How to Escape the Pedestal

Of all the mentoring questions I receive about project implementation, the one that causes people the most anguish seems to be “Conditions are tough, what’s the best approach?” This might be a strategy retreat, a classroom activity, a team building session, a counseling assignment—it doesn’t really matter. Consultants are often scared out of their minds that their chosen alternative will result in failure.

The problem here is twofold: First, there is almost always a range of feasible options, not a single alternative; second, the client should be openly participating in the selection of the option.

Recently, a mentoree was struggling with a strategic planning session that involved vice presidents whose business objectives were very different. Either could easily succeed while the other failed. There was no incentive for cooperation or collaboration, yet the president wanted to use the retreat as an opportunity to forge a “common face” for the company’s clients.

The consultant had come up with his “outline” for running the two-day session, but was panicking the more he talked beforehand to the vice presidents. “They are not going to agree on anything,” he told me, “and even if they do, it will be lip service which they’ll ignore the next day. I need this account, and I need to be successful in this assignment. What am I going to do?”

The first thing to do is to stop trying to walk on water. You can’t simultaneously move to the right and to the left. I suggested that he frankly discuss the inherent conflicts with the president, and take the position that both of them—one who is responsible for the company, and the other who is responsible for the process—ought to come up with some possible solutions. I also stressed the plural of “solution” because there were several ways to go. One was that the president change the incentive reward system, for example, so that neither vice president could truly succeed without the other’s success. Another, however, was to stress that there was an ethical responsibility to act as a corporate officer and not only a division head. Still a third was to examine whether the “one face” policy made sense in terms of what might have been healthy internal competition.

The consultant said, “What if the president says that these resolutions are my job to develop?” I said, “Tell him that may be the case, but it’s the president who will have to live with the result.”

The president never asked the question, he appreciated the conflicts in the situation, and he decided to open up the “one face” policy to internal debate during the meeting, facilitated by the consultant. Only if everyone agreed conceptually with the premise would he then demand the obvious collaboration required of his two subordinates. If not, he would abandon the strategy.

The lesson to remember: There is always more than one solution available, and the development and selection of the options should be done in collaboration with the client. We’re consultants, not miracle workers.