Speaking Truth to Power: What to Look for When You Hire a Consultant

By Gary Hinkle

Ever watched one of those reality TV shows where expert chefs go to struggling restaurants and tell them everything they need to fix?

Robert Irvine and Gordon Ramsey are celebrity chefs and restaurant consultants, both of whom dive directly into the problems and tell the owners straight up what’s wrong.

In Restaurant: Impossible, Irvine meets with the owners, listens to them, and then quickly assesses the food, service, decor, cleanliness, and financial state. He doesn’t hesitate to get tough with the owners and staff, showing them clearly what he’s found, no matter how grim. Like many of us, the owners often resist the changes he insists on, but Irvine uses a tough-guy approach to help these stakeholders face the truth and change their attitude.

Chef Ramsey has a similar approach in his series, Kitchen Nightmares. His style is more brutal than Irvine’s, often including some over-the-top shouting and swearing. The owners usually don’t want to face what he’s telling them, and they immediately doubt that chef Ramsey is the right person to help them. That’s because the truth hurts. The owners and managers then reject the advice they’re getting because their egos can’t take it.

Of course, both of these shows hype the drama to improve the entertainment. But the reality of these struggling businesses rings true. Without direct and experienced help from consultants, these restaurants would fail.

Good Consulting Practices

The methods these consultants use to turn things around quickly are the same that good consultants use in every industry: they assess, they speak the truth, and they work diligently to put the truth about what needs to change into the heads and hands of the owners and team members. They lay out the changes needed, and they help make them happen.

Although restaurants and engineering share a few of the same issues, I’d venture to say that the management challenges of running an engineering organization are more varied and complex. That’s why, when we engage as consultants, we use an assessment tool that looks at 38 common issues in product development organizations. We find there’s often room for improvement in all areas. With a fresh perspective, making changes is a straightforward proposition for most improvements, but there are a few that aren’t straightforward.

Here are five big problems that are hard to fix:

Attitude. When someone has a bad attitude it can be impossible to change it. Even the most influential leaders can’t influence people who shut them out completely.

Resistance to change. It’s human nature to resist change. Few of us embrace change, even if we say we do.

Risk aversion. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the comfort of safety. The problem is that the safe route might lead us directly away from opportunity.

Ego. As educated professionals we take pride in our knowledge and competence, but we have to know what we don’t know—and admit we don’t know!—before we can make improvements.

Trust. Team development expert Patrick Lencioni says the absence of trust is the number one obstacle to good team performance. Credibility and intimacy are the ingredients for building a high level of trust. We focus on credibility and shy away from intimacy because it sounds too “touchy-feely” and not like something we should have at work.

The examples from reality TV touched on a few of these. Notice that these issues don’t seem to have anything to do with what we call “engineering competencies.” In fact, that label is part of the problem. Business needs to focus more on human behavior, not the quick fixes that “skills” and “competencies” imply, or they’ll be stuck with these problems forever.

Consultant “Acid Test”

When you look for a management consultant, what should you look for?

  • Expertise. Of course. You don’t want someone who doesn’t have extensive knowledge about your business challenges.
  • An approach that’s different, not something you’ve already tried. You want a fresh perspective, and a proven track record.
  • A promise to get in and out fast. A consultant’s objective should always be to finish the job and terminate the engagement as quickly as possible, which makes his perspective very different from an employee’s. Rapid termination is never an employee’s objective!
  • Someone who can speak the truth to management. Sometimes clients terminate consultants prematurely because they don’t like hearing the truth. The consultant you hire can’t be afraid of that prospect.
  • Someone who can lead change–with teams, individuals (even the most difficult ones), and also at the process level.

Anything less, and you’ve got the wrong person.



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