How To Position Yourself as a Peer (and Stay Out of the Dreaded "Pair-Of-Hands" Trap)

 

Forging a strong client relationship is not a matter of chance. It is the result of choice and whether or not the consultant has taken charge of the positioning process. Unlike other roles in an organization, consultants hold no formal position on the organization chart. It is up to the consultant to carve out the position. If consultants do not take charge of the positioning process, it will be done for them by their clients which may cause them to fall into one of two traps.

The first trap is what I would call the Surrogate Leadership Trap. Consulting is not the same as leading, which can be seen in the visual above.

Many consultants by virtue of their natural leadership abilities or past executive experience are invited to play a role that involves more than simply giving expert advice or recommendations but rather step into the role that the client is supposed to be playing. And if the consultant has been a leader in the past, this is a huge temptation.

Trying to lead from the consultant’s chair also poses risks you as a consultant. You risk being set up. If your recommended solution doesn’t work, you know who’ll be the scapegoat. Trust me; it won’t be the client, even though she might have been absent during the project. In this situation, you’ll also run the risk of damaging your reputation.

The second trap is what I call the “Pair of Hands” Trap. In a “pair of hands” situation, the client collects the data, analyzes it and determines the solution. The client then hires a consultant to implement the solution. There’s an assumption here, a dangerous one: that the client has correctly diagnosed the problems he is facing. The client believes that he doesn’t need any input from the consultant, just a “pair of hands” to implement the solution. Often, the pair of hands mindlessly follows the client’s instructions, regardless of whether they make sense. The risk to the consultant is that you do not position yourself as a strategic business partner with a wide range of unique skills that can be brought to bear. It is impossible to make dramatic improvements to your compensation if you are positioned in this way.

Consultants should be positioned as an equal peer with a complementary skill set that enables the leader to better fulfill their responsibilities. The ideal dynamic is:

 When you have this positioning right you are able to:

  • Be seen as a strategic partner to solve business performance issues
  • Provide an independent, outside perspective
  • Leverage your entire self and expertise in the best way possible

Achieving optimal client positioning begins with awareness of your starting point.

Answer the following questions to better understand how you can enhance the ways in which you position yourself with clients.

  1. Prior to becoming a consultant, what type of position did you hold? Did you hold senior leadership positions before you became a consultant? Do you have significant staff group experience, such as from HR, Finance or IT? How was your role positioned – were you in charge or did you provide specialized support?
  2. Based on your answers to question 1 and what is contained in the table below – which trap do you tend to fall into – surrogate leadership or pair of hands?
  3. Which skills of a peer-to-peer partner do you possess? Are you effective in framing challenges? Can you effectively lead without positional authority
  4. How comfortable are you with positioning yourself as a peer-to-peer partner?
  5. What thinking patterns will you need to shift in order to become a stronger peer-to-peer partner with clients?
  6. What skills or abilities do you need to acquire and/or enhance in order to do so?
  • Marketing and sales
  • Partnership set-up and contracting
  • Assessment
  • Stakeholder management
  • Process leadership (vs. project leadership)
  • Other: _____________________________________________________________

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