The hardest question most consultants will never ask you


The consultants’ report is finally sitting on your desk. Not the CEO’s desk, it’s on your desk.

It looks fantastic: complex data tables that run for dozens of pages, graphs of every shape and hue, detailed personal profiling of the leadership team (that’ll make very interesting reading, just wait until you can subtly make people aware that you’ve got access to their test results!), and 13 pages of juicy recommendations.

You’re the sole gatekeeper for this very impressive stack of paper, and having all that personal insight at your fingertips makes you kingmaker, at least for the next year or so. How very splendid.

The lead consultant is sitting on the other side of the desk, patiently watching you flip through the report, and presumably waiting to get your permission to clear off. You mentally rehearse your little speech of congratulation – greatly appreciated, keep in touch, must do lunch sometime, don’t forget to invoice (ha ha, as if that was ever likely to happen)…

…and then she leans forward and asks you a question you really did not expect: “So, what are you going to do about it?”

Who, me?

Consultants tend not to ask this because it is a very challenging question, an open question with no easy answers, that hands the onus of action and responsibility to the client, and therefore tends to make them alarmed or cross (and often both). And anything that makes a client alarmed or cross is generally not great for ongoing business.

Both client and consultant are right to be wary of tackling that conversation. ‘Doing something’ about a problem tends to be messy and stressful, given that it is likely to be a mix of uncomfortable truths, confrontations and changes – and normal people really do not like change.

Tackling problems head-on is usually about telling people why they are doing their jobs badly, or why their teams are malfunctioning, or why they need to keep changing. They are about to lose their footing, their understanding of how their world of work is constructed, and the certainty that they are doing a good job.
As with any situation of loss, they tend to go through various stages of reaction – denial (“this is rubbish, your data is wrong”), anger (“you’re picking on me, trying to undermine me”), bargaining (“I can change my behaviours”), depression (“I think I’d be better off resigning”) and (you hope) acceptance (“OK, let’s get on with it”).

No one is perfect, least of all consultants, and I would never try to argue differently. It’s always easier to see the faults in someone else’s business. All I can say is that consultants willing to stick their necks out must equally have a robust group around them to say when it’s time to wind that same neck in. I like to think we have people that keep me honest.

However, most people are unlikely to have the skills to take people through these difficult stages safely and successfully – even those in HR functions. But the same applies to many consultants, who have become consultants via other routes than occupational psychology. As I discuss in my next blog, the basic model of big consultancy isn’t always best placed to get to the root of problems caused by a tentative HRD or a narcissistic CEO – quite the opposite: they feed off it.

So that’s why most consultants don’t ask the question, and why most clients don’t want to be asked the question. And that’s why lots of excellent consultancy reports end up parked in a drawer somewhere in HR, becoming less and less useful as the passing months and years erode their accuracy and relevance because business contexts evolve, people leave, teams change, and priorities shift all the time.

And, above all, that’s why failing to ask the question means that the problem is unlikely to go away. What can the client really do with the report, except fiddle at the margins, or set up some new processes that don’t really get to the root of the issue?

At Indigogold, we always ask that question if we think it needs to be answered. The client may well consider that we’re being unreasonable by not just handing them a report and leaving the room, but we regard this as appropriate unreasonableness given that the question is designed to make the client face up to the challenge of putting things right. And, of course, we ask the question because we know what needs to be done, and have the skills and experience to support the client through the difficult days to come.

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