The Resilient Consultant (Part 2 of 2): Five Steps to Minimizing Engagement Failures

30 Aug, 2010 | by

The following article is an extension of The Resilient Consultant (Part 1 of 2):  Five Steps to bounce back from failure.  It’s a logical spin-off to cover what I believe to be an extremely vital topic, which will most assuredly help you obtain some perspective.  It will provide five key steps to minimizing future engagement failures and protect your personal brand in the process.  I’d like to point out that these steps go beyond a standard methodology for managing an engagement.  There are plenty of materials out there that cover that space, so you won’t find that here.  What you will find are proactive steps an individual can take across the full range of the sales life cycle, from pursuit to execution, that better position him or her for success.

However, just like any other methodology, the following guidance will not guarantee that you never encounter a bad engagement again.  In fact, I suggest that you accept the absolute certainty that you will be confronted with bad engagements at some point, so please save yourself the suspense.  Some of the most dramatic personal growth I’ve achieved in my career has come directly from bad projects.  Don’t be afraid of the challenge; embrace it.  Just be mentally prepared to take on anything and get ready to adapt. 

The real value from this piece comes from helping consultants understand that they do have some control over their destiny.  I say “some” because there are certain elements that are quite frankly outside of anyone’s control, such as client timing and resource availability.  But by melding the following guidance into your existing professional routine, it will help avoid engagement difficulties, and increase the likelihood of overall engagement success.   If your goal is to achieve some semblance of longevity in your professional services career, please take these steps seriously.  Although a few of the steps may appear to be “common sense” at face value, the old adage of “common sense does not always equate to common practice” could not be a more apt description.

Five Steps to Minimize Future Engagement Failures:

1.) Become a professional skeptic:
Let me be clear:  Becoming a professional skeptic does not mean an individual should act like a crotchety-old cynic who doesn’t believe in the “system.”  A professional skeptic is one who consistently asks the right questions in order to ascertain exactly what will be expected for a particular project and clearly understands the type of environment to which he will be exposed.   A professional skeptic always demands more information as he understands the necessity to be overly prepared and totally aware of what he’s getting into.  In some cases, even a seasoned skeptic may not have any choice as to where he lands.  But… rest assured, he will always consider the following:

  • What is the project scope, timing, cost and quality expectations?  Is there a Statement of Work (SOW) available for review?  Or any other supporting documentation, for that matter?
  • Have the current or previous engagement teams had success dealing with this particular client?  If not, what were/are the challenges?
  • What is the engagement atmosphere like?  Are resources unhappy being there?  Overworked? Underworked?
  • What are the logistics of the assignment?  Location, on-site expectations, start date, vacation constraints, etc
  • Who are the team members he would be working with directly?

1b.)  Questions a  professional skeptics would ask of themselves before committing to anything:

  • Do I really have the right skill set the engagement team is looking for?
  • Is this opportunity in line with my career goals?
  • Will this opportunity provide me with the right exposure?
  • Is there anything that feels “off” to me about this engagement?
  • Do I feel I can work cohesively with the personalities I know I’ll be working with?

2.) Look before you leap:
Beware, since sometimes opportunities can be presented in a much more positive light than they really should be.  Once you’ve received responses (from existing engagement or pursuit leadership) to the questions above, be sure to do your homework.  Inquire within regarding team members and the client (if possible) by leveraging your existing network of contacts.  Candid conversation may lead to uncovering any significant issues with a particular account or pursuit, if any should exist.  Remember, the focus here is not to go out of your way to find something wrong.  You’re just trying to understand the entire environment and any other relevant nuances that will prepare you to be that much more successful.

Most reputable firms have a deployment team or resource schedulers.  These individuals monitor resource availability and client demand.  More specifically, these folks act as brokers who try to match available skill-sets with client needs.  They are intimately aware of client environments, and in many cases have a sense as to whether a particular engagement is going well or not.  Why do I say this?  Well, if an existing engagement is going poorly, for example, there may be a staffing request to bring on new team members to help fix the problem ( i.e.  replacing existing team members who may not be cutting the mustard).  Of course, there may be a number of reasons a resource might be replaced, but guess what…deployment knows or at least has some insight.  Trying to develop relationships with these resources could prove extremely useful.  Imagine the perspective you can glean from individuals whose main job is to staff resources to address client issues.

Also, the rumor mill is usually pretty accurate within large firms.  If you heard a particular engagement is a meat grinder or dream environment (from multiple people across multiple practices), chances are that’s what you in for.  The important thing here is to trust but verify.  Always look before you leap.

