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#962: When Your Client is a Former Consultant

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Monday, January 12, 2009
One of my current clients is a former ("recovering"?) management consultant. Although I appreciate working with someone with a similar background and perspective, we aren't seeing eye to eye on a lot of things, far more than any other client I have ever had. Is this coming from the "innerconsultant" or just personal style?

Although I can't address the specifics of the situation, this is an important topic for discussion among consultants - and with their clients. What you are implying here is that the perspective and possibly the behavior of a former consultant is fundamentally different than that of a manager without a consultant's experience. Let's talk about two issues: the personality of people drawn into consulting, and the experience of the consultant.

First, the perspective and personality of people who become consultants. At the risk of generalizing too much, consulting is a helping profession in which the consultant applies his or her skills and experience on behalf of another professional. Sometimes the profession is derogatively characterized as "Those who can, do; those who can't, consult." An effective consultant brings a lot to the table: breadth of experience, intellect, abstract thinking, an analytical mind, good interpersonal and communication skills, and a solid business acumen. These skills overlap those of a good manager. Thus, even though a person who was a consultant is now a manager, they likely bring the helping, and not delegating, perspective with them. Thus, they may be more likely to want to be part of the engagement process than a non-consultant manager might be.

Second, the experience of the consultant can't be discounted. More of us than we would like to admit have thought about how, if we were managers, we would more effectively select and manage consultants than most clients. We know what questions to ask, when to intervene, what assumptions to challenge, and how consultants (especially for larger firms or teams) organize engagements. We would communicate better, manage better, and get more value from consultants. Or so we presume. The point is that, as consultants, we have lived in the consulting world and have a residual desire to create the ultimate consulting experience. So, given that former consultants begin with a "consulting" personality and bring a desire to get the most out of consultants, they are likely to want to be more involved in the details of your work than any other clients in your experience. Sometimes far more than we would like.

Tip: This calls for an early, and repeated as often as needed, conversation with your client. Recognize his or her expertise and perspective as a former consultant. Explore what kind of involvement the client intends and what roles and boundaries are expected. Be clear that a great deal of your value comes from your independence and objectivity and that too much involvement by a client in your work may compromise that objectivity. Talk about how you bring both management and consulting, as does the client, but it is important to separate the roles of a consultant advising the client and the client being responsible for taking or rejecting that advice. Far from being disrespectful, setting firm boundaries on roles and responsibilities between client and consultant is a mark of professionalism.

© 2009 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  client relations  communication  consultant role  professionalism 

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Sue Ann MacBride says...
Posted Tuesday, January 20, 2009
I like your summary of the consultant's role here, and have linked to this post in my blog,, where I recently posted a bit on "what is a consultant?".

I am currently working in Vancouver BC and wish IMC CA had a blog like yours.
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