I am starting an engagement with a new senior executive whose predecessors all seemed to self-destruct in short order before leaving the company. It is unclear whether they weren't up to the job or if the job itself is just one in which no one can succeed. I can't tell whether this is a good consulting opportunity or a bad one, given that the consultants to those departed executives are also no longer advising the company.
This is called a "widow-maker" position in an organization, so named because it defeats even the most capable executives (regardless of gender), as if it were predestined. Often the cause is a poorly designed job, created for some crisis or emerging trend, the resolution of which is poorly understood. Companies most susceptible to these positions are ones that are changing fast, whether they are growing, shrinking, entering new markets or adding capabilities or technologies. The Board or CEO sees a need and decides to vest its management in a new position and staff it with someone who has been successful in "similar" positions, although the new position is unlike any existing one.
How good this appears to a consultant at first is usually a function of your confidence. If you think you can improve any executive's performance, you will feel good about it. However, because the position is new, the consulting advice necessary to make it successful is also somewhat untested. Sure, you have some of the same skills and perspectives your new client has, and you may be able to significantly improve their chances of success. Conversely, your experience may not be enough to help rescue an executive whose responsibilities are poorly designed, whose job is inadequately resourced, or whose performance criteria are unreasonable.
So, it can be good or bad to consult to a "widow-maker" executive. The trick is to recognize whether or not your client falls into that category. And, remember, a change in responsibilities, economy, technology or corporate organization can thrust your client, and you, into a position where you are newly advising a widow-maker. Tip:
Be realistic about your ability to successfully advise an individual or organization. Sections 3 and 4 of the IMC USA Code of Ethics specify that you must only accept assignments for which you have the necessary competence and that you and the client mutually understand what will be done and the expected outcomes. It is your responsibility to recognize widow-maker engagements and unambiguously advise your prospective client about what you can and cannot do for them.© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA