There is pressure in my consulting profession to present the work we do as a service to organizations.
This is tricky. Who pays the bills after all?
Just yesterday someone asked me how I could write the way I do, with language that is “real” but distinctly not corporate, business-oriented prose, and still find work as a consultant?
What a beautiful question. I’ve been asked it many times in my career.
The answer I gave yesterday, for better or worse, is that I don’t really serve corporations, and that trying to translate my work into corporate-speak ends up with me taking work that isn’t really mine to do. Does that mean I have fewer clients? Yes, it certainly does, but it’s the work I am meant to do.
For sure, part of my work is helping organizations of all kinds become better, but it’s deeper stuff that actually compels me, not the ultimate “good” of a particular corporation per se, which is often reduced to profits and competitiveness. I am sure this is also true for many of my colleagues, though some may not wish to say it too loudly. Many would ask, “But don’t you have to start with where the client is at?” — wanting to know, then, how to adjust their website words to mirror what looks good and matches the current market’s buzzwords and the culture of the workplaces where they’d like to get in. “You can’t just say what you want,” they tell me. “You’ll only be serving yourself; you won’t get any work at all.” Maybe ethically correct, but also too “pure,” politically dumb and impractical.
Such a beautiful question, don’t you think? (It reminds me of a colleague who said to me, “I can never actually find an organization, anyway. All I ever find are people.”)
So who do I serve, and why? Here’s a picture. You can click on it to make it slightly larger.
Who I serve is the “You” at the center of the concentric rings of water as they are about to move outward. To be even more accurate I might say there’s an invisible inner you who is the truest client of my work, the one at the tiny point where ripples start from underneath.
A few years ago, a very accomplished man personally hired me to help him adjust to a dysfunctional organization. He wanted a reality check. He wanted to know if it was him or the workplace that was the problem. He’d previously received a 360 degree assessment of his leadership skills. Sure enough it was reported he was not “collaborative enough,” not a “team player” and that he was viewed as a “high level whiner.” Mind you, this is someone with extraordinary intellectual and humanistic gifts who totally cared for his customers and the colleagues who could keep up with him. Oh, there was no question in my mind that he could rub some the wrong way. He could be sharp, keenly observant, acerbic. In fact, as we talked, he used the word “disdain” to describe his attitude toward the firm for which he worked. I shared that it actually sounded a little more astringent than “disdain.” It was more like “contempt,” I said.
This is a tough spot for anyone to be. If you have been there yourself, you know that the disdain or discontent or contempt can also be mixed with painful self-questioning. Stay safe or leave? Try to speak up again and again after having tried before without a positive result? Take a more “constructive” relational role as an informal change agent and gradually advocate for improvements — or learn to “cope” by being quiet and finding another life outside of work. What to do?
And what could I do to be of help?
I can tell you I wasn’t thinking of my work with him as a way to improve his productivity or motivation, “problem-solve,” help him adjust his attitude or decide to leave. Nor did I think of it as a way to change the corporate culture, make somebody more money, or enforce unspoken rules. It was only to serve a human being in a quest for genuine self-understanding and an authentic choice. And here’s why — because — if he chooses well — whatever that choice is — there’s a positive disturbance, one that will send out the right concentric rings of value, meaning, purpose, worth, trust, love and ethical action. Rings that touch organizations and sometimes change them, and that also touch communities and societies whenever someone, some one, becomes whole. I believe this in my bones, and it applies just as well with a little extrapolation to groups and teams, including senior ones.
Will this make my clients better “leaders”? Well, that’s a question to ponder, I suppose, especially for those of you who want to hire consultants like me to serve the ends you deem important.
I certainly hope my language is clear about this.
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