Posts tagged with consultant

Honesty

July 21st, 2010

There are three types of honesty. No honesty, good honesty and bad honesty. Now, consulting gets a bad press on the honesty stakes which is unfortunate really as most consultants I know are very honest people. Clever and cunning; yes but dishonest ? No. Well, most of the time they aren’t dishonest but some of them need to practise their art a little more with working the good honesty and bad honesty split. In business as in real life, the truth is often destructive and one of the consultant’s jobs is to feed the truth to the client in a non destructive way.

I’ve been witness to all three types of honesty and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt is that it’s much easier to do it wrong than to do it right. My favourite “no honesty“ example comes from a meeting I attended with a client and my manager. The client asked me if I had conducted an analysis of their data. Having just been drafted onto the project, I said no. My manager jumped in and “suggested” that “what I meant” was that I didn’t realise that a basic analysis had been started and they could have it by first thing tomorrow. What this actually translated to was “no one has done any analysis and now you’re going to spent all night doing it. Ha-ha.”  I was so affronted that I sat up all night writing this poem about my situation.

Same manager different project; we were sitting round the table over business lunch, discussing the development of the clients’ new portal. They had already questioned our ability to deliver the work and my manager was getting edgy at the thoughts of the precious moneys slipping away. “Look,” he spoke up “ XXX (ie: me) is a Subject Matter Expert. XXX led the development of this area on the last project and has had plenty of exposure to the tool.” Yes, by exposure you mean the consulting equivalent of trudging lost and weary through the windswept Arctic wastelands of the user-guides and IT help forums trying to find out how to do a simple one line derivation.

So, we sold the work on one big whopping lie around the fact that none of us even knew what the software was, never mind how to use it. I’ll be honest. You have to blag sometimes. The nature of the work means that any member of the client team could, at any time, ask you anything. We have to instill confidence in our clients as the worst reply to a question is that we don’t know (or worse, say nothing). We HAVE to answer the question and we have to craft our words in a careful enough way to provide a comprehensive answer without promising the world or sounding stupid.
There is a fine line, however, between being professionally vague and lying through your teeth. Blagging is fine when it’s some sort of high level management decision; “yes, we can help align your technical strategic objectives” as oppose to “yes, we have all the experience required to build your intranet portal.”

Honesty of any kind does foster respect. Upon starting my new project, my manager was very upfront with the client. He told them I was a junior consultant, I was still skilling up and not to expect the world. He illustrated impeccable management from there on; when he couldn’t do something he was open and truthful yet never disruptive. I picked up three little tricks to be honest yet careful.
The first is to make the spectator feel special no matter how bad the situation. We won’t meet the deadline? He told them, albeit in a softly-softly way. Instead of saying that he was clueless and holding off until another team member came back from annual leave, he explained the problem to the client and suggested that the delay came from finding someone who was skilled in this very specific problem whereas he spent time honing his SME knowledge in another area. The client was happy to accept the delay because they felt they were holding out to get the best service possible.
The second trick to good honesty is to never say no. “No” is a dirty word in consulting although it makes it harder to manage expectations. The same manager was under pressure from the client to make fundamental changes to the design. It would reap little reward for a huge overhead so he instead focused on the benefits to not changing the system. He didn’t ever mention a comparison between the two solutions or refuse to undertake the redesign – he just said that in his experience it was best practice to keep the original.
Lastly, make the client think of the idea themselves. If you have a hard message to deliver try and make it look as if the client realised this of their own deduction rather than having to deliver bad news. This takes more practice than the other two. Start by listing the obvious advantages or requirements of a solution. Tell the client they need a solution according to the requirements. Hopefully they’ll put two and two together and come up the solution you want them to (with a bit of coaxing). I’ve only seen this done once successfully and when it fails it makes a real mockery of everyone involved.

Managing client expectations is paramount to success. Lying isn’t managing expectations – it’s setting everyone up for a fall. With a bit of careful insight into human nature and a creative way with words you can actually have an honest career as a consultant. If you believe that, you believe anything.

Expenses

June 17th, 2010

I was in discussions with a good friend and worker in the public sector regarding the issue of justified expenses (I don’t mean MP type expenses, just general work expenses.  Before anyone leaps onto a high horse).
“You have it easy,” she said, “You just claim it all on expenses.”

