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The Pair of Hands Trap: What Keeps Consultants From Strategic Client Partnership

1 - start right 2 - brand messaging & positioning organizational consulting Nov 23, 2022

Today I'll discuss the positioning traps that hold consultants back from their impact and earning potential.

To set the context for what I mean by positioning traps – I need to take you back in time to 1997 when my mentor and professor told me – people don't get what you do and what you can offer as an organizational consultant. His feedback was impactful; I will share what he taught me to do and the powerful results!

I learned that if we want to be treated and paid as a strategic partner, we must position ourselves that way. Otherwise, we'll default into one of the positioning traps that will stand in the way of the difference we want to make and the income we want to earn.

This insight about taking charge of my positioning is a theme throughout my consulting and entrepreneurial career – including what I do now as a brand messaging and positioning strategist.

When I got to Disney, I was able to consult with the executives on the strategic projects I mentioned in the last episode because I positioned myself to do that work. I proactively advocated for the work approach I thought was best for my role. 

This positioning perspective is behind my approach to landing work, which I call a Partnership Set Up. It is how I grew my business and helped my clients grow small requests into six-figure engagements.

And it's key from a marketing standpoint because the truth is the role of a strategic partner and executive advisor isn't on the org chart and shouldn't be, which I'll explain why in this episode.

Now, let's get into the positioning pitfalls.


The Pair of Hands Trap

Great examples of the pair of hands trap are: 

  •  When you're in a discovery meeting with a client asking you for a specific solution, you just say "yes."
  • When they ask for training, and you say – how many people, for how many days
  • When they ask for coaching, and you say – how many people for how long

When you do this, you become the virtual direct report of your client. This pitfall is the easiest to fall into because it matches how people post for jobs and how people land them. It's how you got jobs in the past – employers have an open position, you apply for it, and then convince that employer you're the best candidate. It's how professional services firms work – like your accountant and lawyer.


The Pair of Hands Trap - From The Client's Perspective

Clients rarely diagnose the true problem they are facing. And in my experience, the client is never right because they are too close to the situation. In turn, they often,

  • Invest in potentially expensive band-aids
  • Invest in solutions that don't solve their problems
  • Spend money that doesn't create a return

When clients choose fast band-aids, it hurts their leadership brand and reputation. Depending on what they ask you to do – it might annoy their stakeholders or worsen things.

Change begins when we are brought in, creating all kinds of hopes, expectations, and fears. People hate flavors of the month – solutions that go nowhere or don't address real issues reduce trust. 


The Pair of Hands Trap - Impact on Your Income

For consultants, the desire for quick solutions from clients create an endless chase for smaller paying, non-strategic projects. It may look like subcontracting opportunities or trying to join a firm to alleviate the pressure. And consultants get stuck with the earning cap of time-based pay.

Subcontracting drawbacks: 

  • Subcontracting may seem appealing, especially if you hate marketing
  • You get work for other more established consultants or join a firm
  • You only earn a fraction of what you could earn, and you're in a non-compete situation where you can't easily parlay one engagement into another.
  • Hard news – if your network finds sub-contracting opportunities, you're still marketing. Just not in the most powerful way


The Pair of Hands Trap - Impact to Your Impact

You won't seem credible to a senior leader if you JUST do what they say or come in as a sub-contractor.

Instead, you want to shape their thinking about who you are and your expertise from how you engage with them and their strategic partners that they respect and trust can hold their own, push back, and give a new perspective.

They LOVE an independent point of view – it might frustrate them sometimes, but no one else in their organization has that broader perspective than an outside consultant. Suppose you have a vision for helping organizations become healthier and sustainably successful and create the environments that create the conditions for all employees to show up as themselves and do their best work. In that case, you will not be able to raise the issues with your executive clients if you simply take orders.

You have to own your power and be an equal for the C-Suite to take your perspective seriously.

Consultants fall into the "extra pair of hands trap" when they have money or rejection fears, but ironically owning their power helps overcome both of these insecurities. 


The Surrogate Leadership Trap

The surrogate leadership trap is when you tell a client what they should do and set up your client to your direct report. 

If you have command as one of your strengthsfinder themes and are used to leading others vs. coaching them, this is your natural go-to place and strengths.

But here are is the problem for the client:

They don't own their responsibilities or the work that you're engaged with them around. For example, one of my clients had a client dealing with a tough employee situation but was afraid of performance management. So, my client was brought in to give the employee difficult feedback - which was stepping into the responsibility of that leader!

