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JAMES CAROLIN
Industry Leader Interview Series – Michele Grow
November 18, 2013 · by James Carolin | Comments to this post

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Michele Grow is the CEO of Davidson Trahaire Corpsych

JC: What is your definition of a consultant?

MG: I think that there are three components of a consultant: consultants should have expertise, experience and insight.  Often you have people who have a lot of expertise but not enough experience in how to apply it.  The majority of consulting work involves working with different organisations of different sizes and that is where the experience portion really becomes critical.   If an organisation is able do something in-house they don’t need consultants so one of the things a consultant brings is that insight and ability to bring new wisdom and thinking in a way that reflects the business itself and in a way that has commercial meaning, can work and will take the organisation forward.

What makes a consultant is a combination of those three things.  That said, a lot of people call themselves consultants but do not have those three attributes! Some of the most valuable lessons I have learned are when things haven’t worked.  The ability to make decisions with wisdom is what encapsulates what a consultant really should be.

JC: How do you fit into the consulting industry?

MG: Our focus is on risk mitigation in terms of people issues so the kind of things that we consult on are conflict in the workplace, bullying, workplace stress and managing work overload.  Our focus is not business strategy specifically although a big part of what we do is to help organisations understand what they need to do from a strategy perspective to get the right outcome with people as ultimately that’s what makes businesses work.  The language I would use would be risk management and productivity solutions.

We want to help our clients get more out of people and I don’t mean by that short-term gain, I mean how do you get more out of people who are working well, high productivity and low absence who are also really engaged.  We want to achieve high discretionary effort so obtaining that long term win, not just having employees work harder until they are so fatigued that they move on.  That is the core of our consulting issues.  Often when projects come to us it is after something has gone wrong.  What we would really like to do is more projects before something goes wrong so that organisations are consulting to protect themselves rather than consulting to prevent a recurrence of something – but of course the reality is that is how lots of consulting jobs happen.

JC: What attracted you to consulting?

MG: Look, I think lots of things.  I had worked for a long time within organisations and roles and where I was able to affect change but the big draw was the opportunity to work for hundreds of organisations.  During a career you can’t go and work for twenty, thirty or fifty different companies but by consulting you can definitely do that. I think it’s a privilege to have insight into organisations and understand the inner workings, to spend time in a professional services firm one week and then with a manufacturing group, then to move from a highly unionised workforce to a tertiary institution. That has immense appeal to me because you get to see and learn while you are in different organisations.  Whilst you are there to guide and support others your own learning journey is also great. Also the networking, the people you engage with and the fascinating places you visit. Last Friday I was at the children’s hospital in Melbourne and I walked into this huge aquarium with interactive exhibits and a meerkat enclosure! What a place!  All open to the public.  An incredible work environment and I would not otherwise have had any cause to go there, or see that workplace or meet those incredible people. I love the absolute joy that comes with working within organisations and being trusted to help with big problems.

JC: How long have you been a consultant?

MG: A very long time.  Fifteen or sixteen years

JC: What is the value that consultants add in your profession?

MG: The first thing is an external lens.  When you are in a business it is hard to see what is required and the consultant can act as a lens to clarify what is right in front of them.

Secondly it’s wisdom and insight, a combination of the two.  Understanding what the problems are and being able to bring solutions from multiple environments, not just well this this worked for company A so it will work here.  Rather, lets think about the context and how that might work and engage with the client to get them to new thinking because typically that is what you need in consulting: new thinking.

Finally, they bring a degree of “best practice” (not my favourite phrase). Best practice comes from understanding lots of different practices: why might this work, why might something else work, this is what they do in Asia, Canada, South Africa and bringing a combination of those together.  Evidence based practice versus practice based evidence because in delivering your practice you need the evidence base but sometimes your practice actually gives you the evidence so I think it is that ability to look at both sides.

JC: What are the characteristics of successful consultants in your opinion?

MG: There is only one thing I haven’t mentioned already in answer to this question: the ability to really listen. The ability to really listen, not be afraid to say no to work and challenge the customer is a characteristic of a great consultant.  Consultants are not there to work to the client’s direction, we are there to provide advice, guidance, challenge them work it all through.  An honest relationship is also key.  Advising what is working and what isn’t. Being really transparent about what’s required to make the project work, what you need and what they need. It’s not about liking people but you do have to be easy to work with. I don’t think that the customer necessarily needs to like you but they need to find you easy to engage with so there aren’t barriers in their way.

