Nov 212014

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II


Prior articles in the series:

Of Course … The Tragic Mistake – Part One: Diagnosis


Towards the end of my session with the CEO, she asked me to propose an engagement focused on fixing the problems which we had been discussing. “Help me drive the ‘of course’ beast off the field,” was the way she put it. Such requests should not be approached, let alone complied with, lightly. From the first in this series you will remember that it was the CEO herself who was the major facilitator of the difficulties – it was her tendencies that were at the root of the problems. Her plea was far more personal than those that might underlie a typical consulting engagement.

Who is the client?

Many consultants rush into these situation – often to their own peril. The key question is who is the initial client and what work has to be accomplished before moving on the the issues under discussion? The response to this can be simple minded and self-serving. Here are two variations that I encounter regularly:

  • The individual is the client no matter who pays – the engagement is focused on an individual and that makes them the client – the interests of the individual trump those of the company – the engagement will generate information that should properly be hidden from the company
  • The company is the client no matter who pays – the individual works for the company and has a special relationship with it – that relationship obligates the employee to always act in the best interest of the company- the engagement will generate information that should properly be hidden from the individual

A third attempt to thread the needle:

  • The client is the one who pays – the engagement is focused on the payer and that makes them the client – the interests of that entity trumps those of the other – the engagement will generate information that should properly be hidden from the other

Setting the terms

A more professional approach begins with a careful and detailed negotiation of an engagement agreement. The details of such an agreement will define who the client is, what work is to be done, how information generated as a result of this work will be shared and who will pay. In the current situation, the definition of the work to be done was initially focused on the CEO. It was clear that, until she changed some of her enabling behaviors, progress in changing the culture in the company was going to be very difficult. I made this point during a follow-on session the next morning. The first stage of the engagement had to be coaching and she had to be the client. Over the next hour we reached agreement on the terms of that engagement.

  • She was to be the client and would pay out of her own pocket. (The logic here was that it was unfair to have the company pay for correcting a problem that she had caused.)
  • We would work off-site but key members of her team would be informed of the focus and progress of our work. (Members of her team would be aware of the work and could support our efforts. This did create some hesitation on her part – ego and self-image can be difficult to manage under such circumstances – reflexive assumptions of omnipotence and omniscience can create challenging responses.)
  • Once the coaching engagement was complete, we would shift to an advisory engagement under which the company was the client. (This required us to negotiate clearly stated objectives and performance metrics. We would only morph the engagement when they had been clearly met.)

Once the CEO and I reached an agreement, we shared the terms and conditions with her senior team. As you might expect, managing that meeting was a major challenge. I was reminded of a sweatshirt that a scientist friend of mine is fond of wearing. On the front it says:

Reversals are Coming

On the Back:

Gnimoc era Slasrever

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