How to settle family spats when you are not part of the family

Consultants sometimes need to assert leadership without undermining a client manager. These soft-skill tips can help keep meetings and the client relationship on the right track.

Consultants, particularly veteran consultants, occasionally find themselves confronted with irrational resistance from in-house team members to even simple suggestions or requests. By saying irrational, I'm casting a big net to include any variety of misplaced or belligerent responses, ranging from:

  • "Well, that's the way we've always done it and it's been fine so far," to
  • "I don't see how that's my responsibility," to
  • "I don't remember seeing that in the spec," even though it's in about 20 sections of the spec and that table being projected right there on the conference room big screen.

If I was writing an advice column for managers, the action steps for dealing with this kind of friction would be pretty clear-cut. Not simple, per se -- managing people never is, no matter what you are trying to get done. But at least when you are manager, reporting relationships and power dynamics are fairly clear-cut.

As a consultant, you can find yourself as the most veteran person in the room, but with no anchor in the team or corporate structure on which to base the occasional "Hey, that's enough of that." And although nobody wants to be the heavy, that kind of assertiveness is occasionally needed to keep a status meeting or RFP review from going hopelessly down a rat hole or reverting to a chest-thumping match.

You'd hope your immediate contact in the company -- who we're going to assume is a manager of some ilk -- is setting the right tone for your engagement so that personal or company politics are kept in check. Then again, you can hope that you'll get the winning lottery numbers for Christmas this year. Sometimes, it's the manager who didn't read the spec, so you can forget getting any backup in a meeting.

The catch is, you can't assert yourself too much in such circumstances, because you'll undermine the authority of the manager who's ultimately in charge of not only the project, but your contract as well. Obviously, you can't just blurt out to a product VP "Read the spec, dummy." By taking a corrective tone with a staffer, you are running a far more nuanced risk -- you may well be overstepping the bounds of your consulting engagement. You're never going to build enough cache with a client to "laterally manage," even when it is desperately needed.

So, how do you assert yourself when a client business manager is not providing the needed leadership? Here are tricks I have cultivated over the years that I find helpful.

Play stupid. Thank you, Dostoyevsky and Columbo, for giving us the gift of self-deprecating rhetorical questioning. When someone gets cranky or defensive about some misstatement or oversight on their own part, back off a little. Don't pounce. Simply ask a few questions that will re-establish the clear facts and lead them to self-correct. The trick here is to act like you are genuinely unclear about this obvious stuff, and that the "correction" is group problem-solving. And, unfortunately, you can't indulge in a parting shot, a la Columbo -- the goal is to diffuse tension. This tactic assumes the staffer is just being cranky and not downright belligerent -- that's a whole other cup of soup. Bring the manager directly into the line of fire. This is a something of an escalation of the previous tactic. If a staffer just digs in his heels and says, "No, the sky is actually green," turn to a manager who is present and ask, "Guy-who-signs-my-invoices, I thought I recalled us discussing the obvious fact that the sky is blue just last week?" Again, ask the question as though you really need clarification; not as though you are running to Dad to settle a spat (even though that's kind of what you are doing). Managers are sometimes willing to be silent, but they are seldom willing to actively defer leadership when they are asked to step up. Resort to good old email. If there's just no way to sweet talk your way past a sticking point in a meeting, you may need to resort to saying that you'll research the question further and circulate an email to the team with your findings. Pulling this trick out of the bag is a tough call -- you certainly don't want to make yourself look uniformed or unprepared just to diffuse a little tension. Say something like, "Let's not let this question derail our meeting; I'll check the spec and send out the confirmation or correction, if need be, immediately afterward." And be sure to do it immediately.

Any tips about "soft skills" are contingent on your own personal style. You just can't weird out and start acting like a completely different person. But, if you can work these tactics into your response to the leadership vacuum you stumble into, you'll be able to mitigate your short-term issue and not damage your client (aka, revenue) relationship.

By Ken Hardin

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...