Marisa Guerin, PhD – February 23, 2021
If there’s one thing I learned in my career, it’s that the term “consultant” itself means a million different things. In fact, my clients, especially in the nonprofit and religious sector, often referred to me as a “facilitator” - which in my lingo, is the person who designs and manages a meeting, but not one who offers other forms of advice or support. Other people would call about possible consulting help, and what they would describe is what I would call a coaching engagement – which I would then explain was not one of my service areas.
I empathize with the difficulty of getting this right. When an organization leader or manager feels outmatched by a problem and starts looking for help, they aren’t necessarily sure who they need or what the real problem even is. That’s why a phone call and an initial conversation can be so useful. A skilled consultant can ask the questions that help both parties see a bit more clearly what the issue might be and what kind of response might be most helpful.
In case it might be helpful to potential clients out there, or to those in the consulting profession, here are two ways of differentiating the consulting world that I have found especially useful. The first distinguishes three kinds of roles; the second identifies three levels of potential intervention.
Consultant Roles: Expert, Pair-of-Hands, Collaborative
Based on concepts in Peter Block’s book (2011), Flawless Consulting, CA: Pfeiffer/Wiley; see also www.flawlessconsulting.com
Expert consultants provide their clients with information or services that the client system does not have within its own repertoire; they offer guidance, advice, diagnosis, education, or analysis. Most people are familiar with expert consultants such as physicians, attorneys, librarians, research firms, psychologists, executive coaches, management consultants, etc. Most consultants, regardless of their main approach, bring some specific expertise to their clients; when they are providing this, they are in expert mode.
Pair-of-Hands (or Operational Support) consulting describes experts who actually deliver contracted help to the client in a given area, temporarily expanding the capabilities of the client organization through their retained consultants. Examples of pair-of-hands consulting might include computer specialists to install new systems, outsourced providers of training or employee benefits, accounting or auditing firms, healthcare management firms, public relations or fundraising services, preparation of strategic plans, retained project workers for a contracted duration, etc.
Collaborative consulting is a less-defined term that includes expert consultants and coaches who partner closely with their clients to help them manage a particular challenge or process. In these relationships, it is harder to differentiate what the client is receiving from what the consultant is delivering because they are co-creating in their work together. However, what always remains clear is that the client retains responsibility for the problem, the client makes the decisions in the client system, and the client holds the ultimate authority to continue or dismiss the consultant as a helper.
This approach is based on a close helping relationship with the client which focuses on assisting the client to identify the “next adaptive move” that represents a useful response to the situation. It implies a mutual recognition that the realities involved are complex, that there will be limits to the expertise available, and that client and consultant alike will be working with their best efforts to move in the direction of solutions.
Unit of Intervention: Person, Group, or Organization
“Unit of Intervention” refers to the level of the system where the need for support exists. This does not necessarily match up with the party who is the paying client. For example, an individual leader may retain a consultant to work with her or his team; in this case, the focus of the work – the unit of intervention – is on the team, its dynamics and development; but the client relationship remains with the team leader. Many consultants specialize according to the unit of intervention they can best serve. Of course, there are also projects that touch one, two, or all three levels, depending on their complexity.
Person: Some consultants, facilitators, or coaches are retained to advise or support a specific individual who desires to accomplish something, learn something, or change something. This category includes services such as advisory sessions, individual therapy, spiritual direction, executive coaching, and role consultation. Individuals may receive these services by themselves or in groups, but the target of the intervention is the person, not the group. The “paying client” may be the person him/herself, or may be a leader of the organization to which they belong.
Group: A consultant or facilitator may be retained to help a team of people to be more effective as a group or to address or resolve issues that they face as a group. Many organization development consultants provide such services, for example: business strategy adaptations, team-building, conflict resolution, diversity and inclusion integration, innovation, leadership transition, business model changes, etc. The “paying client” for such work is usually either the team leader or an executive sponsor within the larger organization.
Organizational System: The consultant may be retained because the organization as a whole, or a set of departments within it, may need attention, support, or change. Consulting engagements at this level may involve strategic planning or implementation of strategy or organizational change, reconfigurations of structure, facilitation of leadership assemblies, assessments of organizational culture, talent development systems, etc. The “paying client” is usually the responsible leader for the system or organization as a whole.
And One Caveat for the Anxious-to-Serve Consultant
Beware of engagements in which the paying client assigns the consultant to “fix” an individual or team that has not asked for or assented to this help. I can’t tell you how often this is attempted, and how universally it fails.
If the manager is very concerned about apparent dysfunction in individual performance or team behavior, but the individuals involved are not ready or willing to acknowledge their contribution to the problem, then the only “client with a problem” that the consultant has at that moment is the manager. The first task will be to figure out what kind of intervention has a chance of working; it might be that the manager has the next move. Personal data point: Many years of consulting have taught me that, oh, at least 75% of the time that a consultant is asked to mediate conflict between two individuals, it’s too late. It’s past time for one of them to leave their role or the organization.
Of course, life isn’t nice and tidy, like the categories in a book. These ideas are rough approximations of the kinds of realities that face people when they are tackling tough problems and are seeking help. Being alert to the best fit between the true issues and the skills of the helpers is a good start to addressing them successfully. Best of luck to all involved.