Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Effective mentoring in spite of personality differences – the consultant and client context

Posted in consulting, HR and personnel by Timothy Platt on October 13, 2010

Some people are more introverted by nature and some are more extroverted. Some find it easy to speak in public and to publically present and debate ideas and some would find that a very uncomfortable experience and see it as very challenging. Some people prefer to dive into the details and some would rather skim over the highpoints and take more of a big picture approach. When we work on teams and with others we see and deal with people who are in many respects like us but we also work with and have to accommodate people who differ from us as well. And even people we like and find similar to us in some ways may take a very different approach from us at times, and at the level of personality and in interpersonal skills and communications approaches.

I have at least touched on issues related to this a few times in this post, and particularly in discussing teams and working with them. A posting that comes to mind to me in that context is Hiring for Skills, Hiring for Fit – with requirements collisions and alignments and I have cited a particular business several times now as offering resources of real value in building teams with good fit: Four Groups, Ltd.

I want to take a somewhat different approach here, however, than that of how personality and fit affect in-house established teams and their performance, and how that can be managed. A recent experience has gotten me thinking about fit in the context of consultants and clients, and while it is possible for a manager to hire with fit as a selecting criterion, this is not generally possible when working with clients. That said, issues of fit and personality, and of interpersonal skills and approach have the same impact on a consultant/client relationship as they do in any team setting. I will add in this context that consultants do not always come in knowing precisely who they will work with as direct day to day in-house contacts and colleagues – you may find yourself being hired by one person or one committee and then working with a completely different group of stakeholders and in-house personnel. What are some best practices for managing this to keep your consulting assignments on track and productive, and even if potential fit and personality issues do arise?

• Knowledge really is power in this type of situation. Really listen and learn, and from your first pre-hire meeting to find out about the corporate culture. The people who work there, if they fit there at all, have to be able to function in that setting.
• Find out who you will be directly, formally reporting to. Find out who you have to prepare progress reports for and even make formal in-person presentations to on this. I have worked on assignments where I officially reported to one person as my direct supervisor but I actually had to present at meetings as to my progress on the key deliverables to their boss and direct supervisor. My supervisor of record was not even invited to these meetings. And yes, these two people had very different personalities and communications preferences, so this situation turned out to be a potential minefield of miscommunication and related problems.
• Listen, look and think and peel back the layers of the puzzle you are working at as if it were a complex puzzle, which it may be. Then if everything turns out to be simple and straightforward all will go well, but if you face potential complications and problems you will at least be prepared and face them with open eyes.

But the specific complications of my “dual supervision” example set aside, be prepared to understand and to accommodate the needs, requirements and preferences of the people you work with. And take a 360 degree approach to this, looking for ways to at least sufficiently meet the communications and other business needs of peer level colleagues, supervisors, and stakeholder clients, one and all.

• No one is or can be perfect at this. Perfection is an illusion and a constantly shifting target. I write here of a best fit juggling act and a dynamic process where you will have to prioritize whose needs you focus on and when, and for which of those needs.
• When fit per se cannot be a set goal, everything rests on performance and on achieving benchmarks and target goals.
• But a bad fit with communications barriers can prevent any goals-directed success from even being possible.

I offer this posting as a thought piece and without any neat or tidy formulaic solutions. This is more about understanding where some important problems (and opportunities) can come from. Fit is important fro consultants too and even if you are only going to be there to accomplish some specific time limited objective.

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