“Great consultants are as much actors as they are fonts of knowledge.” The founder of the consulting firm I had just joined delivered these words to me after my first week on the job. I was initially taken aback. A number of questions rushed to my head. Wasn’t I just hired because of my skills and abilities? Didn’t my years of on-the-ground experience mean anything? And perhaps most importantly, since my mission is to transform organizations, what in the heck does theater have to do with my consulting practice?
The answers to these questions revealed themselves to me as I reflected on my initial experiences with my first client. I had gone through all the motions of being a good external consultant. I jumped on a plane as the sun was coming up Monday morning and flew to the client site. As soon as I arrived, I began to learn about the project and culture as quickly as possible. I worked night and day all week to figure out how I could best help this client.
And now over a glass of wine back at the airport Thursday night, my new boss was telling me that our work had as much in common with a theater production of Guys and Dolls than it did with providing deep insights to help the organization transform. Could this really be true?
In some ways, the answer is: Yes! The only justification for flying in highly paid consultants each week is to shake up business as usual. And we all know that the best way to impact fellow human beings is to reach them on an emotional, as well as logical level.
I came to understand that I had great content. However, I needed a more compelling persona. Borrowing an acting analogy, I was coming across a bit like the actor Harrison Ford with too much flat line delivery. My boss was asking me to be more Ryan Gosling with a bit more style and flair.
Now, I faced the challenge of figuring out how to make a bigger splash. I carried out the following steps:
- Telling Compelling Stories
“Stories for business have a practical purpose. They should gain or strengthen the trust of the intended audience(s) and, with this achieved, to inform, persuade, and even inspire them.” [Janis Forman, Storytelling in Business (2013), Stanford Business Book, p. 23.]
The first thing I did was turn some of my dry content into stories to grab the attention of my clients.
For example, I was helping a client develop a new mission statement. My goal was to get the leaders to understand the impact of crafting a powerful purpose. I told the real-life story of how the mission of a nonprofit in the health field had helped a family member identify a mystery medical condition that they had suffered with for years. Finding a diagnosis was a life changing event.
After telling the story I noticed that the leadership team was more engaged than usual. They were clearly impacted by the story. In fact, one tough, former military VP who had said little during my previous sessions had tears in his eyes.
I glanced over at my boss and he was smiling. Clearly, I had hit the mark!
- Finding Ways to Connect Personally
Theater touches us on an emotional level. Similarly, I sought out opportunities to interact with my clients on a more personal level. As consultants we are dropped into an organization for a limited period of time. It is easy for us to stick to the work at hand versus forming deep interpersonal relationships.
Peter Block (Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, 2011, Jossey-Bass) points out that we have the potential to more fully bring of ourselves to our consulting gigs:
“A unique and beguiling aspect of doing consulting is that your own self is involved in the process to a much greater extent than if you were applying your expertise in some other way. Your reactions to a client, your feelings during discussions, your ability to solicit feedback from the client – all are important dimensions to consultation” [p. 13].
Block correctly points out the importance of a strong relationship between you and your client. And nothing cements a relationship like having a personal connection.
I applied this with a client by introducing opportunities on our agendas to talk about what our work means to us personally. These conversations allowed me to learn more about my clients’ backgrounds, values and aspirations. At the same time, they learned more about me.
This was win-win. The personal discussions which were part of our agenda led us all to be more engaged and invested. As a result, we had more impact and enjoyed the process more.
- Leading with Content – Don’t Over Do This!
The above theatrical tactics for connecting with clients on emotional and personal levels are powerful. However, we still need to infuse our skills, knowledge and abilities to transform the organization. As consultants we are primarily hired for our expertise and not our wit, nor fashion sense. The message here is clear. Your main focus is on accomplishing business goals. At the same time, do not be afraid to throw in some theater for maximum impact.
Over fifty years ago the academic Marshall McLuhan coined the expression “The medium is the message”. Perhaps McLuhan was correct and we should pay more attention to the vehicles we use to communicate our big ideas.
This blog does not reflect the views of my employer.