Client-Consultant Relationship

By Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA

A Match Made in Heaven?
In consulting, the beginning is very important. First impressions are made that tend to last, even if erroneous. It can be a time of vulnerability and defensiveness. But, if an atmosphere of safety is established; it can set the tone for a productive and collaborative relationship.

The following section is taken from a packet of materials that, whenever possible, I ask the prospective client to look at in anticipation of our first meeting.

The Client-Consultant Relationship1

The client-consultant relationship is designed to be an extremely rewarding experience. This collaborative endeavor can generate a substantial return on investment for the client’s business. It can also lead to dramatic changes that affect the company, its culture, and employees. In the case of family businesses, positive results can impact generations to come.

One must work hard, however, to make the client-consultant relationship as fruitful as it can be. The early phases are crucial. This presentation of some of my thoughts and philosophy on consulting is an attempt to get the relationship off on the right foot and increase the odds that it will be a mutually gratifying experience.

Phase One — Establishing Chemistry
It all starts with the first phone call. The caller may be an owner or CEO wrestling with an organizational, strategic, or personnel issue. In the case of a family business, it may involve an owner-founder facing business decisions that are intertwined with family dynamics.

This initial interchange is complex. When a potential client calls with a problem or question, he often expects an immediate action plan. Instead, what he’ll hear from me are questions. This may be initially frustrating for some. Good questions, however, reveal the need for further discussion. Face-to-face interaction follows, in the form of a chemistry meeting.

The chemistry meeting can be anywhere from one half-hour meeting to a series of several meetings. It may involve just the owner or CEO, or it may include several individuals in a firm or several family members. During this phase the various issues facing the client are discussed.

I gather information through questions and by listening to the story being presented to me. During this time, the client and I are developing a sense of how well we can work together. This unfolding dialogue is central to the establishment of trust and collaboration.

During this phase, the initial scope of the work and mutual expectations are defined. There may be some specific assignments, such as establishing coaching relationships with executives or the presentation of a seminar. Other work may be more open-ended, such as future discussions with the CEO or HR to develop a clearer understanding of the corporate culture, an outline for a leadership development program, or to discuss succession planning.

Phase Two — Identifying the Client
It’s not always clear who the client is. For instance, my contact may be a Human Resources VP dealing with a senior executive who is negatively affecting the rest of the Executive Team, and in turn the bottom line. Who is the client? Is it the Human Resources VP, the senior executive, or the company? The goal is to make interventions that are simultaneously beneficial for all involved.

I can provide advocacy and coaching for the senior executive the Human Resources VP wants me to work with while serving the best interests of the company at large. Given appropriate resources and support, we can generate a synergistic, positive outcome from which everyone can benefit.

Like a primary physician, a consultant gathers information through questions, and possibly tests, to arrive at a diagnosis and construct a plan of action. Unlike a primary physician who checks some boxes and hands a form to the billing department to obtain payment from the client or insurance company, the consultant and client need to agree on expectations and manner of payment.

Phase Three — Estimating the Cost
Clients are businessmen. It is their nature and their job to justify expenses and to, as much as possible, have a sense of the return on any investment. The benefits of a consulting engagement, however, are usually difficult to measure.

What dollar figure do we place on consulting work done that enabled a senior executive to improve his organizational skills, and his interpersonal relations with the Executive Team and direct reports? Did that work have anything to do with the success of a project the senior executive headed that had been floundering for 10 months before the consultant began the coaching relationship? Should the consultant share in the credit for the major profits this key project generated for the company? Of course, not every consulting engagement achieves all that was hoped for.

My clinical training has instilled in me strict adherence to the motto: Above all do no harm. My personality, work ethic, and values make it very uncomfortable for me to work in a situation where Im not being helpful. These principles guide my consulting work; and, along with my training and expertise, form the basis for my schedule of fees.

Phase Four — Starting the Work
At this point, rapport and a sense of trust have been established and the client engages me as a hired consultant. The assessment process still continues. This may involve individual interviews with key personnel or family members. Essential historical, financial, and operational information about the business is necessary to obtain a holistic picture of the business system and culture. Recommendations by past consultants are also relevant.

Specific coaching assignments and projects with concrete objectives may be started. However, it is important to realize that as the early work phase unfolds, other important short-term and long-term goals may become known. This may require some prioritizing. The ongoing assessment process may reveal a major organizational or strategic need that must be addressed. For instance, it may become clear to a family business contracting me for executive coaching work with the owner’s son that the important issue of succession planning requires much needed attention.

Phase Five — Developing My Role as Consultant
There are a number of different roles I can serve as a consultant to the business. As the work unfolds, the client may want to enlist me to serve these various functions.

Coach — As a coach, I can work with individuals to improve interpersonal, leadership, and organizational skills; to expand self-awareness and self-management; to define personal and career goals; to increase the understanding of group and organizational dynamics; to recognize the various components of the company’s culture; to align personal and company visions; and, in general to increase the range, flexibility, and effectiveness of the individual’s behavioral repertoire with co-workers, clients, and family.

Conflict Manager — Prolonged unresolved conflict between two key individuals in the system can paralyze and even destroy a company or family. Key dyads can involve conflict between two partners; an owner-founder and spouse (the executive couple); the head of sales and the plant manager; or other principal pairs. Conflict may also exist in the Executive Team. It may render operational and strategic meetings useless. My role is not to be judge or mediator but to facilitate communication and to help establish true dialogue – the art of thinking together.

Teacher — Situations may arise where a teaching module or seminar can be customized and utilized to serve, not only an instructional, but an organizationally strategic purpose. In my role as consultant, I promote a stance and approach that underscores how expanding knowledge generates healthy business and personal functioning. This role may require me to be the one to ask the tough questions that need to be asked. Colluding to avoid the examination of critical issues does not serve the interest of the client. But, it is important that the consultant ask questions skillfully and with good timing. In my role as teacher I also contribute to the development of the business as a learning organization.

Interpreter — This could be my most valuable service. As an experienced observer of human nature and human organizations I am able to process and decode a great deal of emotional and psychological information that may be meaningless or too ambiguous to the casual observer or the individual enmeshed in the system. I can recognize themes, trends, and other phenomena and interpret them to the client. He can make use of this valuable information to effect organizational change and strategy.

A word about confidentiality. In order to be effective I must have the trust of those I work with. They must be assured that any information given to me stays with me unless I have permission to disclose it.

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