Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Consulting assignment life cycle 10: corporate cultures and norms of behavior and expectation

Posted in consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on May 6, 2012

This is my tenth installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-233 for parts 1-9.) I turn in this posting to consider a set of issues that can become a minefield for the unwary: the issues and complexities of navigating a client’s corporate culture. And I begin this by repeating a point I have made several and even many times in the course of this blog. A corporate culture is a set of behavioral norms, conventions, assumptions and expectations that everyone working at a business or organization comes to take for granted while there, and that are usually never even thought about let alone challenged. A corporate culture, in this respect can be much like the water that a fish swims in – effectively invisible and taken for granted.

• Corporate culture has its overtly visible details, and I include issues such as dress code in that. H. Ross Perot is famously known for running companies in which a strictly formal dress code was an absolute requirement for employment, and many if not most web company startups tend towards an informal dress code where anything in the way of a coat and tie, let alone a suit would call attention.
• For mission-driven nonprofits with socially and societally benefiting goals, a particular attitude and approach toward offering community value as overriding personal advantage, can be a core part of the culture. Though even there, competition for advancement opportunities and other sources of individual recognition and gain can be very intense. It is just that the corporate culture and the mind sent that engenders it shapes this into there-acceptable channels.

Short term assignment consultants need to know and observe the more superficial sides and details of the corporate culture they are working within, while with a client. So if you are consulting for a three-piece-suit company you don’t show up in shorts and an old tee-shirt if you want to be able to work effectively and get your assignment completed and your work there accepted. A suit and tie approach, by contract would be seen as off-putting and even a bit alienating at a casual-only online startup.

Longer term assignments mean deeper and more widespread participation in the client business and its community, so awareness of and capacity to work within the constraints of its culture can become more important – and certainly where your work as a consultant brings you significant visibility there.

Think of this as being a matter of speaking the same nuanced language and dialect as the people you are working and communicating with – and with as few mismatched assumptions as possible there to cause breaks in process and efficiency. And I add this is one of the reasons why many consultants develop practices that focus on specific industries or markets, or for working with organizations following specific types of business model: nonprofit, not for profit or highly competitively for profit, for example.

Personally, I enjoy cultural differences and the challenge of diversity in views, opinions and underlying assumed approaches. But whatever you would look for in potential clients, as a consultant you have to look out for potential sources of disconnect and misunderstanding, and the ones that arise from differences in what is simply assumed can be the most difficult to anticipate, unravel and correct.

And meshing with the people you work with on the level of accommodating their cultural assumptions can be crucial to bringing them to accept your ideas and the solutions you would develop for the problems that led to the consulting assignment you were hired for. Showing that you really listen and understand them and their basic assumptions as to value, priority and importance can be key to bringing your clients to accept change and cost where that would be needed to successfully complete the assignment.

I am going to turn to the issues of underlying problems and working to correct symptoms in my next installment series. And as a foretaste of that I note that consultants are often hired with the immediate purpose of patching and fixing symptoms, just to find when they get started, that they are just symptoms to more far-reaching underlying problems. Then some important discussions begin on what you should do and with what priorities, and on whether to complete this assignment as started as a stop-gap fix, renegotiate the consulting agreement or what. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

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