3.) Set Expectations:
Once you’re on the verge of joining an engagement or win a pursuit, be sure to set expectations with your team early on.  Do this during your early interviews with the client or engagement manager!  If you’re a subject matter expert (SME), then let your team and client know exactly how you plan on attacking the work.  Be thorough, yet concise.  However, if you’re not an SME in the space you were brought on for, don’t pretend to be.  Ideally, you always want to align your experience with the very same client need, but most consultants know that that does not always happen.  Sometimes there’s just no one else around and you’re brought in as “the guy” or “quasi-expert”.  Unfortunately, it happens.  Make sure your team is aware of this from start to finish, so that they never lose sight of the fact that you’re operating in a less then optimal situation.

Also, be straight with the client, since she will eventually sense or outright notice that something is off.  In some cases, the client will accept the learning curve as long as she is still receiving the overall value she needs.  In others, the client may accept nothing short of a genuine SME, in which case you should pull yourself from the assignment because the last thing you want to do is present yourself as something you’re not, then be given a poor performance review because you did not perform as an expert would.  Be candid and clear with what you can and cannot do.  Set expectations so there is transparency in every step of the project.

4.) Build Relationships:
A surefire way to anchor yourself within a new engagement is by building relationships within your team and with the client.  Share your knowledge, let them know what you’re capable of and, most importantly, connect with individuals on a personal level.  Learn about their families and hobbies; understand what makes them tick.  This insight will prove invaluable over the long run as that very bond will foster better communication and just make for a more pleasant working environment.

Personally, I’m a strong proponent of team or client gatherings.  It takes time to cultivate relationships regardless of whether they are internal or client team members.  As a consultant, there is some control over dictating gatherings amongst your peers or subordinates, so do it!  This is vital early into any engagement to build morale and trust.  Team dinners or drinks are always crowd favorites, but don’t forget to build in check-points during work hours for those individuals who just can’t make evening events.

Client interactions vary greatly, but the important thing is always to be available and responsive.  I’d like to stress responsiveness as there’s no quicker way to turn off a client than by not getting back to her in a timely fashion.  It’s the foundation upon which trust is built.  It’s very difficult building a relationship with a client if she senses you don’t have her back at all times.  As the relationship developments, so typically do personal interactions.  A prudent approach would be to maintain a professional distance; however, don’t be afraid to provide the client with a glimpse into your personal life (if she seems remotely interested in it, of course).

5.) Keep Your Eyes Wide Open (Watch, Listen and Learn):
An important tool in any consultant’s toolbox is his ability to articulate ideas.  In other words, talk.  As you might expect, talking is crucial during the sales cycle, but it’s just as important after the work has been sold.  Moreover, once you’ve entered into the realm of delivering work, it’s even more crucial that you demonstrate an ability to listen.

Always listen and reaffirm what you hear during client interactions.  The greatest mistake a consultant can make is assuming that he knows what the client needs before she explains her requirements in her own words.  In most cases, the client will flat-out tell you exactly what she needs.  Just listen!  Hubris can really take hold of a seasoned professional if he allows it to.  Don’t fall into that trap.  Listen to all relevant stakeholders and team members to ensure you’re delivering what’s really needed at all times.

As an engagement progresses, team members will often be exposed to different facets of the client’s business.  This exposure is incredibly important not only to the current project at hand, but also to future opportunities.

The important takeaway here is to be cognizant of your surroundings at all times.  Do not be myopic!  Consultants are typically part of “practices” within their firm.  These are groups of professionals under the same umbrella who focus in on a particular service offering.  Unfortunately, once a member of a practice is staffed on a particular engagement, there’s not always a desire on the engagement manager’s part to expand the team.  There may be a tendency to keep the team small in order to maintain the status quo, especially if there’s no opportunity to staff others from his own practice.  A team member will always score more brownie points within his practice if he manages to get resources staffed from his own group.  This is an extremely short-sighted approach to take.

A consultant’s main focus should always be to address client needs, even if those needs are coming from a different practice.  If there are other teams within the firm that can help the client, bring them in!  Play the role of a trusted advisor by reacting to what’s really needed in the client’s world.   Furthermore, including other practices yields a very important and tangible benefit:  It entrenches your firm’s presence within the account.  Deeper entrenchment leads to a broader relationship, which in turn increases the likelihood of future opportunities.
Become a professional skeptic, look before you leap, set expectations, build relationships and finally…keep your eyes wide open.  I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes that I think is a fitting way to close this article.  It’s from the rather infamous Donald Trump, and goes like this:  “Watch, listen and learn.  You can’t know it all yourself…anyone that thinks they do is destined for mediocrity”.

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