Foundations of Consulting — Part 1: What Do Consultants Do?

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    Peter Block, in his seminal book, Flawless Consulting, explains that a “consultant” is someone who is trying to change another person, process or organization, but who has no direct control over what they are trying to change. Usually, that change is intended to improve performance – the effective and efficient achievement of goals.

    One of the greatest frustrations of consulting is the desire to change your client’s organization, but not having direct influence to accomplish that change. Experienced consultants have learned to work with – and even appreciate – the indirect nature of effective consulting.

    You might argue that a leader acting as an internal change agent is not an internal consultant because he or she does have at least some direct control over staff members. However, there is not nearly the extent of direct control that you might assume – especially during long, but successful journeys for change.

    The highly collaborative and facilitative internal consultant or leader does not always exercise direct control and often is quite successful in guiding change. Thus, a successful leader during change is acting much more like Block’s definition of consultant than you might realize.

    It might be useful to consider the many perceptions that people have of consultants and the many roles that consultants might play in a project. Consultants often act as:

    • Advisor — giving expert advice to solve a problem or achieve a goal.
    • Coach – helping individuals clarify and achieve goals and also learn.
    • Collaborator/partner – working with people to benefit from the relationship.
    • Educator/trainer – helping others develop new knowledge, skills and insights.
    • Expert – providing content expertise in certain areas.
    • Facilitator – helping a group to decide what it wants to accomplish and then helping the group to achieve those desired results.
    • Problem solver – clarifying problems, using various styles and approaches to “solve” them.
    • Researcher – collecting, organizing and analyzing information.
    • Facilitator – guiding groups or individuals through learning experiences.

    Other roles might include analyst, synthesizer, impartial observer, critic, friend and mentor. These are mostly positive roles. Of course, some people have strong negative impressions of consultants, as well. They might view consultants as outsiders, charlatans or even as nerds.

    Look for the articles in this series, including:

    1. What Do Consultants Do?
    2. How Do Consultants Work?
    3. Most Important Goals and Working Assumptions of Consultants
    4. Major Types of Consultants
    5. Internal and External Consultants
    6. Good Reasons – and Poor Reasons – to Hire Consultants

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    For more resources, see the Library topics Consulting and Organizational Development.

    Information in this post was adapted from the book Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD. For training on consulting skills, see the Consultants Development Institute. For more resources, see the Free Management Library’s topic All About Consulting .

    Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD – Authenticity Consulting, LLC – 800-971-2250 Read my blogs: Boards, Consulting and OD, and Strategic Planning .