is tired of them trying to sell him their “approach.” He knows that there is no one answer and is suspicious of anyone offering it. Another senior executive I know says her company is “consultant phobic.” She says, “We are tired of consultants promising the world, and not delivering.”

Too many consultants readily serve up tools, processes, and techniques while failing to appreciate the deep thinking and understanding that created them in the first place. Too often we fall back on tools and techniques to quell the natural anxiety associated with the consulting process or to avoid facing the fear that perhaps we are not adequate to the task at hand.


image

TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES GIVE US COMFORT; THEY HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH CONSULTING MASTERY.

image

Perhaps the biggest assumption of all is the belief that the goal of consulting is to provide advice toward solving problems, failing to recognize that the real challenge most clients face is in producing the change itself. Robert Shaffer said it well when he said that the trouble is that most consultants “don’t make client implementation a central focus of their consulting practices. Most are almost completely dedicated to providing managers with insights and ideas about change; they pay virtually no attention to helping the client effect change.”7


THE RULES BEHIND THE RULES

If you were to peer behind the scenes of the consulting game as typically played, you would find a game behind a game. Few consultants and consulting firms want clients to know about what is behind the scenes, for if they did, many clients would not hire them. The rules of the game behind the game are designed to make the most money for the consultant or the consulting firm, often to the detriment of client outcomes. The game behind the game has the following rules:

image

Together, the assumptions described above and the behind the scenes rules cause consultants to operate in a way that has a high payoff for the consultants and a limited payoff for the client. They beckon consultants to read, research, and write about theories, tools, skills, and techniques, while simultaneously losing sight of a deeper phenomenon, one not so easily observed and tested: namely, the way consulting is typically practiced is the primary source of failure, or at best, limited success. These assumptions and underlying rules also cause consultants to ignore what masterful consultants know well—that the inner stance of the consultant is often a far greater determinant of client success than anything else. By ignoring these core truths, the profession has given itself over to fashion and fads.


WHAT DIFFERENTIATES GOOD CONSULTANTS FROM GREAT ONES?

In the field of organizational change consulting, little has been written about what differentiates good consultants from masterful ones.8 Many dedicated practitioners in change-consulting fields are well armed with the tools of their craft, yet they often disappoint their clients. Why? Because of the commonly held belief that tools and techniques constitute the most essential aspects of consulting.


image

THROUGHOUT THIS BOOK, I REFER TO BOTH “CHANGE CONSULTING” AND “CONSULTING” INTERCHANGEABLY. I AM DEFINING CHANGE CONSULTANTS AS THOSE WHO AIM TO CHANGE ORGANIZATIONS AS A WHOLE IN SOME SIGNIFICANT WAY.

image

All consultants have a profusion of tools, techniques, models, and theories at their disposal and yet few are consistently effective. Even fewer are extraordinary. So a huge question is dying to be asked: What constitutes consulting mastery? Unfortunately, little research has been done on the question and few books speak to the issue.9

Most of what is written focuses on the surface elements of consulting and rarely looks at the deeper patterns that underlie the consulting experience. With so much focus on tools, techniques, processes, and specialized knowledge, the underlying dynamics of the consulting process often get short shrift. They include:


  • The quality of the relationship between client and consultant
  • The conduct and character of the consultant
  • The definition of who the client is and the deeper purpose of the consulting engagement.

These hidden features of the consulting process are what masterful consulting is all about. They can’t be “seen” in the conventional sense; they lie under the waterline. They can, however, be clearly felt. I cannot say it any clearer than the fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, who said “. . . and now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”10

The source of mastery isn’t found in one’s outer actions, or in the effective use of the tools of the trade. It is found invisibly in the inner stance a consultant takes in relationship to the client world, to knowledge, and to himself. By inner stance, I mean the feelings, beliefs, viewpoints, and perspectives that drive one’s actions. It is the place we “come from” when we act.

I want to make clear that I do not deny the importance of expert knowledge in the consulting process. Quite the contrary, knowledge is enormously valuable. An overreliance on knowledge, however, without significant attention to one’s inner self, the process of consulting, and the quality of the relationship, results in limited success. It will be even less effective in years to come.


WHAT IS CONSULTING MASTERY?

By consulting mastery I am not referring to mastery in the sense of “control over.” Nor am I positing some lofty expert knowledge that only a few can know. The mastery I am talking about arises from the artistry of consulting, driven by effective expression of the inner qualities of the consultant himself. Mastery has little to do with the science of consulting; it is more about the moment where wisdom is deftly applied in a way that moves the client toward deeper and more profound action. Mastery, in this sense, is not a place where one arrives, definitively and permanently. Rather, mastery comes in moments, and is often elusive. Like others, I have moments when I tap into an inner state in which I am at my best. These moments usually come when I am calm, centered, open, fluid, and confident. Naturally, I have moments when I am also at my worst, stuck in some turmoil of my own psyche from which I cannot seem to escape. Mastery happens when we are open to the lessons our experiences have taught us—and honest with the clients we seek to help.

