This may seem like a strange article for consultants to write. We may even be committing some industry blasphemy. But we have worked in many organizations, both large and small, and over the last few years, we’ve come to have a deep understanding of exactly what we’re capable of helping create or “fix” when we’re hired. We are typically brought into an organization for a variety of reasons: interpersonal conflict on a team, a team that’s just gone through a major reorganization, a team that is newly forming, a team that is being tasked with a new and strenuous project, or a team that simply desired to have some kind of fun experience together (aka, team building). Essentially we’ve worked with any and all kinds of teams. What we’ve learned is that it doesn’t seem to matter what we’ve been hired for. Whether things are going swimmingly, or whether a team is on the brink of implosion, there are a few factors that help predict how much success an outside consultant will have.
We are often called to consult on projects where the manager is frustrated and uncertain with what to do with his/her team. Conflicts have arisen that feel insurmountable. Or maybe the team simply doesn’t trust one another. Or maybe the manager is new to the team, and everyone is trying to figure out how things are going to go under this new regime. Regardless, many of the manager who call us feel like they need outside support because they are unfamiliar with how to manage the “human” aspect of their teams. This is a brilliant time to use a consultant. Objective outside experience can slice through so much so fast, and giving leadership something to lean on is important.
So, what’s the hang up? Well, as it turns out, quite a bit. we learn quite a lot when we talk to a leader for the first time. Some leaders really want to get their hands dirty alongside us. They want the work we are doing to be a foundation for their group, and they help drive that home by making it front and center in the organization. They focus meetings on it, they find time to have one-on-one’s with their team to see how things are going, and they check in frequently with us. They become part of the process and desire to learn right alongside their teams.
Unfortunately, there are other leaders who simply desire to check a box. Hire professional development for the team? Check. Make sure someone is talking to the team about “softer side things”? Check. Pushing that nasty conflict that is going on between employee A and employee B off my plate and into the consultants lap? Check. All these leaders want to do is write a check and make their problem disappear. This is where the myth of the superhero consultant comes in. High on the decision to hire outside help, many managers abdicate all responsibility for the work they are asking their team to do with said consultants. There will be no team meeting discussions, no checking in, no prioritizing this type of work, and therefore, no tangible results.
Why do we call this the myth of the superhero consultant? Quite simply because it asks the consultant to perform a job that is not actually possible. Get to know my team so I don’t have to. Fix that problem and make sure it doesn’t happen again, but I’m not interested in how you did it or why. Turn my team into a better team, but I won’t be part of the transformation. This is like hiring a therapist and expecting that you will feel emotionally better without having to go to a single appointment. Just the act of shelling out some serious dollars does not a problem solve.
Now, at the risk of making this sound too gloom and doom, I’d like to share that the majority of managers do not fall into the latter category intentionally. In fact, more often than not, the folks that hire us really do want good things for their team. They’re just often overwhelmed and overworked, and transferring this type of thing off their plate feels like a great choice. Just as true is that many managers lack the skill set needed to delve into team dynamics. They are taught how to manage, how to evaluate, and how to mentor. But when dynamics in a group need some serious heavy lifting, they find themselves flailing.
So, what’s the right answer to this? Never hire a consultant again? Of course not. But when hiring a consultant, be aware that you should be prepared to do some pretty serious work on yourself alongside your team. Trust and commitment comes from seeing participation from ALL members of the team, including leadership. Yes, a consultant is a great asset to your team, and yes, they can certainly help with some of the heavy-lifting and take a few things off your plate. But they are not surrogate leaders to your organization, and failing to see that means the you are ensuring the second biggest pitfall of hiring a consultant: when they leave, everything collapses like a house of cards. Don’t let the vitality of your team depend on the length of a consultant’s stay. Get in there, do the work with them, and the chances are good that you will emerge with an amazing team.
Susan McCusker is the co-founder of The Circle Up Experience. She and her partner, Beth Killough, offer people the opportunity to interact with horses in order to learn more about themselves, reclaim natural elements of leadership, and transform their human herds.