Know-It-Alls or Insightful Project Partners?

DPA Insights

Management Consultants: Know-It-Alls or Insightful Project Partners?

By Tony Rodriguez, Tom Voss and Nancy Kay

Last month, Bloomberg View columnist Michael Kinsley wrote a provocative analysis that asked whether Mitt Romney’s CEO smarts would translate into an effective Presidency. Regardless of one’s views on the candidates or the elections, the piece was, um… interesting.

But it was this passage that raised our eyebrows:

“A management consultant is someone who parachutes into some crisis situation, or even some perfectly normal situation, and tells people twice his age with 10 times his expertise what they’re doing wrong…

The management consultant’s creed is that nothing matters but smarts. Raw brainpower trumps experience. What’s more, given enough time, it turns itself into wisdom about any problem, like some kind of IQ stem cells.”

Wow. PARACHUTES! Can we have some of those?

(Dreams of The Avengers with clipboards swooping in to save the day…)

Kidding aside, all of us on the Daniel Penn Associates team think Kinsley’s missing the boat. Here’s why.

Our clients know their businesses. But they often feel alone, especially if they operate in highly competitive industries. When they can’t pinpoint why a certain operation isn’t working, or why they can’t seem to grow the business, or aren’t really sure of the direction they’re headed, a consultant can help to systematically examine what’s happening.

Many clients will seek a consultant’s observations to reaffirm their already-sound decisions. If something needs to be fixed, they may also employ us to help make and implement decisions that are correct, but unpopular.

As a fresh, outside eye, the consultant is unbiased about how things used to be. There’s no baggage. This helps them move organizations forward to their best future state.

Consultants have to be smart. Whether they’re in a hospital, an insurance company or a manufacturing cell, the consultant has to quickly grasp the situation at hand. But smarts don’t mean arrogance or a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude. Most times, consultants must gain consensus in a team environment. They work through problems collaboratively. They compromise. They adapt.

Diverse expertise does not always correlate with years of experience. A line manager in a client company may have double the number of years under her or his belt. But if they’ve been doing the same tasks over and over in the routine of yearly cycles, it’s just that…10 years of doing the same thing.

In contrast, consultants have solved a myriad of challenges. They’ve seen best and worst practices. What has worked. What can be tried. These experiences help them seed ‘what if’ thinking and help to open new possibilities.

Efficiency and results matter. Most consultants don’t have the luxury of one, two or four quarters to assess the situation, staff up (or down) and help the company move in the right direction. They must quickly remove the obstacles and excuses to get things done. Because they’ve observed a wide variety of systems, they can offer ideas that help clients shape their own best practices.

Empowerment matters most. When DPA begins a project, we find that many people inside our clients’ organizations can identify problem areas and have a good idea of what needs to happen. We listen to their voices and help convince top management that their ideas will make a difference. Then we help employee teams to use their intuition and observations to experiment and test different ways of doing things. In the end, they truly own and nurture the positive changes they’ve made.

Every profession has good and bad players. And while Mr. Kinsley’s opinion about consulting and mergers-and-acquisitions types may be derived from Gordon Gecko stereotypes, the controlling style he portrays is the rare exception, not the norm…and certainly not what the consulting industry’s leadership expects.

What do YOU think? Do consultants really have such a bad rap? If you’re a consultant, how do you counter false perceptions about what you do? If you lead a business or organization, what have consultants done to help you? What can they do better?

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