The unwelcome consultant



I arrived at the conference centre all bright and cheerful at 0830, but it was clear that I wasn’t particularly welcome.   The Sales Director and her two Commercial Managers were all bashing away at their PowerPoint presentations, their brows furrowed.  Nobody looked up to smile or say hello.   A change consultant is the last thing you want when you’re sweating over your slide-pack…

Back Story

I’d been asked by the CEO to support the Sales Director and her leadership team to transform the performance of the sales force.  Sales results were consistently poor, the department’s motivation was low and the company needed things to get a lot better, fast! 

The Sales Director agreed to me coming to this event as a first step, although she had refused – or not been ready for? –  feedback on the agenda.  She was in a rather conflicted relationship with the CEO – my sponsor – and clearly had some difficulties with receiving the help.  I had to find a way of intervening minimally, but deftly – offering just the right sort of support in just the right way so that this team could lead this event as well as they possibly could – despite their misgivings about i) the CEO and any ‘help’ he might offer, and ii) the potential worth of my sort of help.

Warm-up…

I went off for a cup of tea, suggesting that I might come back in 20 minutes or so to go through a few bits of prep with them around key messages, flow and seating.  There was a grunt of assent, and 20 minutes later a slightly reluctant huddle gathered.

Scene 1: Furniture

Me:   I’m wondering about the seating?  How would you feel about trying something a bit different?  You see, if this is about engaging people and building a stronger team, this big oblong table with 20 chairs around it won’t help you at all.  How about a horseshoe, with no tables, for instance?

Sales Director:   Doubtful look.  Moves a few chairs, and then…Ok let’s try it. I remember the difference that seating made when you suggested a rearrangement of the furniture at the Exec meeting.  I want things to be engaging and different.  

Scene 2: Key Messages

Me:   Have you got a good sense of your key messages?  I’m thinking that it might be good to run through the flow of the event quickly, so that I can help you feel clear and confident about the purpose of each section, and what you’re trying to say…

Sales Director:   I’m pretty sure we’ve got all that covered, so I can’t really see the need for it. 

Me:   Well, my advice is that it’s probably worth doing anyway – just as a failsafe.   Why don’t we just whizz through it.

We then spent 30 minutes in a fairly tortuous, but apparently useful, discussion in which I sort of dragged the key messages out of them.  They knew them at a gut level, but hadn’t expressed them to each other and weren’t completely aligned around them.

Sales Director:   This is good.  Yes, this is useful.  I’m feeling like we’re all much clearer.

Me:   You’re sounding much clearer too.  I can really hear the strength of these messages now that you’re all aligned.  When you feel well-grounded in your key messages, you are likely to stay on track more easily. 

Scene 3: Leadership

Me:   …to the Sales Director…Will you open the day?

Sales Director:   Well, I plan to quickly do all the hygiene stuff, and then handover to my Commercial Managers.  I’d like the two of them to be up front and leading, and me more in the background.

Me:   Ok, that sounds fine – but I do suggest that you make sure you give the day a solid introduction, and don’t rush it.  Take your time, and let them know how seriously you’re taking things, and how important it is that they play their part…so they can sense the strength of your leadership around this.

The Sales Director threw me a suspicious glance, probably wondering whether this was ‘consultant speak’ or something worth listening to… but I sensed she was taking it in.  The Commercial Managers started to look more settled and confident.

Scene 4: Intervening + Respecting

Me:   Are you OK with me stepping in during the day – where I notice that something’s not quite being received, or sense that the team have issues they’re not quite naming?

Sales Director:   Looking a bit nervous and rattled…I’m not sure about that.  I’d prefer you to wait until the break and speak to me privately rather than chip in.

Me:   Slowly, and with some consideration… OK, I’ll do that if you prefer.

I failed to catch the Sales Director during the breaks as she scurried off outside to make some calls on her mobile.  During the event I passed two notes to her on small post-its in the most discreet way I possibly could:

  1. I suggest you wrap this session up now.  Acknowledge their comments, but don’t try to make them go away!  You’ll have a chance to come back to it this afternoon.
  2. Just before you close the day, I suggest you do a round, inviting each person to say what he or she got from the event.

She took up both suggestions.

Scene 5: Review + Affirmation

As the sandwiches and sausages on sticks were being clearer away, and the furniture rearranged around us, we sat in a small circle in the middle of the room.

Me:   How do you sense that went?

1st Commercial Manager:   I didn’t present my bit well, and I was irritated by Dan’s comments, and we didn’t manage to cover X and Y. 

Me:   OK, I guess it wasn’t technically perfect…but my sense is that you landed some key messages extremely well,  you acknowledged their issues, and you found good ways of responding.  I’ll read out what they just said in their feedback to you, as you’ve clearly already forgotten!  One person said “This is such a difference – to be listened to.”  Another said “This is the best sales event I’ve ever been to.  The messages are very clear, and at last we feel we know what the plan is and what we need to do.”  I’d say there was a fair bit that you’ve done rather well…

Sales Director:   Stunned silence.  Yes, maybe it actually went OK.  But there’s a history of these things not sticking around here.  I’ll reserve judgement.  But it was a very different reaction from the usual one…

and, a little grudgingly… thanks, Esther.  

Scene 6: Follow-up

I followed up with a carefully-crafted email offering what I hoped was rich-but-consumable feedback and suggesting how I could support further.  This was the start of a 3 month relationship which saw both the Sales Director and and her department transforming their approach, delivering some bottom line improvements and starting to enjoy their work together more through feeling more aligned and connected!

Post-script…

I was left wondering if this was the lot of the consultant, to be the help that nobody’s supposed to need, but is actually rather useful?  Is it a bit like therapy?  We Brits and other Europeans are often squeamish about it, but those who bravely enter into it are often very convinced and even quietly evangelistic about the benefits.  However, some choose not to risk inviting or asking for help, and instead stay safe, and maybe even stuck, rather than expose themselves to feelings of weakness, vulnerability…or perhaps to the possibility of being manipulated and damaged in some way.

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