Oh really?  I asked for some justification on what “it all” was.
“Well…your travel, your food and drink…top hotels, entertainment, gym membership, telephone calls, drinks with clients, clothes, dry-cleaning…”
I mulled it over.  Entertainment written onto expenses?  Taking clients wining and dining?  Where was she getting this from?  Then I realised that she was getting consultants confused with investment bankers.  The subtle difference between investment bankers and consultants is that the two industries are dissimilar in every way.  I don’t know where in the annals of tertiary sector work this mix up originated but it seems to once again perpetuated by the media who presents overfed coke head party boys (and girls) who spend their spare time in strip clubs as the only type of professional services worker out there and indeed given the rest of us a damning reputation…either way you can read more about it here.

It’s time to set the record straight on expenses.
Firstly, on a rather whimsical note, most consultants are honest and conscientious people which is why they ended up in consulting and not investment banking.  Sorry, bankers.  On one level, we know that expenses money ultimately comes from the client and most of us feel pretty bad about stuffing it down the knickers of a third rate bleached blonde tangoed lap dancer.   On another level, it’s nay impossible to claim anything over and above the approved rates for things as our computer system simply won’t let you enter it in.  That’s jumping ahead though.  Let me backtrack and I’ll start by clarifying what is and what isn’t classed as an expense.

“Travel – planes, trains, taxis, busses and boats” – Which is fair enough.  We work away from home, someone has to pay the airline to take us there.  What ISN’T true is that we’re living it up in business class with 7am classes of champagne and toasted cashew canapés.  Anyone above manager grade can choose to travel business class, but only trans-Atlantic and within reason.  Lower grades can occasionally travel business class with manager approval but you can bet how often that happens.

“Top Hotels” – Ok, I’ll be honest.  We get to stay in some really nice hotels.  I don’t mean top of the range gold plated and brocade hotels but we do get nice four star business getups in central areas and a good helping of mod cons.  But then again, if you’re being made to work away from home you want to be able to live as normally as possible.  Nice hotels get boring when you can’t leave them because you don’t know anyone or are working so late you literally fall into bed at half one then roll out again at half six.  You’d better be sure I’ll be after a clean bathroom and nicely folded towels waiting at her majesty’s pleasure under those circumstances.

“Food and Drinks” –We can charge for one meal a day and one alcoholic drink with the meal.  To put this into universal purchasing power parity, this is the equivalent of a large pizza, a side and a drink in a chain takeaway.  No sign of the world famous eateries and Michelin stars here – unless the manager takes you out on a “team dinner” which happens usually once during a project during which you’re stuck with your work colleagues talking about work.  We cannot charge for coffee, tea, lunch, snacks or breakfast.  We can attend some industry events which are usually well covered by expenses but who wants to go to work after work and talk about work (see the theme here…) for a free glass of Pinot Grigio?

“Gym Membership” – you can get half subsidised gym membership for one gym which the company chooses but that’s useless as we tend to work away from home a lot.

“Telephone calls” – We can claim calls from the work mobile within a reasonable limit which I bet isn’t as much as your monthly contract.

“Drinks with clients” – If you are of senior enough grade – as in if you’ve spent years slaving over a hot laptop and working 60 hour weeks you can – sometimes -  take clients out for a drink.  The average length of time it takes to get to a grade which allows you to charge for expenses with clients is twelve years.  However, I have heard about client entertainment events such as taking client to box theatre seats at top productions, but it’s only done by the partners and it’s usually with a business agenda.

“Clothes and drycleaning” – Are you serious?  Even if I had the time to go shopping no one is going to pay for my clothes.  There was one circumstance where I had been away from home for four days and my manager asked me to work Friday in a different office then work the weekend doing something else.  His entire suggested reimbursement was that I could buy some clean shirts to wear.  No mention of overtime (which we don’t get paid) or relocation reimbursement.  No, I’m female so obviously the offer of new clothes is going to rope me in.  I said no.

When it comes to entering claims, there is a defined list which much be checked and entered into our systems, along with the provisions of receipts and covering letters where necessary.  Any value which comes as unusual is pulled through an audit process and scrutinised.  Which is fine in my books– there’s no such thing as a free lunch and if such procedures catch out anyone trying to overclaim when the honest ones are doing the best to enter everything in to the penny then it gets my support.
I’ve realised that what I’ve written can almost be construed as negative.  It’s not supposed to be.  It’s simply trying to explain the truth behind our work expenses.  I wouldn’t feel right writing of large sums of client money into filling my belly and even if I had the freedom do so I doubt I would.

