Whenever you take on an engagement, you inevitably enter into the social group that is your client’s organization — at least to some degree. The various players within that organization often hold conflicting priorities that can influence your work and your reputation. It’s important to identify those factions where possible and decide how to handle them.

Rule of thumb: stick with the one who signs your check. If that person is some uninvolved executive, then go with the person who approves your contract and your hours. Naturally, you want to try to resolve differences where possible, but when push comes to shove and you have to take sides, your loyalty belongs with the one who controls whether you remain engaged.

However, one person does not always constitute a consistent political unit. In a perfect world, the person to whom you report should only have one overarching goal: the success of the project on which you are working. Unfortunately, that is almost never goal #1.

Let’s be realistic: The primary goal for anyone in this industry is to improve their own career — whether for money, reputation, or both. You can rely on their support for your project exactly to the degree that the success of the project appears to them to align with their own personal success and no more. Ideally, that alignment is 100%, but in the real world, their reasons for bringing you in may have little or nothing to do with the success of the project or even the company.

You may have been hired to do one or more of the following tasks:

  • CYA. The ‘Y’ stands for the person who wanted to bring in a consultant to take the blame for anything that goes south afterwards. If they trust you, they’re relieved of some (but not all) of the responsibility for the decisions. Be careful not to hand down recommendations as if they were divine oracles. Lose your ego, provide multiple alternatives with pros and cons for them to consider, and leave the final decisions in their hands.
  • Enhance their authority. “We’ve engaged a top-notch consultant, so you (employees, shareholders, customers) should trust our plans.” Make sure your client knows the unknowns and risks associated with each possible course of action, so they don’t go out on a limb that suddenly breaks.
  • Use up their budget, so it doesn’t get cut. This often happens with government agencies, but it can also occur in large corporations. This engagement often leads to busywork, but you can turn it around by identifying something that they really should do.
  • Prove their opponents wrong. “The consultant says we’re on the right track.” Better make sure that’s the case before saying so.
  • Provide an excuse to fire someone. They want you to do something better and faster than Joe, so they can say, “Why do we need Joe?” Expect major resistance from Joe’s direction.
  • Work a miracle. The project has crash landed, and they want you to fly in, sprinkle it with pixie dust, and get it off the ground again. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
  • Take the fall for a project that has already failed, but nobody knows it yet. Everyone involved is to blame to some degree, but they need a scapegoat. Welcome our 1099-MISC friend. The more grand ideas you have for saving the project, the more reasons you give them for why you were the problem.

When I was an inexperienced consultant, I’d often walk into these situations completely oblivious to the competing motives and how they would affect my ability to succeed. Provided you know what’s going on, you can decide whether you want to play their game and, if so, to what degree. Even if you end up getting blamed in the end, it can still be a lucrative engagement.

I still have a hard time keeping my mouth shut and playing along — I prefer being as honest as possible with all parties involved. That approach doesn’t always further the political aims of the person I’m supposed to be working for, but I let the Chips fall where they may.

How about you? To what degree do you go along with the ulterior motives of your engagement?

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