17 April, 2020

Real Leadership Is Forged in a Crisis (Part I)

Why Consultants really should take their own advice in this time of crisis…

This post has been co-authored with my friend and colleague Siobhan Maughan, principal of the Dublin-based strategic marketing consultancy IntegratedThinking. We met at the DCU Ryan Academy’s Mentoring for Scale – an initiative targeted at fast-growth entrepreneurs in the Dublin startup sector. We both act as mentors in these monthly breakfast speed-dating sessions, where each entrepreneur has 30 minutes to present their current challenges to three experts in succession and seek their advice. Each interaction is a high-concentration challenging engagement, with both the mentors and the mentee (business founders) needing to focus hard and respond fast to squeeze the most juice out of the morning.

We have spent a good many hours over the past two months bringing our experience and perspectives to bear in animated discussions around the current COVID-19 crisis and its consequential effect on consultants, business advisors and coaches – a subject close to our heart and of special relevance to so many now.

Our discussions have focused on a few questions around the consultant business model, charge rates and how consultants appear to be the worst culprits of not doing what they make a living from telling other people to do, often at great cost to their quality of earnings and life, not to mention their mental health and energy.

Between us, we bring decades of experience of consulting with scaling businesses or supporting those businesses to capitalise on their “business model”. Together we want to capture what we believe to be timely and hopefully encouraging advice to professional consultants to help you to use this time of crisis to do what you so rarely do systematically – to invest in your business, nurture and care for your most precious assets and prepare for the upswing through regrouping, refocusing and re-energizing yourself

There could not be a better time!

The cobbler’s children have no shoes.

There is a well-known aphorism which states that “the cobbler’s children have the worst shoes.”, in other words…

Those in a particular trade tend to be most neglectful of themselves and their requirements in respect of that trade

I guess that means that butchers get the scraps, not the filet, fishmongers eat hake and not salmon, doctors never take health advice, bankers have the least money and …

Consultants rarely take the advice they are paid well to dispense to clients

Sound familiar?.

We can prove the truth of this.

In a recent comprehensive study of SME businesses looking at profit margins across all industry groups from chemicals to consulting, it was found that the difference in profitability between the top 10% and the average (including the 10%) was a staggering 7x or 700% if you prefer a big number.

Nowhere has the discrepancy between the top performers and the average been as extreme as in the consulting profession …

The top 10% of consultants generate a 34% operating profit margin and the average earn a paltry 2.5% – a 15x or 1,500% difference

If you further imagine that the distribution of the “rest” of the consulting is not equal amongst the other deciles, you will, without straining your math’s brain cells too much arrive at the inevitable conclusion that most or at least a substantial proportion of those whose job it is to advise others on the betterment of their operations – from IT to strategy – are the worst at applying that advice to themselves.

Consultants rarely take their own advice, they complain of high levels of stress, exhaustion and a feeling of being prisoners of their own particular hamster wheel – how can we change?

Running hard to stay in the same place

It is undoubtedly true that consultants are (with a few exceptions) first and foremost helpers whose strongest wish is to be seen as an expert and specialist in their chosen field. They want to be respected for their experience, problem-solving skills and influence.

In reality, though they often feel that they could and should be generating more revenue for the effort they are putting in and that the risk-reward balance is often not where they would like it. They dream (literally) of having their clients refer more business to them and of being able to focus on projects that are intellectually stimulating.

Our experience of consultants from our business networks, especially those working as solopreneurs rather than in partnerships or small consultancy practices, is that they are running hard just to stay in the same place and often find it hard to differentiate themselves in a crowded and competitive marketplace. Those who have not mastered the art of understanding their value and finding opportunities that maximise that value for clients are often too busy chasing and delivering on smaller projects, to be able to concentrate or devote much attention to the medium and long term strategic development of their business.

It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one

Consultants, mentors and coaches are by default some of the smartest people around. They have to be. They are paid for their ability to parse actual situations into models of the world that they have thought deeply about and to recommend processes and courses of action which will result in positive outcomes and increased efficiency and efficacy for their business clients. They need to have command of both theoretical and practical knowledge and communicate complex interdependencies in understandable terms, as well as quickly filtering out the important from the irrelevant when taking over a brief to get to the heart of the matter.

So why do we struggle to apply rigorous thinking to our own business challenges?

We understand why doctors don’t operate on their own appendices (although we have heard stories of ones that have), but it seems counter-intuitive that consultants would not utilise a small amount of their own medicine to help themselves cure their own ills.

Those who see themselves as experts in their field may be unwilling to seek advice from people who they perceive would not know any more than they themselves do. Perhaps doctors are the last people to seek medical advice for their own ailments? Perhaps coaches, consultants and mentors are not willing to seek advice from those they see as peers?

However, we all know that speaking with someone who is who is not influenced by our sometimes long held biases or beliefs and who can give an impartial view of our situation based on their experience and expertise can be invaluable.

Sometimes we are oblivious to what is staring us in the face until someone else points it out

When we get into firefighting mode it can be difficult to find time and space for what is truly important vs. deemed to be urgent … from our anecdotal experience of dealing with other consultants, mentors and coaches we came up with the following Business Cycle Adjusted Excuse Profile

As you can see, there is never a right time to make room for important but not urgent work! There can always be excuses related to time, money, energy or need – depending on where in the business cycle we happen to find ourselves.

A priori, these “excuses” are just that, they may be valid – for instance in today’s environment who could fault anyone for holding onto their precious reserves? Who knows how long this Covid-19 lockdown is going to last? Will there even be a consulting market for anyone to return to when it is eventually over?

Are these genuine concerns or are they just excuses?

Excuses just mean that serious, life-altering change is kept firmly under lock and key…

If you do what you always do, you will get what you always got!

“Madness: Doing the same thing over and over  again and expecting a different result” Albert Einstein

This cycle will come and go. The valley – be it U, V, W, L or S-shaped – will be traversed and we will emerge, possibly exhausted, but still fit for business, on the other side and begin the long (or maybe even short and steep) march to recovery. The question we ask – and not rhetorically – is:

What will individual consultants and coaches have done to ensure that the next cycle does not end the same way as all the previous ones have done?

Can we all grasp this opportunity to practice what we often preach?

Will we use this COVID-19 crisis to invest in ourselves so that we are fighting fit for the upturn and ready to grow our reputations as reliable, professionally competent business people who showed strategic foresight during the hiatus?

“Physician! Heal thyself”?

We would love to hear your thoughts on this so that we can share our collective experiences and generate greater insights to share with you all – insights that will help us as consultants, mentors and coaches.

Siobhan Maughan

Steven Wilkinson