Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The "Value-Add" Consultant vs. The Smartest Guy In the Room

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These are lean times for business.

As the "recovery" begins the long task of pulling us up by our consumer-driven bootstraps, it is easy to see how businesses are taking fewer risks and hiring fewer full-timers, opting instead to hire consultants. And within many companies that distinction can make a world of difference.

I recall a meeting a while back when my team was meeting with the VP of our division for the first time. The VP was very excited by what our team was doing, and during the discussion I too became enthusiastic and quick to respond to the VP's ideas and questions.

After the meeting adjourned I stayed back and chatted with my mentor/manager.

"Was I too much?" I wondered, knowing that I had reached for the sparkle with the VP.

Later in our 1 x 1 my mentor talked about the "consultant role" as something that I needed to out grow.

"We all know you are smart. We hired you because you are smart. But sometimes you need to listen to the question the VP, or executive, asks and answer just that question?"

More recently I have had some "consultant" moments that have caused me to reflect on what I could have done differently to "answer just that question."

The first one was an informal "job interview" with the CEO that was arranged by a friend and champion within the company who was inspired to have me join the team.

The hour flew by with the two of us jumping across many topics. At one point I used my computer to show this person some examples of the work I had done and was doing with WordPress and Google Analytics. We ended with an enthusiastic call to "have you back" to further the discussions.

Then something happened. This person rushed around the office looking for one of his senior people that he wanted me to meet before I left. After about 5 minutes the CEO came to the front desk and said the person was not available and would be at least another 15 minutes on the phone if I wanted to wait. Joining in the excitement and confident in the "have you back" talk I said that I would prefer to meet with this person when I returned.

SNAP! That was it. Something about my desire to do something else, rather than sit and wait had sullied the deal. In a phone conversation several weeks later the CEO lectured me on "listening" better. Rather than what I had felt was a collaborative discussion, the CEO now framed our meeting as a job interview and was schooling me on being a better listener.

A mutual friend later said, "Perhaps they didn't like not being the smartest guy in the room."

In a more recent example, a COO brought me in on a job opportunity and grilled me for over 3 hours. By the end of the 2nd interview we were white-boarding the organizational structure of the marketing side of the business. I thought things had gone swimmingly and was told they were going to do some due diligence before making any moves.

A couple days later the COO sent me an email about "setting up more interviews this week and next week" to insure that the company was confident in making such a big move, in hiring someone like myself. The position was going to require that the COO give up some of his control in order to make a place for a Creative Director or Marketing Director as we had outlined TWO rather than ONE position on the whiteboard.

I immediately fired back an email requesting we jump into the role immediately and "test drive" my creative side while solving some of the urgent design issues facing the company. My rate and the company's penchant for consultants made the offer too good to refuse. I started the next day and jumped headlong into the details of a creative project.

Over the course of the next few weeks I scored some major victories. Even the COO said, "You solved a problem a lot of designers had failed on."

But as a consultant I also quickly reached my limit with some of the changes that needed to happen to make the Creative Director position a successful one. The current "designer" had been hired and was being somewhat protected by the COO. And while I was being told to manage this person the COO continued to give direction and projects outside of our relationship.

When I called the COO on the issue, he agreed with me, but I could see I had not won any points. In fact, many of my tasks continued to be dependent on meeting with the COO, and often I was put in COO-watch mode, literally waiting for this person to get out of meetings. A crisis point came when I was asked to wait until 6pm to meet. And it was 6:30 when the door opened signaling the arrival of the COO.

Having kids and a baby sitter who turned into a pumpkin at 7, I was somewhat frustrated with the hurry-up-crunch-time-and-then-wait-on-me mode. I let my consultant mode slip, just for a second and allowed my frustration to show. That this person's significant other is a full-time parent, and that no other employee in our group had kids, put me at somewhat of a disadvantage to this type of wait-for-me management.

That could have very well have been the SNAP with this position as well. While my contract lasted beyond the initial 3 weeks, when I returned after a week off I got an email from the COO that said "I have decided to go another direction."

So again, perhaps I had run into the smartest guy in the room. And this time I had not played fully to their strengths and allowed them the "leadership" they needed to feel comfortable with me as an employee rather than a consultant. So their job opening is back on the web, in "another direction" that sounds a lot like the direction I was brought in on. Hopefully the COO will find someone a bit more hungry, a bit more compliant, a bit less familied.

Anyway the miss was unfortunate. The self-expressed need for the COO to "confidently relinquish this responsibility" had not been fulfilled. As a consultant I did not have the base to stand on when the issue of the designer's performance and workload came up. As a full-time employee the COO would've had to answer to his own call to "relinquish" control and perhaps he was just not ready to admit that someone else might be at least as smart as he was.

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