“The upside is that you can become known for being a expert in a specific area of knowledge. The downside is that you become known as an expert in a specific area of knowledge…”
For anyone who wants a peek into the murky world of management consulting, I highly recommend the hilarious book “How to Become a Big Four Management Consultant and Why You Would Even Bother” by Benjamin Monk.
I say ‘hilarious’ because it’s both the funniest thing I’ve read in a while and quite often true. Monk demonstrates that the popularity of high-priced external consultants is often a result of the fact that they are precisely that; external, and therefore available to either support the already-cherished theory of whoever is holding the chequebook, or as a scapegoat when things don’t go according to plan. It’s irreverent and sometimes cuts too close for comfort, particularly when it describes a consultant being deemed the firm’s ‘SME’ the night before the big client presentation!
Granted, the book exaggerates for comic effect; most management consultants are switched-on people and no one is about to stop engaging them to help solve their business problems. However, it begs the question; how do internal professionals compete against the ‘halo effect’ that seems to naturally accompany a McKinseys’ consultant or a bright young thing from Deloitte? Why is it that you and I, with years of experience under our collective belts, can suggest an identical course of action to muted reception, that is later received with wide-eye wonderment from a consultant who is barely old enough to drive herself to work?
One answer is that you and I have personal experience. The consultant on the other hand, (however young they might be) has access to the entire collective experience from a massive organisation that eats and excretes knowledge. It’s the ability to tap into this knowledge that gives the consultant the edge when it comes to attention and gaining confidence. It’s the ability to not only makes a reasoned argument, but also to back it up by demonstrating where and how it’s worked and failed in our competitors’ organisations. Also they charge more than you or I; people value what they pay for. I should ask for a raise.
So how does a halo-less professional compete and gain more mind share? By thinking and acting more like a management consultant!
Competing Without a Halo
Trusted Advisorship is first step. The management consultant doesn’t have to prove that they know what they are talking about to nearly the same extent as you, simply because they have a business card with a nice fat juicy logo on it that prompts instant recognition. You don’t, so you have to first demonstrate that you have done a ton of research into what other organisations are doing in the field that you purport to understand.
This means reading, reading, reading, writing, writing, writing and presenting, presenting, presenting. The upside is that you can become known for being a expert in a specific area of knowledge. The downside is that you become known as an expert in a specific area of knowledge. The external consultant can afford to be a generalist; in two months, she will likely leave your IT transformation project and be working on an HR process improvement effort for another customer. You, on the other hand, have to be specific and play to a finite number of strengths.
Thought leadership comes next. Although it’s another over-used term, it’s a critically important practice to demonstrate not only understanding of the current state of the art in your area of expertise, but what will likely happen next. Positioning yourself as an expert in blockchain? Better understand how it’s going to be implemented in non-financial use cases as well. Are you a trusted advisor in process improvement? Best that you can intelligently discuss process mining in the same breath.
Customer Focus: Not Just Schmoozing
While we might feel chagrin at the external consultant’s apparently easy influence, it’s hard to fault their customer focus. The consultant knows who pays their bills and they act accordingly. So next time you’re thinking that you deserve air-time at a senior level just because you work for the company, think again. It might be time to consider how to build stronger internal relationships with decision makers, to build communications around their preferences for how they want to be informed and to polish that consulting ‘waft’ (thank you @Peter Davis for this term). If you look like a consultant, act like a consultant and speak intelligently like one, then you might go a long way towards being received like one as well.
At the end of the day, getting the same mind share of an external consultant is going to be a very difficult (some might say impossible) proposition. As the cliche’ goes, “no one got fired for hiring McKinsey” and no one is going to stop engaging any of the other big four firms either. Nor should they; they are paying for a breadth of knowledge that is unmatchable by any individual. However we can all go further in having a more influential voice within our own organisations by playing to our strengths and understanding how to treat our own decision makers.