Learn to be a consultant and a staffer

There’s bound to be a natural tension between consultants and full-time employees/line staff when they’re working side by side in your organization, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Please note that I distinguish here between contractors and consultants — contractors are hired arms and legs that do the same work that full-time staff could otherwise do; consultants are hired in for their specific experience that doesn’t exist in an organization.

Too often this conflict between consultants and staff is a result of perspective, or more correctly, a lack of perspective.

Some (many? most?) full-time employees see the consultants, especially management consultants, as overpaid prima donnas who make the easy suggestions, but don’t have to stick around to implement and operate whatever it is they’re recommending. I’ve heard it said, and sometimes thought myself, that “they don’t understand the political realities of working in a large corporate or government organization,” or “they can get away with saying things that we can’t,” and “they’re just saying the same things we are. It seems that management only listens when they’re paying an outsider for the same advice we could’ve given them for no additional cost.”

That last one has some weird truth to it.

When I was working for one of the high-end management consulting firms, I found it strange that there seemed to be a correlation between how your advice was valued by clients, how far you traveled to see that client and how much they were paying for your advice.

When I was consulting to clients in New Zealand, for example, I and my advice was treated like I was almost as smart as I thought I was. On the other hand, some (many? most?) consultants think that career line staff in IT are ossified in their thinking, that they don’t understand that there is a world, and a way of doing things, outside their organization.

The comment I hear most often from consultants about employees is that “they wouldn’t know a deadline if it hit ’em between the eyes — we have to deliver or we don’t get paid, how come they don’t look at things the same way?”

Both sets of views are very wrong, but in some ways, both are right. Good consultants can quickly size up an organization and identify what it is that they’ve seen before in other organizations, and what is unique. They can quickly apply what they know, making quick adjustments for the differences they see. They’re good at identifying patterns and behaviours they’ve observed before, patterns and behaviours that may not be obvious to someone inside.

And they can make recommendations that may not be politically compatible with the career aspirations of line staff. Consultants can also be pushed in ways and at speeds line staff would not tolerate — consultants will often travel weekends and work a string of 12 to 14 hour days to meet a deadline, and line staff sometimes won’t, reasoning (logically) that

“I don’t get paid enough for that.” On the other hand, good internal IT staff understand what is politically acceptable in their organization, what will and what won’t fly. They can also see the reality of political barriers that consultants new to the organization can’t, or won’t, acknowledge. Staff see the long-term operational implications of a project, since they have to live with the results.

So how to get the best of both worlds while avoiding the worst? In my experience, and I know it sounds self-serving ’cause I’m one of ’em, the best IT professionals have been both types. Line management? If you’ve been in the same business/organization for a number of years, get thee to a consulting firm.

Consultants? If you joined a consulting firm right out of school and you’ve been there ever since, get out and go to work as employee for an organization of the type that you consult to. Get in there and, as we say, learn to “eat what you kill.”

The IT types who are going to make it to the top have done both…more on that later.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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