Erratic hours and tunnel vision can turn you into a rogue consultant

Though it's tempting to be a one-person show, consultants must resist the temptation to alienate themselves from team members. The consequences can be more significant than you might expect.

In my career as a consultant, I've been both the rogue consultant and worked with other rogues. We've all encountered them: the brilliant consultant who wears ratty clothing, keeps unpredictable hours, and pontificates on all subjects. Sometimes we can do something about this individual. Other times, we have to somehow mitigate this person's disruptive behavior while still harnessing whatever tools they bring to the table. My experiences on both sides of this particular issue forced me to think about it not just in terms of its annoyance factor, but as a result of a system of behaviors and expectations that can be managed and controlled.

My first brush with being a rogue consultant started innocently enough. I was working as a senior engineer for a large firm, helping a client with a very complex workflow and database infrastructure implementation. My work kept me up until all hours of the night, hammering at series of code and infrastructure problems. My erratic schedule started as a result of answering problems, but eventually just became "how I worked."

With this erratic schedule came an increasing level of friction with my own company. As I spent more time working on the esoteric aspects of my client's business, I saw my own company as an intruder. Its presence interfered with the development of my client's IT team on a number of levels. Eventually, I decided that my company's need to derive profits from the engagement put it in a fundamental conflict of interest with my client's need to get the project done cheaply.

My opinion of my clients also began to degrade. The more intertwined I became with their processes and systems, the more I began to realize what was "wrong" with the company. I began to intervene in areas far outside of my scope of work, even going so far as to simplify the existing router configurations one night without permission. For the most part, my work did in fact improve things, but that really just made the situation worse.

Eventually, I wandered off the project. I missed the end of a project meeting because I overslept after a night of beating the Thailand mail servers into submission. A week later, my end-of-project reviews (peer, manager, and client) floored me.

I scored 3 out of 10 on my professionalism, presentation, and client satisfaction. In the narrative section, my project manager called me "unmanageable and difficult, although highly productive."

How did I go rogue?
Those results forced me to reassess what I was doing. I knew my work was good. I knew that I contributed a huge amount to the overall success of the project. How did I go so wrong?

I also felt a bit betrayed by my client. The months I spent in his data center were the most exhausting in my life. I gave everything I had, and then some. How could they not recognize my contribution with endless praise?

Once my ego expressed its displeasure, I sat down and performed a qualitative analysis on the data in front of me. I also called several of my coworkers (both company and client) to gather more information. Eventually a pattern emerged.

I keyed in on a variety of active traits from my own behavior that led others to call me a rogue:
  1. I stopped engaging in regular professional communication with my colleagues. I did give them status updates and work-related communications, but I didn’t engage in regular conversation or in the commentary that usually flowed through the team. This led my fellow team members to believe I was withdrawn and somewhat insolent. My work schedule didn't help; working when everyone else slept cut me off from the informal communications that tied the team together. This isolation also allowed me to undervalue my fellow employees' skills.
  2. As my schedule drifted, I started to allow my professional appearance to degrade. It never got to the point where I wore jeans into the office, but my levels of ironing and the quality of my clothes started to slide. Walking in looking like a bed that hasn't been made in three days doesn't project an image of professional competence to the team or the client.
  3. I allowed myself to appear harried, exhausted, and frustrated in meetings. Although honest communication is good and emotions are part of that, negative and self-serving emotions fail to produce a positive response. Saying you're exhausted and laying out a plan is one thing. Complaining about being exhausted because of all of the work you have to complete because no one else can do it is another.

At the time, all of these behaviors seemed natural. I thought I was too busy to communicate. My work required me to work a different schedule, and I didn't think that anyone would care what I wore. And I was tired—tired to the bone from working like a dog.

But being a rogue consultant had nothing to do with what I did or felt. It had to do with how others, including my client, perceived my actions. I could produce as much and at as high a quality as I liked, but unless I obeyed the norms and worked within the team structure, my contributions would always be limited to specialized technical issues.

The other side of the coin
A few years later, I was working as a project manager for a team on a modest network survey/redesign project. My senior engineer started to meander into work later and later, stopped talking to anyone else, and began to express his frustration with the amount of work he had to do with the team.

Now, I knew that he needed to come in late, but I also knew that he wasn't the only one overloaded. In fact, reviewing the work distribution, I saw that everyone was working at about the same pace. Although his tasks were particularly specialized, at least two other team members could handle them. I gave him the entire set because I had thought during the initial planning that keeping them together was more efficient.

I realized that I had laid a trap for my engineer. He was starting to drift further away from the team, heading down the same rogue path I had walked years ago. Although I knew that I could do nothing about the psychological aspects of that transformation, I could do something about the workload situation that might help. I divided the late night workload among all of the team members. The two members who could do the work received the active rolls. The other three worked on a rotating QA assignment, checking over the work to ensure completeness based on the procedural documentation. This brought my would-be rogue into closer contact with the rest of the team and gave the juniors valuable experience. The closer contact helped, although I eventually did have to talk to him about his behavior.

My personal experience with "going rogue" helped me to understand the social as well as the work aspects of the situation. I still keep those old performance reviews and the analysis, to remind me of the basic truths of being a rogue.

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