Stop paying for gurus and start investing in your people.
A year or two ago an organization I was doing work with decided to hire a consultant to rethink a business process. The consultant was a prestige hire, had literally written the most famous book on the topic they were being asked to advise on after a long career in leadership at two marquee tech companies (Google and Facebook … and no it wasn’t Sheryl Sandberg hahaha). The organization paid the consultant $90K and she proceeded to sit in on a couple of meetings, conduct some interviews, review the documentation on our existing process, then throw down a report with recommendations and leave.
The next day the company announced that the system documented in that report was the new system, effective immediately. But they made no adjustments to existing tooling, offered no training, had no rollout plan or success criteria defined and couldn’t answer basic questions about how to apply the new system. So naturally the old system remained in place and the $90K report got dumped somewhere in Google Drive where I’m sure some ambitious organizational archaeologist will dig it up five years from now and wonder why it never went anywhere.
Such is the way of consulting…
Don’t Hire a Consultant, Hire a Trainer
I stopped doing consulting a couple years ago in favor of corporate training. Here’s why: the scenario I described above is normal. Consultants come into your organization, rehash advice that your own people are already giving you, package it up in an impressive format with their prestigious byline and leave you to figure out all the meaningful parts of actually accomplishing anything. The old joke about consulting: that you pay McKinsey a million dollars to tell you what you already think isn’t that far from the truth. Consultants are like vanity book publishers, you pay them money to make it look like you’ve got your shit together. You pay them money to tell investors that you’re plans have been vetted by the best, or to point back to something during a PR emergency. Consulting is social proof for hire. Sometimes that’s effective. If you’re ready to execute on the plan and you just want to borrow the legitimacy of the consultant’s brand in order to give you air cover, then it might be worth the price tag you pay for it.
But more often than not, organizations are completely incapable of executing on any plan whatsoever and they hire the consultant as if that’s a magic cure that will fix whatever is keeping them from changing on their own. Consultants are really bad at doing that. They don’t have the authority to fix what’s broken for you.
Training on the other hand, involves taking people who do have that authority and helping them through the process of executing on it. Corporate trainers are also expected to provide some feedback on tracking outcomes of their work. As a trainer I design assessment criteria with my clients and show how students in my programs have improved over time. I often produce a report that gives my clients the same advice I would have as a consultant, but because I’ve structured the engagement as training the rollout of the new system is already in progress. Because the new system is a product of the training, often designed by their own people using frameworks I’ve developed and with long discussion sessions about triaging implementation challenges.
I run my trainings like workshops. Yes we’re going to study specific things, but we’re also going to use the real life challenges of the students to experiment and refine these new skills.
It’s weird to me how organizations are willing to pay me tens of thousands of dollars to write down my opinion, but when I talk about using that same time and money to instead invest in their people it suddenly feels like an indulgence.
Don’t Hire a Coach Either
Sometimes the consultant markets themselves as an executive coach. This is an even sweeter deal. Same value proposition as the consultant — you’re mainly paying for the prestige of the association — but this time the engagement is open ended and no reports need rot away in Google Drive.
Same BS, even fewer tangible deliverables.
I’ll admit that some executive coaches give really good advice, and sometimes just having a neutral party to talk things through adds a lot of valuable insight. But just like consultants, executive coaches are not empowered to actually fix any problems for you. If you’re not willing or able to execute on change, you’re paying a premium for the brand of the coach and getting someone nice to talk to in exchange.
What I like about training is that it gives me a reusable structure. I talk to my clients about goals and then design a syllabus spelling out exactly what skills I think need to be developed, how we’re going to do that, what outcome to expect from doing that and how we’ll measure them. I can link my contributions more directly to impacts on their organization and I can use my experiences working with their people to further refine and iterate on my library of resources.
Coaching and consulting focus on giving a platform to people with no actual power to implement. The people who actually have the power to initiate any meaningful change in your organization are the people you’ve hired full time to work for your organization. If you really want to improve things, you should start by giving them the tools they need to succeed.
Of course part of why this works as a substitute for consulting is that I run trainings in systems thinking, systems modeling and strategy. A lot of my clients come to me because they have an impossible legacy system they have absolutely no clue what to do with. Taking their engineers through modeling exercises creates immediate insights and ah-ha moments that are actionable as soon as the session is over. Teaching those same engineers how to build the model themselves leaves them with skills to repeat the process once I’ve moved on. It offers both a plan through the wilderness and better, more mature engineers to execute on it.
But different clients have different needs so I have a set of slightly different formats to deliver my trainings
System Review. This works well in situations where there are specific systems that need work, they may be messy but they have clearly defined boundaries and owners. It’s even better when there are specific deadlines like a launch or a compliance audit. System Review involves the engineers meeting with me once a week for an hour. During that hour I model their system with them on a virtual whiteboard, asking clarifying questions as we go along and looking for a inevitable moments of confusion, disagreement or the question about system behavior where everyone looks at themselves and realizes they actually don’t know what the correct answer is. We talk about the consequences of this behavior or that behavior and what the appropriate best practice is. From these discussion we cut issues and throw them into the backlog. Along the way I’m explaining how the model type I’m using works and how to construct it. I may ask them to come to a session with the first draft of a particular model done for us
Mentor Circle. These are small groups of about five engineers each. I prefer that they be mixed teams instead of a single engineering group. I like this structure when the ask is to level up the engineers themselves. I typically meet with each group every other week for discussion sessions. I want people to bring their work challenges into this space and let colleagues share advice and institutional knowledge with each other. Each session has a specific topic, coupled with some training videos I’ve produced and short readings from my library. The course work is designed to be done async in between group sessions. At the end of each session students get a transcript of the discussion for their reference and the question that will kick off the next discussion. This question is tied to the course work for that week so that they have something practical to consider while exploring the theory.
Workshops. Sometimes there’s just one specific skillset that clients want to go deep on and for that I do a multi-hour workshop. I like to cap the number of participants at 30. The material is broken up into segments of lecture, group work, and individual quiet work. I like to do these in person whenever I can to keep people engaged and moving. (See my upcoming one in Berlin) When they’re virtual we include stretch breaks and more formal breakout sessions.
Outsiders Don’t Solve Problems, They Can Only Clear the Way
The existence of a brilliant plan has never made anything better. Empowered people make things better. In fact, an organization with a mediocre plan and empowered people has a better chance of coming out on top than an organization with a great plan but no one to execute.
So stop paying consultants a bunch of money to sell you bold ideas when what you need is to invest in your people.