Two Sides of the Same Fence: Consultant Becomes Client

The “Choose Your Own Adventure” series is a well-known set of children’s books, with a simple idea—you, as the reader, become the main character in each book.

Every few pages, the reader is given a choice about how to proceed. What happens next in the story depends on the choices the reader makes—choose one road and you run into a hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex; choose the other and find yourself aboard an alien spaceship.

While I’ve never actually faced a T-Rex or been lured aboard an alien spaceship, I have been lucky enough to “choose my own adventure” several times in my career—going from corporate manager to consultant and back again.

Although the view is a bit different depending on which side of the fence you’re on, it is surprising just how similar the jobs can be when you’ve seen both sides.

Corporate managers and consultants aren’t as different as you might think—beagles and dachshunds, not cats and dogs. For example, they both must:

  • Please their boss
  • Work within a fixed budget
  • Juggle competing deadlines
  • Protect their company’s profitability
  • Take pride in their work

Time spent looking at my work from both sides has greatly shaped my thinking and what I believe to be important keys to understanding one another’s roles.

Consultants: Make sure you understand the chain of command. Just as you work hard to satisfy your corporate managers, don’t forget that they must also satisfy their internal customers.

Early in the project, talk to your corporate manager openly about their corporate hierarchy and any challenges her or she faces. You are there to help them succeed. Always be prepared for last minute changes, delayed approvals or even a complete change of direction midway through. Accept this going in and be happier for it.

Consultants: Corporate cultures can be mysterious, but they can’t be ignored. If your corporate manager isn’t on board with your brilliant idea don’t take it personally. It might not be a fit. Frequently, the two of you can work together to map out an alternative that will still yield the desired results.

Managers: Be realistic with deadlines. I loved being treated as if I were my consultant’s only client, but I knew it wasn’t a monogamous relationship. My work had to be slotted in along with other projects for other clients.

Realistic project timelines keep everyone on the same page. They won’t solve every last minute emergency, but will limit the fallout. If you absolutely need something the next day, tell your consultant—a good one will move heaven and earth to meet the deadline. If you really could wait two days, give them the two days. Ask your consultants what works best for them—they’ll appreciate it.

Managers: Staying connected is not a sales pitch. A good consultant tracks what’s on the horizon and what might solve some of your company’s concerns. They also have knowledge about what other companies are doing. When your consultant calls to check in, talk to you about your needs and share how he can help, listen.

Consultants: Be attuned to your client’s personal style. Some clients enjoy frequent meetings in person, while others prefer a phone call or email. Staying in touch includes respecting your client’s communication preferences.

Everyone: Budgets are real. If you ask consultants what they hate most, I bet it would be talking to clients about money; they would much prefer to leave the accounting side to someone else. Consultant: Your job is to understand the limits of a budget and help a client maximize the impact of their company spend. Managers: Talk to your consultant openly about what you need to accomplish and what you can afford to spend. If you work together, you can usually find common ground that provides you with the services you need, while staying within your budget.

Bottom Line: The best manager/consultant relationship is like a great marriage—partners working together for mutual success. Good relationships run on honesty, trust, and managing disagreements with respect. Feel comfortable enough with one another to openly discuss what’s going well and what isn’t. Remember that no matter what side of the fence you’re looking over, you’re working together so that both sides can be successful.

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