JC: What are the additional things that stop consultants from adding value in your association/profession?

MG: I believe there are a few things.  Firstly, people who work in small consulting firms often feel that they must be able to do everything themselves.  Sometimes you can give a much better response and get much more longer-term work by partnering effectively, i.e. bringing in another person who has expertise in a particular area.  One of the first things consultants think is ‘I have the job and I need to be able to do it all’.

The second issue I see is consultants not taking enough time to listen and properly consult, i.e. ‘I know what the solution is and we’ll just go with that’ and not taking the time to test the process as the project progresses.  Taking time to say ‘ok, we are up to here what is happening? how are we travelling? Is everything working? and finally have we really achieved the milestones?’.  Assuming that the plan is rigid, that you are going to finish here and acting on the presumption that you have all the answers is not useful or productive.  Consultants can scope out a really beautiful approach, but sometimes when you are in the middle of the project something else comes up.  The customer will say ‘oh yes did we not tell you about that….?’, so the ability to be flexible and work with good grace to make changes is critical.  Often the customer says someone came in and they did this, it worked for six months and then fell over.  If there is no follow up, or follow through after projects how do you re-connect and check back in with your clients?

I think that the other thing is when a solution is too sales orientated. Consultants come and say ‘our system is going to deliver everything for you’ – typically nothing will, it might be part of the solution but just that, a part.  Taking time to think about whether or not what you want to sell is really the right thing.  I think for me that is a concern.  Systemically I wonder whether enough people who call themselves consultants actually know how to consult.  Just because an individual know things and can go and talk to someone doesn’t necessarily make them a successful or effective consultant.  So understanding how to really properly undertake the consulting diagnostic.

Broadly it would be good to have the school of consulting and there is no perfect site – some large consulting firms do have a process – and some core principles about consulting and yet there is no accrediting body.

If you want be a dentist or a florist you have to have done X,Y,Z, there are basic skills that must be learnt in advance.  I think that consulting needs a professional body and a code of ethics because when you don’t have any requirements or professional body, what is there? And how many people call themselves consultants?, hundreds of thousands! I think the consulting industry needs something that says: I am a member of this governing body, I abide by this code of ethics and I have completed a basic accreditation.  How many people would do it? To be honest I don’t know these things are normally driven by customer demand.  In our experience clients will often say in a tender that a mandatory requirement is that you must be a member of the EAC Association. Half the members of the EAC association have no contact with the association ever, however they have the membership because they have to.  Its not a bad start – its not a good start but at least its something.

JC: What do some consultants do that give the profession a bad name or that you have seen?

MG: Firstly: overcharging and under delivering.  And what is the right price?  That depends on how risky it is, how much time it will take, all of those things that make it hard to comment on price. Often there is an over inflated value of time versus outcome. Personally I will always say this is what we will deliver, here are the outcomes that you will see as a result and here is how we will measure and demonstrate success.  So not being able to demonstrate the value is number one.

The second one is not doing things when they need to be done.  Consultants advise that they will do this project and finish in this timeframe, then it blows out again and again.  So not delivering against the schedule or not communicating i.e. advising when it is going to take a bit longer and why.  Also poor quality production materials are a problem.  When I give a client a report it’s a professional looking report without typos etc.  These all combine to the customers’ perception of the value that they are getting.

Finally experience that isn’t validated.  Anyone can write I have done X, Y, Z but in consulting you have to demonstrate that experience.  It’s easy to write on a piece of paper what you have done - it’s a bit like a resume. If people really could do all the things that were on their resume they’d be running the country! So really selling the expertise that you have.  There is room in consulting for all kinds of skills and experience, if you just focus on what you do best and execute that with excellence that keeps our profession in good name.  If you talk about all things that you can do that you really can’t and deliver late with poor production value that pulls all consultants down.

JC: If you could fix anything about consulting what would it be?

MG: I think I would come back to the rigour piece – sometimes being a consultant feels a bit like being a used car salesmen, so really trying to get people talking about consulting in a positive way.  Is there room for an accredited body?  Anything that increases the rigour – is there room for different types of accredited consultants?  i.e. people management consultant, business growth consultant or built environment consultant.   Let’s create these different categories and ensure that there are accreditations available. I am sure some talented person has built a module where you go online, you run it and get paid – let’s really try to get some sense of high value consulting.  How do you fix consulting? Create rigour around the ethics, approach, and quality.



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