You may think – what's the big deal? Think about it from the employee perspective who had a third party share information they should be hearing from their leader. And think about it from that leader's inner thoughts and career trajectory – to grow a business or organization, leaders have to become skilled at performance coaching. My client kept this leader from growing through their challenging issues. They look weak and ineffective if they cede their accountabilities to a consultant, no matter how experienced. 

If you do their responsibilities vs. coaching and advising them on how to best fulfill their responsibilities, they won't grow. There is no transfer of learning.

Think of it like a marriage counselor relationship. Let's say a husband and wife have some challenges. For example, the wife doesn't feel like her husband loves or affirms her. So instead of helping the husband respond to the wife's needs, the marriage counselor offers the love and affirmation that the wife needs. 

Problems for YOU:

  • If the work fails, you're the fall guy. You're the one who will be blamed. Disempowered leaders will eventually get frustrated like with my client John whose client fired him
  • You'll find yourself involved in labor-intensive projects or in a fractional leadership role where you're working as many hours as you were when you were an employee.
  • In many cases, you'll be charging by the hour, which caps your earning potential

The positioning goal isn't above your client as a surrogate leader or below your client as a pair of hands but as an equal! You need to be a peer to your leader outside the system where they operate so you can offer an objective opinion.

You're NOT on the org chart – anywhere and don't want to be.


The Solution = Go To The Middle

Picture a continuum where on the left side is the pair of hands trap and on the right side is the surrogate leadership trap. On the continuum, it looks like the pair of hands trap and surrogate leadership trap are on opposite poles, but if you think of that continuum on the same bar, they are right next to each other. It's like coward and bully having the same energy.

The positioning goal isn’t above your client as a surrogate leader or below your client as a pair of hands, but as an equal peer to your leader and outside the system they operate within

You’re NOT on the org chart – anywhere and you don’t want to be.

In the cheat sheet I mentioned, I laid out a continuum of the different types of consulting approaches. You can go to www.betsyjordyn.com/consulting-approaches to see what I'm talking about.

Going from left/pair of hands trap to right/surrogate are:

  • Solution specialist – which is someone who has a specific tool or approach that they sell
  • Executive coach – is someone who helps an individual's growth
  • Process leader – someone who identifies root causes, sets the agenda, and facilitates the processes for leaders
  • Expert advisor – someone who provides expert opinions
  • Management consultant – someone who uses their subject matter expertise to recommend solutions and best practices
  • Project management – someone who oversees the actual work getting done
  • Empower executives to solve their problems within the context of the system that they operate within
  • The balance between offering strength and support in the form of being a sounding board and process leader
  • As a process leader, you help the client figure out HOW to accomplish WHAT they want to accomplish.
  • As a sounding board, you offer something that no one else in the organization can:
    • Common vantage point – you see the organization from their point of view and even broader.
    • Objectivity – which is premium because everyone else has a dog in the hunt and an agenda
    • Quality questioning helps your clients refine their understanding of what they think, which will help them see the right things to do


The Middle - Maximize Impact and Income

You maximize impact and income when you can:

  • Help your clients solve the right problems in the right way with buy-in and support
  • Accelerate their results AND their growth
  • Improve your brand perception
  • Make the most of every lead and opportunity

This positioning starts long before a client requests more information about working with us. It begins with how we position ourselves in the market, how we frame our products/services, and the approaches we use in our marketing. If you want to be positioned and paid as a peer to the C-Suite, you have to take charge of every touchpoint a client has that influences how they see you. 

Have you clarified who you serve and the value of what you do, and what makes you different? Do you have a credible website that attracts and converts clients? Do you use marketing methods that establish you as an expert advisor? If you go to networking events, are you just a participant or a speaker? Do you create and publish content?

When a client expresses interest in working with you – do you know how to pivot them from wants to needs and create a proposal with options and value-based pricing?

If you don't know the answers to these questions, it's time to dig in! 

Download my free cheat sheet to summarize what we discussed today and determine where your consulting approach falls on the pair of hands to surrogate leader continuum and, most importantly – where you want to be www.betsyjordyn.com/consulting-approaches.


Next step

Do you find yourself longing to make a more strategic impact on the executives and organizations you currently serve?

Are you frustrated with being pigeonholed into a tactical role, missing out on the opportunity to share your valuable insights in decision-making circles? That's why I'm thrilled to introduce you to the OD Consultant's Toolbox – a transformative program that will empower you to make a strategic impact and elevate your consulting game to new heights...at whatever price you can afford!

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