Oct 202014

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Some years back I read an article in the Harvard Business Review. The focus of the article was on the important question “who is the client”. The core argument was based on the principal that it is difficult for an adviser to serve two masters particularly if the agendas of those masters diverge.

The example that the authors focused on was the difficulties which arise when advising a company on strategic issues and it becomes clear that one or more of the senior management team are causing problems. The tendency in such engagements is to try to work with the individuals through coaching while maintaining that advisory relationship with the company. The authors argued that, most often, this is done in order to either maintain control over the engagement or generate additional revenues from it. They suggested that such an approach could significantly reduce the chances of the original engagement being successful.

In addition to building my own companies, I had accepted a number of advisory engagements. My intent was to help others accomplish what I had. The article could not have come at a better time. I was struggling with one engagement that seemed to be right out of the article’s story line. A company, through its board of directors, had approached me to do an assessment. Part way through that process I came to realize that the CEO was a major problem. His management style was limiting the possibilities for the team and company. I decided to work with that individual on a one-on-one basis to help him change his behavior. That was a serious mistake. I ended up wishing that I had read the article several months earlier.

The problem came when the answer to the question ‘who is the client’ became blurred. You can forget all the intellectual gymnastics that seem to simply resolve this conflict. I have tired them all. It is facile to say ‘the company is still the client’ but it is also meaningless. The nature of a coaching engagement is inherently personal and focused on the best interests of the client – the CEO in this case. The interests of that individual are inherently more provincial than those of the company.

A New Understanding: As a result of my experiences and that article, I began to work through the question of which client I preferred. The results were illuminating. I realized that my inclination was to work in support of strategic advisers whose engagements were surfacing challenges that created conflicts with their allegiance to the client’s interests. But I also realized something more fundamental. There were contributions essential to the success of their engagements that, should they attempt to make them, would produce tensions within the relationship with the client. By this I mean that the very process of making those contributions put them on the opposite side of the table from their client. Getting caught in the coaching trap was only one of them.

An Example Might Help: Perhaps a ‘real world’ experiences might help you understand what I am getting at. A friend asked me to help with an engagement that his company had. The client was a government contractor that was experiencing difficulties growing beyond its current size. Management and the board of directors were becoming increasingly frustrated as their efforts seemed to have little effect on the ability of the company to grow. Investors in the company were beginning to second guess their decision to invest. It was just after I had read the article mentioned above that he approached me for help. I made a suggestion that initially set him back. “Let me and my team do a situational assessment. We will operate as an independent contractor. Our findings will be presented to both you and the company. The engagement will be limited to the development and presentations of findings. We will remain available if required but our job will be to deliver findings and recommend actions. You and your client will sit on the same side of the table. Once we are finished with our role, you can engage with them to implement.”

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