As consultants, we dream of meeting clients who really want us to be there. The team will welcome us with open arms, yearning for our sage wisdom to solve their deepest problems. Unfortunately, reality usually looks more like a hostile invasion. Team members reluctantly assist us in executing jobs that they consider of dubious value; or worse, they actively impede our progress under the belief that we are trying to take their jobs. One particularly unpleasant encounter with this behavior forced me to think about its origins in the way that we do business.

My mission involved a quick “advise and consult” for a new client. The CIO asked my company to provide an expert opinion about a new operation plan presented by his team. On the face of it, the plan looked reasonably sound. I told the CIO as much during our first phone conversation. He asked me to come in anyway to clarify a few matters that remained open to discussion.

Breaking with tradition, I contacted the team before my arrival with a number of questions about the plan. Usually, I avoid blind e-mail to people, but the project looked to be in order. The questions were mostly clarification requests, having more to do with inconsistent editing than flawed thinking.

A week later, I arrived for my first meetings with the team. The meetings went rather poorly. However, compared with how the final meeting turned out, the first ones were a marvel of communications. If they did not trust me when I arrived, they liked me even less when I finished. I know (from other sources) that my recommendations and even praise for their work ended up in the circular file.

After giving things a month to cool down, I got up the courage to give the client’s senior network designer a call.

What he said

Since I was no longer in a position to judge him, the senior engineer opened up a bit. It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, my project’s primary goal was to justify the replacement of his organization with an outside, third-party contractor. Worse, I was the third consultant of six that would eventually thunder through the environment. Five consultants failed to find meaningful problems; the sixth reported that the team was extremely uncooperative and probably lacked a strong team leader.

After thanking him for his frankness, I sat down to examine the engagement from a new perspective. Although we often talk about being change agents in our environments, I had not considered exactly what that change might mean and how it could affect the trust that my clients placed in me.

The first issue, and probably the most important, lay in the misdirection from my client at the beginning of the engagement. Rather than assuming that the CIO spoke for the organization, I should have delved deeper. An e-mail to my client counterpart asking for a frank opinion about the assessment would have avoided the situation entirely — or at least, it would have presented me with the opportunity to establish a less judgmental tone early in the engagement.

The second issue, and probably the most embarrassing to me, lay in my initial approach. I knew better than to send a blind e-mail to someone. E-mail, by its nature, exists as a blended oral/written medium that transmits very little information about the sender’s intent. Unfortunately, because it uses the same structures as oral communication, the reader can easily assume intents never dreamed of by the author. In this case, by phrasing the e-mail as a set of questions, I successfully established myself as a judgmental consultant. Once that initial impression settled in, nothing I could do over the week could change it. The client team believed that I was there to judge them. In their minds, that meant that they needed to obscure as much as possible, so that I would not be able to deliver a damning report.

The third issue revolved around the fact that the team and the CIO engaged in a covert conflict. As an agent for the CIO, I was an agent in that conflict whether I wanted to be or not. My traditional, somewhat naive, approach of “I’m here to help” begged the question: Who was I there to help? The CIO? The IT team? In my original approach to the consult, I assumed that I was there to simply judge the success or failure of a specific project. In reality, as an agent of the conflict, I was there to provide ammunition for the CIO. Failing to do so, I failed to win a friend on either side of the conflict.

Finally, I realized that my failure to approach this engagement properly made it difficult for my company to win further support. “Advise and consult” engagements are often loss leaders for a company. We send someone in to wow the client and discover what the client needs. However, by failing to provide the CIO with what he wanted, I failed in my sales mission.

This situation raises a sticky ethical issue: What was my responsibility as a consultant? Or to be more precise, were my responsibilities as a consultant, an agent in the CIO/team conflict, and an employee at odds with one another?

Fast forward

Three months later, another “advise and consult” request came across my desk. Mindful of the lessons of my most recent failed attempt, I called the sales rep. We talked for an hour, and he agreed to set up phone interviews with some of the client team.

After those interviews, it became obvious to me that I was about to walk into the same situation. Because I had not yet (and still have not) resolved the ethical conflict, I asked one of my peers to take the challenge. After I explained the situation to him, he agreed. As with my previous assignment, he found little technically wrong, but he did ferret out some team leadership and project methodology issues that indicated sloppy work.

Striking an ethical balance

Seven years later the fundamental questions raised by my experiences still haunt me. Although I have learned a hundred techniques for gaining trust, there are times when I do not deserve it. How do we reconcile the needs of our clients with those of our customers and with our own need to act as ethically responsible professionals? This is a question that consultants need to consider each time they embark on a new assignment.