Consultants: NOT investment bankers.

May 3rd, 2010

The more I think about what to write in these updates the more I realise that much of what I have to rant about is borne from the fact that most people think consultants and investment bankers are the same thing.
This can make me (even more) mildly irate in my day to day dealings with people as I continually have to reaffirm the truth – yes, we do both fall into that ambiguous guise of “professional services” and yes, most of us work in really big offices. That’s where the similarities start and finish. It’s like saying that because you and funeral directors both wear suits to work that you both bury dead people on a day to day basis. Never fear, though. I’m here to educate you all.

Contrary to what it often sounds like, I don’t hate investment bankers. It’s just that most people hate consultants and consultants need someone to vent against and investment bankers are fair game. They knew that before they got into the profession. So without further ado – the truth: Consultants are not investment bankers.

“WOW, you must earn MILLIONS”
Wrong. I think most of you would be shocked by how little I earn. Ok, I appreciate that it’s much more than other grad entry level salaries but it’s not like the upper echelons of the five figure sums that trainee bankers get. We also don’t get bonuses. Well, we do, but at junior levels they are all under a four figure sum and you have to get consistently high grades (yes, we are marked like we are in school) and unless you get the equivalent of nine straight A’s and a respected manager fighting your corner, you ain’t getting’ none.

“Do you go to strip clubs at the weekend and take coke?”
I have been asked this (or something similar) at least three times. I blame Confessions of a City Girl– which is an epic read by the way, I devoured in during a depressing day in new joiners training all the while carving “keep thinking of the money” into the table -who IS and investment baker and who DOES hang out in strip clubs. I don’t, and I don’t know any consultants who do. There’s two reasons:
One – we are obliged to remain clean and pristine because of the caliber of the clients we work for. Investment bankers don’t actually work for clients in the same way we do hence when they get in trouble it’s only their own name they bring into disrepute.
Two – most consultants are only too happy to get home at the weekend and would rather see their friends and families than go and see strippers. We’re all really a rather sedate bunch at heart and although we can give the average Joe a run for their drinking money, we would prefer to put our feet up and watch Come Dine with Me whilst looking for new leather gloves on ebay.

“What are the trading floors really like?”
I don’t know. Ask a banker. We tend to advise investment banks and financial institutions (ha, take that bankers!) as oppose to do any trading. We could, for example, advise a financial institution on their IT strategy, or maybe a restructure or on mergers and acquisitions. We don’t advise on what to buy, sell or stockpile. Our work is mush less volatile and hence less risky. As I keep saying, consultants tend to be meeker and milder than bankers and don’t want big scary on the spot decisions to be made without backup deliverables. How would we possibly make a trade without involving all stakeholders and ensuring that the client is fully engaged? How can you POSSIBLY do all your work off spreadsheets. Do you want a data warehouse for that?
People can move on to be investment bankers though. What tends to happens is that we spend a long term spell consulting to an investment bank and the cocky alpha male and female types realise that consulting is rather boring in many ways and it’s much more fun shouting SELL SELL SELL down a wired telephone. So we skim these guys off to the banks leaving behind – you guessed it – the meek and mild types aforementioned.

“You have to be well connected to get in”
This was a strange one. I know that in the past, investment banking had a bit of the old boys network about it. Not just anyone got to be a banker and wear the braces and smoke expensive cigars. It was very much an Oxbridge/Ivy League pursuit. Best keep the money in the family and all that. I don’t think consulting was ever like that. As a relatively new profession (evolving about the same time as the expansion of the public sector) it tended to just want friendly, mentally stable, smart people who could communicate with other people. Your family ties are irrelevent. Now that graduate recruitment has been standardised and all those poor working class people can come in and steal a good education I think employers are pretty ambivalent about a recruit’s Alma Mater. Besides which, I’ve harped on before about consulting selling itself on the back of “understanding” the client and very often, that includes the common touch.

There we go. I hope this had made things clearer. Bankers – risky, highly paid, big bonuses and promotions on the backs of dodgy deals. They spend their days buying and selling stuff. Less honest (remember the great big economic death of 2008?) and more prone to sex in hotels with strippers.
Consultants – less risky, less well paid, appraisal based on performance. We spend our day suggesting the best approach to a difficult situation. More honest and more prone to a weekend in the park with the kids.

So don’t ever compare me to an investment banker again.