A Simple Truth: Consultants Can Influence, But Can’t Drive Change

“This time it’s gonna work because we hired a consultant.”

That statement was made by a vestry member of a small church that had been trying to grow since 1967. It was a little church in the woods, and the congregation (as tested by an interim rector) was overwhelmingly ISTJ.

It did work, however, as the little church in the woods is now a thriving, growing parish. But it wasn’t the consultant that led to success, it was a strong lay leader who took his time, energy and skill to identify and collaboratively overcome the obstacles in the way of growth.

The consultant served as an advisor, and the leader listened to the advice, but the changes were organically grown, not handed down by consultant.

Consultants can’t make change

Fast forward to a local organization under tremendous turmoil. I wrote about this organization in What Happens When Company Culture Gets a Big Wake-Up Call?  as the frivolity and hubris of the CEO became the subject of regular local media coverage, and the union organizers were hovering.

This week, the CEO stepped down. It wasn’t a glossed over, “she decided to retire” statement; it was the Board saying they wanted new leadership.

In the retrospective of her tenure over 30 years with the organization, one of the criticisms launched toward her was spending millions of dollars with a top tier consulting group to determine where to cut expenses.

Here’s the problem with that: Whether it is a small church or a top-tier consulting firm, it is impossible for a consulting firm to make change.

The very best one can hope for from a good consultant is to provide actionable data that those inside the organization are too close to see, and then to facilitate candid dialogue about what the data says. A really good consultant can quickly see the blind spots and the obstacles to change, and may be successful at influencing the organization to look at the data in a new way.

Article Continues Below

When executive leadership needs to take over

But the organization has to be open, be honest and be willing to scrutinize their own behaviors.

In the local organization, the consultants had their eye on expense. The executive team had their eye on expense. That singular focus led to decisions to cut employee pay, saying that the night shift differential was approximately $18 million over “market.”

The consultants were providing data and advice to a leadership team that was looking for quick, easy answers. The leadership team trusted the consultants to solve their problem.

Consultants don’t solve problems. They find the problems, offer possible solutions, but the change must happen inside the organization.

That kind of change takes openness, vulnerability, and courage. This is the role of executive leadership.

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.

Carol Anderson is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in February 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications. Contact Carol at carol@andersonperformancepartners.com.


4 Comments on “A Simple Truth: Consultants Can Influence, But Can’t Drive Change

  1. Hmmm. I have to disagree here, but I see your point. In our industry there are a lot of consultants that don’t look at providing value for their clients. By that I mean guaranteeing that their fees are more than covered by cost saving and revenue gains. So while its true that consultants don’t have direct authoritative control, they do have tremendous persuasion powers. Another thing you see with good consultants is that expectations are set right from the get go, Both sides have to work together to make the consulting engagement successful. We interview our clients before we start a project and if we see that they want us to “fix the problem” then we’ll pass.
    Finally a good consultant should think about sustainability in everything they do. If the client doesn’t learn new behaviours and methods then the engagement was worthless.
    Unfortunately as you express in your article there are a lot of firms out there that don’t.

    Thanks for the post – it got me thinking.

  2. Thanks for the comment Philip….that’s my goal, to get people to think. And I agree with your comments about a good consultant, and you probably are one – I believe that I am one, as well. When I was “inside” though, what I saw was those who were the problem served as consultant “liaison” and the valuable data from the consultant was filtered before it ever got to those who had authority to act.

    The other scenario I’ve seen played out (and this was also inside) was the consultant who read the politics, and played to them instead of providing candid, transparent data.

    I think consultants add tremendous value to organizations, but like you, I work to build capability and sustainability within the client organization.

  3. Too often consultants are brought in to give a gloss of objectivity to a decision the executives have made but lack the courage to implement. In those cases, the executives need to have the courage to own and action those tough decisions. But when consultants are brought in for good reason – mostly because a well-qualified, external viewpoint is required, it’s executive responsibility to ensure they are engaged critically and with a requirement for suggestions that can be both practically implemented and maintained. Because as you say, we go to consultants for advice but the responsibility for action rests with us.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *