Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Consultant and mentor – bridging the contradiction

Posted in book recommendations, consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on March 28, 2010

I have been actively maintaining this blog since last September and this posting will be my 220th added to it. This is also just my 4th posting written with the specific intent of listing it under my category Consulting. There is probably an irony in that, or perhaps dereliction would be a better word as I keep going back to consulting and the consultant mind set and approach in so many of my postings, and I have spent a significant amount of my career working as a consultant. But most of the time I cite consulting in this blog, or the approaches and methods consultants use with a focus on something else. This time I want to write about consulting as the primary topic, so this one is going in as number four in that category. And I want to start with what looks at first to be a basic, fundamental contradiction in both goals and perspective.

A consultant is a problem solver. Businesses bring in consultants to manage and resolve problems they cannot cost effectively resolve in-house. This can be because it would not be cost-effective to bring the requisite skills in full time. It can be because solving the problem would require cutting across the table of organization with its silo walls in ways that would be prohibitively expensive from an organizational perspective. It can be for any of a number of reasons, and generally for a combination of several, but at least at the point of hire, consultants are brought in to solve limiting problems in a time limited manner. In simple and stereotypical terms consultants apply Band Aids and then move on to the next assignment somewhere else.
A mentor is a context resolver. Mentoring is a longer term, more open ended proposition in which a more experienced colleague helps provide perspective and feedback, insight and evaluation for one or more generally younger colleagues who seek to advance in their skills and in their job position levels. Mentoring can and usually does mean focusing on very specific issues and in fact often includes bringing these issues into clearer focus for the people being mentored, but mentoring per se is not generally a matter of identifying and resolving just one of these issues. As problems and opportunities are identified and dealt with new ones arise and jobs proceed into the longer term of careers. True mentoring is career oriented.

I understand and acknowledge the fundamental distinctions in this and from the validation of my experience in both roles but at the same time I keep coming back in my thinking to a fundamental truth that I keep running into as a consultant. Clients more often than not bring in a consultant because they have reached and surpassed a threshold of willingness to simply let some problem continue unaddressed and they see it worth the extra costs and complications of bringing in new people who do not know their systems or corporate cultures from the inside. But what they are really looking at are most often simply one or more symptoms and not the underlying problem or problems that cause them.

I recently completed an assignment that could in a way be viewed as a poster child example of this and wrote about it in this blog with Business Continuity as a Component of Core Process. In this case I walked into an assignment with an agreed goal of helping to get a lot of essential reports completed and ready for printing for the next week. And when I arrived a number of other issues showed up when I tried logging into the computer that was assigned to me for this, and it was discovered that all of these issues were symptoms of a single underlying problem – not in their software or hardware but of a more personnel and risk management remediation nature. I ended up switching focus to help them deal with that, at their request.

Sometimes the only thing a consultant can do is to deal with symptoms. The underlying problem may be big enough and complex enough so any response to root causes may be too expensive in any meaningful time frame and immediate budget available right now. So the consultant applies Band Aides to the symptom points where these problems are currently bleeding to those threshold levels of severity, and with prospects of coming back to do this again. And possibly many times.

Sometimes even if a problem is potentially resolvable for scale, it may still not be possible to do so and even for an outsider who will leave at the end of the assignment – because of organizational structure and culture and those silo walls and the turf ownership that goes with them.

Often, however, it is the consultant who comes in with a fresh set of eyes, and the opportunity to look through the silo walls who really sees the underlying problem. And this is where the potential benefits and mine fields of mentoring come in.

• Should the consultant simply work on the symptoms and leave it at that?
• Should the consultant also reach out to advise their client on the nature of the underlying problem as a source of the symptoms being worked on?
• If they do should this be in the context of this assignment or in offering further assistance in a future assignment?
• What information should the consultant share in this pitch as to what the underlying problem is? As a general approach I will simply add that whatever is said here should be directed towards most efficiently and cost-effectively solving the underlying problem and in a way that would work for this client.

The issues that I write of here can and do come up and there are no simple one size fits all answers to any of them. I will simply add that the core issue I raise here happens. So when should a consultant simply solve the immediate “problem” as presented and when should they in effect mentor to help the client towards resolving the underlying problem as well?

I will finish this posting by connecting it to one of the many other postings in which I have cited the consulting perspective as a tool and a useful perspective – in a job search. When I wrote of taking a consultant’s perspective in searching for a next job I wrote of the value of presenting yourself as a problem solver who will focus on the employer’s problems and priorities. I wrote of the importance of approaching this prospective job and the problems and issues that bring the business to hire as they see them from their side of the table. In a fundamental sense, this posting highlights a balancing act that a job candidate has to manage in doing this, as much as a balancing act a professional consultant faces.

• As a job candidate you want to focus on the issues and problems that the hiring manager sees as sufficiently crucial that they would go through the hiring process to resolve them.
• At the same time you need to set yourself apart from the competition for this job by demonstrating that you can offer more than they do, that would also strongly connect into and support meeting the hiring manager’s needs.
• But you have to do this in the context of fitting into the corporate culture and being an effective team player. And you do not automatically know if there are underlying problems that can only be addressed at the symptom level, at least in the foreseeable future.
• So you want to be circumspect and focus on the levels of the problem – the problem itself or symptoms that the hiring manager needs to focus on now, at least during the hiring process. Then explore the feasibility of digging deeper after you are hired and as part of your first 90 days campaign.

And with that I add a book recommendation, that I suggest would be of help to any new hire as they create a position and opportunity for advancement in a new job:

• Watkins, M. (2003) The First 90 Days: critical success strategies for new leaders at all levels. Harvard Business School Press.

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