Why Consultants Need to See Your Watch To Tell You the Time


Here’s an old joke: “Ask a consultant what time it is and he’ll ask to see your watch.” This canard contains more than a grain of truth which can be converted into something useful – a way for executives to avoid the need for outsider-led interventions.

The executive suite is unlike any other team in a company. Newcomers who believe it’s just a slightly different version of other teams experience a rude awakening. New CEO’s, for example, discover that team members treat them differently in spite of their efforts to remain “one of the guys.”

This relationship change has the following two effects.

The first is that people who work for top executives withhold bad news, for fear of provoking an unwanted reaction. The second is that leaders who enjoy solving problems on their own learn that habitually doing so leaves others in the dark, unable to understand how or why key decisions are made.

These effects lead to a shared ignorance, which only becomes obvious when a poor decision is made or a company experiences gridlock. That’s when a consultant like me gets called in.

What my clients usually don’t know is that there is a key, infallible principle I arrive with and use on every engagement: Someone in the organization already has determined most (if not all) of the right answers. After all, employees have been exposed to the problem for much longer than I have and if they are reasonably committed and intelligent, they will have already cracked it.

This may sound insultingly simple – a version of “using the client’s watch to tell the time”. But clients often don’t see the factors which prevent the right answer from reaching the attention of those who need it. In Jamaican firms (and especially the ones which harbour authoritarian tendencies) the problem shows up in the following predictable ways.

1. Someone is out of favour
Chief executives often don’t have the time management skills to listen to everyone who says they have a solution to a problem. Therefore, they are forced to choose to ignore some, which means that the person with the right answer is sometimes not on the short list of favored insiders. The truths they have to share get lost.

In other instances, the person is out of favor because their credibility is in question, instantly discrediting their solution. The fact is, contrarians make people uncomfortable, especially when they refuse to parrot the CEO’s point of view in order to curry favor.

Often, my job consists of restoring someone’s professional reputation so that their message can be heard in the right way.

2. A communication gap
“Executese” – the specific language used by a leadership team – varies from one company to another. One of my tasks early in an engagement is to figure out the specific language being used. This is important because the person who has the right answer is often not on the aforementioned short list, therefore using a language that isn’t appreciated.

Case in point: A human resource manager who hasn’t learned the financial language used by the CEO/CFO/Board. Concerns couched in terms such as “employee morale” don’t get attention, compared to a loaded phrase such as “financial risk of poor employee performance.”

Often, I need to work with both sides so that the right message can be understood, and used.

3. Multiple sub-solutions
In most cases, the issue at hand doesn’t lend itself to simplistic solutions that can be popped out of the pages of an MBA textbook. Instead, there are multiple causes, each of which needs its own line of attack.

Unfortunately, this means that different people have partial answers that must be assembled, like a puzzle, into a coherent whole. This takes time, patience and bandwidth which executive teams don’t have, or don’t know they need to set aside. Putting the pieces together is a task I often have to do. I may help establish urgencies and priorities, but the initial assembly is much harder to complete.

My overall goal is one that my clients sometimes don’t realize at all: I aim to create an environment in which the kind of problem I am brought in to solve doesn’t recur. This may require any of following on their part:
– Better listening skills
– Improved time management skills
– An ability to engage employees on a consistent, deep basis

These issues even persist in executive teams which are actively working on their skills in these areas. They are tough to solve because they are an essential part of working in human organizations staffed with imperfect people. They will never go away completely. Instead, they must be mastered if executives hope to solve their own problems, without the need of outside help.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. To receive a free document with links to articles from 2010-2015, send email to columns@fwconsulting.com