Many internal consultants struggle to be ‘heard’ and have their advice sought after or even acknowledged by their internal clients, but this is often to the detriment of the organisation. Sadly, the value and benefit that effective internal consultants can bring to the business is often underestimated and even ignored. True there is often a good case for bringing in external expertise, but if this decision is a result of misconceptions about the role and value of the internal consultant, then the organisation and its line management may be missing out on some serious benefits.
I cut my consulting ‘teeth’ so to speak as an internal consultant. To be honest, I didn’t really know what that role was at the time and possibly neither did my internal clients at the time as I was in a newly created internal organisation development function resulting from a massive review of the organisation. But I fortunately had some wonderful mentors who helped me gain my consulting ‘stripes’ and which provided a sound groundwork for what has become my chosen career. I have worked as an external independent consultant now for almost 20 years, with a couple of short internal stints in that time, and many of my clients over the years have been internal consultants. Not only has this partnership made most of those assignments a much easier task as a result of their corporate knowledge and technical expertise, but this has also transferred into savings and benefits for the organisation.
What is a consultant?
So, firstly, what is a consultant? The definition from the Institute of Management Consulting’s Body of Knowledge describes consulting as ‘an advisory service to an organisation regarding management problems, challenges and opportunities’. It identifies 5 key aspects which are: an independent orientation, special training and qualifications resulting in specialist expertise as well as an overall breadth of knowledge across functional management areas, problem identification and diagnostic and analytic skills, problem solution and creativity, and an ability to assist clients to successfully implement solutions. All of which apply to internal consultants.
What are the two biggest challenges for internal consultants?
The two areas which many internal consultants appear to find the most challenging are firstly, that of being recognised as having an ‘independent orientation’, and secondly having the required level of ‘specialist expertise’. In both my personal experience and in working with many internal consultants, including a recent cohort in south-east Asia for whom I ran an internal consulting skills program, the common theme is that it is still difficult for internal consultants to be perceived as capable of being objective and sufficiently independent in order to be able to provide sound advice to their internal clients. Similarly, their expertise may not always be considered to be sufficiently cutting edge, contemporary or best practice – a sort of ‘cultural cringe’ factor exists because they work for the organisation in which they provide consulting services. This second point becomes particularly difficult if the internal consultant has risen through the ranks and may still be seen to embody the vestiges of a junior or more operational role.
So, what are the benefits the internal consultant brings to their internal clients?
The most obvious one is corporate knowledge, knowing the business and knowing ‘who is who in the zoo’. It can take a little time for the external consultant to come to grips with internal systems, processes, culture, the state of play, internal politics, etc particularly when working with new clients. A savvy internal consultant can be a godsend to the external consultant, or if they are conducting the assignment themselves they can hit the ground running.
How, then, can internal consultants raise their profile?
How can they improve their standing in their client organisation so as not to seem like a poor cousin to the external consultant? A recurring theme in the work of many of the gurus of the consulting literature such as David Maister, Peter Block, Edgar Schein and others is about developing a relationship of trust with your client such that they regard you as a partner in their business. This, of course, is what external consultants aim to do and work on assiduously, but unfortunately many of the internal consultants I have worked with often overlook the importance of this and can easily fall into the trap of seeing their internal client as someone to be avoided, or even the ‘enemy’! This according to David Maister means that the relationship is more of a transactional one than that of a client and advisor. It is true that as an internal consultant, you don’t have the luxury of choosing your clients or assignments and as a result you may need to work with some clients who may be more challenging than others. However, the reverse is often true also in that a good internal consultant can often get the opportunity to work with some very innovative and progressive managers and leaders and on cutting edge projects - many external consultants would love these opportunities!
Internal consultants face many challenges that external consultants do not and without wanting to oversimplify things, these are some tips from Maister’s research and others that I have found particularly helpful in imparting to internal consultants to help them raise their profile and in doing so really add value to their internal clients:
1. Know the business – not just the organisation, but the industry your organisation is in. Your clients expect you to have as much knowledge as them about their business, and even more about your industry. Build your networks, skim the latest research and opinions from thought leaders so that you stay up to date and always aware of the bigger picture and so can provide a broader perspective.
2. Be seen as a business person first with a line manager mindset, and a functional expert second. See your clients as true partners and not people to be avoided. Understand what it is like to walk in their shoes. Spend time if possible in their business, ask to sit in on important meetings, attend planning sessions, be more than familiar with their business and operational plans. It will help you to know and explain how the service you provide can add value to their business.
3. Be aware of what is creating shareholder (or ratepayer or taxpayer in the case of public sector) value or holding the company back from it. Try to maintain a line of sight from the service that you provide to the customer of the business so that the advice you are providing and solutions you are suggesting or recommending are practical and pragmatic.
4. Be knowledgeable about competitors and customers. Understand the organisation’s place in the broader marketplace and be able to talk confidently about this with your internal clients.
5. Be knowledgeable about your technical discipline area. The term ‘thought leader’ gets used a lot these days, but your internal clients will expect this of you. They expect that you will know about the latest techniques, information, processes, products, methodologies, etc in your field. They may not expect you to be skilled in all these areas, but they will expect that you are knowledgeable about them and can advise them on their appropriateness for their situation. This includes knowing who is the expert or ‘go to’ person in that field if it’s not you. Knowing when to outsource, and doing that well, is as important as being able to do the task yourself.
6. Have personal credibility which means delivering on promises and meeting commitments.
Internal consultants face many challenges and without wanting to oversimplify Finally, I have found Charles Green’s explanation of the ‘trust equation’ very simply explains that even if we get all of the above right, we must be totally focussed on the needs of our client in order for them to trust us.
I’d be interested to hear others’ experiences and perspectives about the value of internal consultants and the challenges they face.