The Birds and the Bees of Consulting

Challenging the “Add Value” Proposition

I’ve been doing this consulting thing a little over seven months now. Time for a gut check. Last fall, I wrote about how excited I was to join the world of consulting, particularly on why I joined Slalom. Now, I want to do a personal assessment, a check-in of sorts. So I asked myself,

“Self, what kind of consultant are you? Really.”

Consultants often justify their presence with the “adding value” line. As someone I admire would likely say, “Blah blah blah.” It’s not that “adding value” isn’t important, but that “adding value” isn’t precise enough. It doesn’t hold a consultant’s feet to the fire, per se. The better question to ask is,

“Did I make it stick?”

This got me thinking about the different ways a relationship develops between a consultant and a client. And that got me thinking about symbiosis. I recently rolled off of my first client engagement representing Slalom, so now is a great time for reflection.

Symbiosis (noun) [sim-bee-oh-seez]: 1. the living together of two dissimilar organisms, as in mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism.

In any symbiotic relationship, both parties are affected but only some types of relationships turn out win-win, in the mutual sense. Here’s a primer on the symbiotic relationships consultants and clients.

The Mosquito

Symbiosis: Parasitism

The mosquito sweeps in and ultimately leaves, belly full; the only party benefiting from the relationship. Sure, the consultant gets noticed and leaves a temporary impression, but it’s obviously not a positive experience for the client. In fact, when a consultant causes too much discomfort or acts purely out of self interest, a client might justifiably cut the relationship off quickly. Splat.

The Barnacle

Symbiosis: Commensalism

The barnacle is by most accounts, harmless. It typically hitches a ride on a whale of a client, hardly getting noticed but somehow hangs around for what seems like eternity. A barnacle becomes a familiar face in the halls but people aren’t quite sure what it does. While the client isn’t noticeably harmed or damaged, nobody’s quite sure what projects are benefiting.

The Honey Bee

Symbiosis: Mutualism

Flowers need bees to proliferate. Bees need flowers for their nectar and pollen. Consultants should surely make the needs of their clients a priority, but it’s still important to ask, “Is this project good for me and/or my firm?” A healthy relationship is where both sides benefit and grow from the relationship. Win-win.

4 Keys to Mutualism

At any given time, a consultant could be shift between any of the symbiotic relationships so it’s always healthy to step back and assess. Here are four keys to maintaining mutual symbiosis:

  1. Trust. A foundation to any relationship, trust allows for calculated risks, respectful honesty, and genuine partnership. It’s not always instant. It’s typically earned and begins with presenting your authentic self.
  2. A well defined project charter. Is the “ask” clear? Without clear alignment, expectations on either side of the equation could be way off.
  3. Regular check-ins. Even a detailed plan needs to flex and adapt to evolving conditions. To paraphrase Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” We can’t see every fork in the road and neither can our client. Regular check-ins track progress and maintain alignment.
  4. Teach to fish. Keep an endgame in sight or risk becoming the barnacle. Part of “making it stick” is to establish systems that empower a client to eventually take the reigns in order to sustain the processes you helped establish. Concluding a project and reaching a milestone doesn’t mean the relationship “ends.” Think of yourself as a teacher in the guise of a subject matter expert.

If I don’t roll off a project leaving things permanently improved, I’ve failed in my task. It’s my hope each day to not only bring value but to make it stick.


Icon Credits: Mosquito by Cédric Stéphane Touati, Whale by Tatiana, Bee by Matt Brooks; all from the Noun Project

Note: The views above are my own and could be completely bonkers. I can’t help but notice things that could improve (and anything can be improved).

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