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You Want To Be A Consultant? Rule #4: Have a Thick Skin

consultant4An assignment a few years ago required some very specialized design work. We provided a detailed report with many specific recommendations, many of which were ignored. When we politely pointed this out to the client, we were told, “Just because we pay you for advice, that doesn’t mean we’ll follow it.”(1)

Fair enough. Managers sometimes have to make difficult tradeoffs, with technical advice being only one of many parameters that must be considered. Consultants should therefore not be offended when a manager decides to assign a lower priority to their recommendations — we don’t see the big picture; the manager does.

In another example, a colleague of mine — arguably one of the top experts for guiding the preparation of winning proposals for military contracts — arrived to head up a hot time-sensitive proposal effort, only to spend two days sitting in a waiting room. Whether the client was suddenly engaged in an emergency task or whether they were being woefully inefficient doesn’t matter; this was the client’s prerogative, and nothing to get upset about. (My colleague was paid handsomely for sitting.)

Bottom line: although consultants should expect to be treated with professionalism and respect, they should not expect to be given any special privileges or accommodations, and they certainly should never demand such treatment. We are there to do a job with minimal hand-holding, not to be treated like visiting royalty, and our egos should be accordingly prepared.(2)

-Ed Walker

Note 1: In this example, the subsequent eruption of significant technical problems indicated that ignoring our advice was not a wise decision.

Note 2: For example, a consultant should not assume that an office will be provided, or even a desk. Be prepared to grab a table in the cafeteria, or to use the desk of someone who’s on vacation.

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