Long time FOSA (Friend of Spooky Action) John asked me to comment on David Maister's post The Consultant and the CEO, in which a reader poses a question regarding a bad consulting situation:
“For the last month or so I have been working well with a client and her staff helping them develop their brand strategy. My client heads a division of a company. A couple of weeks into the project I’ve become aware that my client has an abysmal relationship with her CEO, whom she reports to. I also quickly learned that the CEO is a tyrant and displays many of the characteristics Bob Sutton described in his book The No Asshole Rule. The CEO makes the lives of her staff miserable. They are both terrified and befuddled by her unpredictable, bullying and overbearing behavior.

“Last week my client went overseas for work and the CEO has decided she wants to run the branding project during my client’s absence. The CEO attended a meeting of the leadership team I’m working with and she proceeded to denigrate her staff telling them that their opinion meant nothing and then proceeded to attack the project. The staff all looked at me to say “sorry” but couldn’t say a word.

“My question for you and your readers is this. How involved should a consultant get in trying to help a group of people who can’t make headway because the way the CEO behaves?”

Ugh. I would venture that most consultants have been in this type of situation. David's answer was that the consultant shouldn't get involved in trying to help the group. It's a no-win situation to do so, thus you shouldn't even try.

I have learned that there are certain people with whom I shouldn't differ without very carefully examining my reasoning. David would be right at the top of his list, and his advice is wise and prudent. As a consultant, it isn't your job to be an organizational therapist (unless that is specifically what you were hired to do).

[Takes deep breath]

But, as one of the commenters pointed out, there is a change management aspect to practically every project, and that includes people at all levels of the organization. In this particular situation I as consultant wouldn't take on the task of fixing the relationship between the CEO and her staff, but I would ask my client and her staff if there is a WIIFM or MMFI regarding this project for the CEO, and if they honestly think that she understands them.

WIIFM stands for "What's In It For Me?" People make decisions for personal reasons, and often later backfill with 'facts' to justify that decision. Most major-account sales programs are designed around this paradigm. WIIFM is very personal and situational. A consultant has very little chance of being able to divine/define the WIIFM at a deep personal level until they have invested the time and energy to become a trusted advisor. One would hope the CEO's staff would have better insight into her inner workings. The WIIFM might be tactical and tangible (the project will result in a 50% increase in sales which will mean $X to you personally) or strategic and intangible (a chance to leave a lasting legacy to the community).

You should also make sure that your project doesn't have any major negative WIIFM's to a key executive. I once worked on a project to revamp some training so that it could be completed successfully in two days instead of five. Since this training effected hundreds of technicians, our team felt that this was a clear winner all around. Except that our division president had told the CEO that it was impossible to complete the training in less than five days. Our success was detrimental to her personal reputation. Unless we found a positive WIIFM for her, she would squash our project like a bug!

Which brings us to MMFI - Make Me Feel Important. The other question I would ask as a consultant would be: Is there a way to make the CEO feel important in conjunction with the project? As with our division president, there are often people who aren't integral to the project, but who can sabotage if they don't see a WIIFM. In many cases, Make Me Feel Important is that WIIFM component. In the case of our division president, even though she had been opposed to our efforts, we had to allow her to save face with the CEO by letting her take credit for championing the initiative. Yes, we had to grit our teeth and swallow our pride, but in the end it was a win for everyone.

Before taking on any project as a consultant, it's important to know the WIIFM for the team, the people influenced by the project (such as users or suppliers), and the sponsors and influencers in the organization. If there are any major negatives or unknowns, you should plan to deal with them or rethink the project. If you ignore these change management considerations, you'll pay dearly down the line. I know, I have the career scars to prove it!

posted by Mike at 8:22 PM


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