Consultants who explore the inner aspects of the consulting process challenge the key assumptions in the consulting field. Many of these consultants are brilliant in their work yet get little credit. That is because they have guided their clients so successfully that the clients receive—and deserve—the credit themselves.

Masterful consultants seldom shy away from self-reflection when faced with an unsuccessful consulting situation; they know that their inner stance is what matters most in their work. They value a trusting partnership with the client, the deft application of knowledge, and the inner character required to inspire others. Success, for the masterful consultant, is the result of a powerful blending of these three capabilities. Like streams merging into a single river, the confluence of these three components is redefining and giving new shape to the consulting industry. As we will see later, reliance on any one of these streams, to the exclusion of the other, results in limited consulting success.

image

Streams of the Masterful Consultant

This way of thinking represents a paradigm shift in the consulting process, one in which the wholeness and health of the consultant himself are of crucial importance. A healthy inner stance produces these things, all of which are crucial to consulting mastery:


  • The ability to see and think holistically
  • A sense of self-certainty, self-esteem, and self-value
  • The ability to be honest, genuine, and to inspire trust in others
  • Neutrality, deep listening, and a spirit of collaborative inquiry
  • An ability to set up an empowering relationship with the client
  • Knowledge about the change process
  • The ability to be present

These and other features of the inner aspects of consulting will be explored throughout the book. It is my hope that by continuing to read this book you may call into question some of the deeper, possibly even hidden patterns that structure your own consulting behavior. As a result, you may see a path toward greater effectiveness and begin making an even bigger difference in your consulting practice. We begin by understanding the goals and strategies of the typical model of consulting.


* I am making a distinction here between expert consulting and process consulting as made by Peter Block in his book Flawless Consulting. Expert consultants primarily sell their knowledge and expertise. By contrast, process consultants, while equipped with knowledge and expertise, are more interested in creating a process whereby clients can discover for themselves the knowledge necessary to take effective action. Process consultants also typically focus on the client’s human dynamics—the processes of decision-making, teamwork, organizational behavior, etc.—and aim to help the client improve them. While no consultant falls exclusively into the expert or the process category, most lean in one direction or the other.

1. See, for example, H. Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (New York: The Free Press, 1994); J. Mickleth-wait & A. Wooldridge, The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus (New York: Random House, 1996); J. O’Shea & C. Madigan, Dangerous Company: Consultants and the Businesses They Save and Ruin (New York: Times Books, 1997); and M. Kihn, House of Lies (New York: Warner Books, 2005).

2. “Firms Bidding More to Win Less,” Consulting News, vol. 32, issue 8, 2002.

3. “What You Need to Know to Survive the Recovery,” Consultants News, vol. 34, issue 6, 2004.

4. Consultants News, vol. 34, issue 6, 2004, www.Consulting-Central.com.

5. N. Nohria & J. D. Berkeley, “Whatever Happened to the Take-Charge Manager?” Harvard Business Review, Jan–Feb 1994, pp. 128–137.

6. “The Cracks in Quality,” Economist, April 18, 1992.

7. R. Schaffer, High-Impact Consulting: How Clients and Consultants Can Work Together to Achieve Extraordinary Results (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), p. 9.

8. Exceptions include P. Block, Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 2000); G. Bellman, The Consultant’s Calling: Bringing Who You Are to What You Do (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990); and D. Maister, C. Green & R. Galford, The Trusted Advisor (New York: The Free Press, 2000).

9. A notable exception is Robert Schaffer’s recent book High-Impact Consulting (cited in Note 7), which chronicles the flaws of many of the practices that underlie most high-profile consulting firms.

10. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (New York: Har-court, Brace & World, 1943), p. 87.

Back to Top ↑

Endorsements

"Rooted in the reality of this work, this is a thought-provoking book for dedicated consultants who want to fine tune their thinking about their practice and their lives."

--Geoff Bellman, author of The Consultant's Calling


"[This] provocative and compelling work is a must-read for today's consultants.... It's a clinic on what it takes to go beyond success and really master the consulting art."

--William Belgard, Executive Director, The American Center for Strategic Transformation, and coauthor of Shaping The Future


"An astounding overview of consulting, why it's in the trouble it's in, and what consultants can do to fix their own practices."

--Janelle Barlow, President, TMI U.S., and author of Branded Customer Service and A Complaint Is a Gift


"This must-read book effectively outlines how to consult from the heart and will be especially valuable for those consultants wishing to mature in their own professional development."

--Hank Walker, Former CEO, Providence Health Systems

Back to Top ↑