There are countless recommendations intended to arm consultants with tools that will help them serve their customers more effectively. One that I return to often is the practice of detaching myself from the customs, politics, and attitudes that exist within the environments (be them virtual or physical) where I spend my working time. As a simple abstraction, I refer to the balance this encourages me to strike as walking the line between adaptation and assimilation.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines adaptation as “Change in behavior of a person or group in response to new or modified surroundings.” Likewise, it offers the following definition for assimilation: “The process whereby a minority group gradually adopts the customs and attitudes of the prevailing culture.” In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll attempt to support the assertion that it’s better for consultants to adapt than assimilate when working for long periods of time within their client’s organization.
Operating as a guest within our clients’ businesses gives us certain privileges and opportunities not available to our counterparts who are directly employed with these companies. First, we bring an outside perspective and, in doing so, help to shine a light on assumptions that have may not be valid. Our “newness” keeps us on the periphery of company cultural norms allowing us to see their inner workings with a beginner’s mind. Often, we see and take note of practices and behaviors that direct employees no longer notice. These observations, while simple and even trivial in some cases, helps our clients recognize blind spots that have developed over time.
Many roles I have played for clients have fallen outside the more formal structures in place at many large companies. As result, I have been free from the constraints that prevent full-time employees from mingling more regularly with stakeholders and subject matter experts from different departments within the company. It has been my experience that cross-functional and interdepartmental collaboration foster innovation and creativity that can be stymied by the cultural norms that take root over time. Extending lines of communication between groups is a useful by-product of being an outsider.
As service providers, it is in our job description to do the things no one else wants to do. Without pressure to position ourselves according to a corporate hierarchy that might, however subtly, discourage employees from taking on tasks that are “beneath their station”, we are free to contribute in many ways. Again, we are leveraging a beginner’s mind to learn, establish connections between groups, and get things done all in the service of generating results for our clients.
No Simple Trick
The desire (self-preservation instinct, really) to fit in leads consultants to take on the attitudes and worldviews that underlie the customs that thrive within the environments where they operate. It is natural for cultural norms to emerge and thrive within closed systems. Over time, outsiders tend to assimilate, taking on the behaviors, attitudes, and biases of the group while unwittingly suppressing the perspectives they carried with them on day one. It is important for consultants who seek to remain beyond reproach in the eyes of their clients to understand this tendency and guard against it. The following are examples of behaviors that tend to be more assimilative and, over time, blunt the sharpness of a consultant’s outsider perspective.
- “Falling in with the locals” during a gripe session about another team within the company. This one is particularly tricky because being part of a team demands socialization and getting along.
- Becoming lazy with certain formal techniques. For example, practicing good facilitation techniques can start to wane in organizations that are less disciplined with their approach to meetings. It is easy to develop less than favorable habits.
- Developing a sense of being part of the “in group” can lead consultants to over-extend by taking on responsibilities that are, by design, outside of their mandate and realm of expertise (e.g. the PM with a technical background attempting to design systems). When taking on additional responsibility, make sure you are not stealing someone else’s thunder or otherwise taking a plum task from an FTE.
- The insights consultants gain working cross-functionally put us in a position to see outcomes before others have connected the dots. Communicating decisions without having first conferred with your sponsor is a hazard. Speaking for or otherwise making decisions without authority can harm a professional reputation.
- One upping FTEs.
- Be careful to recognize when and where to accept cordials. For example, I have worked at companies that provided breakfast for staff on Fridays and fresh fruit on Mondays. Best to bring your own goodies and leave the freebies to the FTEs.
Stating it in the Positive
There are just as many ways to adapt to an environment. Here are a few that illustrate how to trend towards being more adaptive.
- Study the rules of the role you are playing and learn them well. Balance this with an understanding of when they apply and when you need to relax. Likewise, know your audience; that is, be smart with how you observe or otherwise relax your approach to corporate standards given the people with whom you are working. Not all groups in the organization have the same approach/norms so be sure you know who you are dealing with before stepping into the fray.
- Let the company employees have the credit. Your reward follows the glowing review your client delivers to your account manager.
- Becoming too familiar and looking like you are trying to fit in can be a hazard. Be firm, frank, and friendly in your dealings with a client and always maintain your professionalism.
- Keep the creature comforts to a minimum and do not get too comfortable with the surroundings. A good rule of thumb is to think of your bag as your office. That is, keep whatever it is you need to do your job in your bag. Outside of a coffee cup and water bottle, leave the desk décor at home. In the post-COVID world, this seems obvious.
- Use their email instead of your company’s. This may seem a little inside out, but it applies. The trick is to reduce friction as much as possible. Demanding, however subtly, that your client treat you as an individual creates friction and is not adaptive.
- Carry a backpack or messenger bag that is branded with you company’s logo. It is a good reminder that your client views you as part of your organization.
- Compare notes early and often with other consultants from your home organization.
Respect the culture and the norms; only break with convention when you have been given permission to do so. Do not be that block head that schedules lunch time meetings in an organization that honors the traditional lunch hour.
- Schedule emails to deliver during business hours (guard your boundaries and demonstrate to your client that you respect theirs).
- Heroes win awards, teams win championships. In most cases, when arriving onsite, there is someone from your company who has been there for a while and can help you get acclimated to the new environment. If there are other consultants from your team working for the same client you have a tremendous opportunity to learn about the client’s dos and don’ts as well as the expectations of the particular group to which you’ve been assigned.
- When to take time off can be a difficult question to answer. A good rule of thumb is to learn early on when your client and his or her team take time off during the year and schedule your breaks accordingly. Being out when they are out ensures that your absence will not impact them.
- Understand expectations for when you need to be available throughout the day.
Paying attention to your own behavior, questioning your assumptions, reflecting on gut reactions, and identifying where they are coming from takes practice, patience, and persistence. In an environment where being fast on one’s feet is seen as a virtue, sitting back, and taking your time with responses and decisions seems anathema to the mission, but it is a worthwhile approach. Exercising restraint when you would rather embrace the exuberance of being with the in-group helps build a consultant’s longevity. In a manner of speaking, seek to be the tortoise not the hare.