A Simple Truth: Consultants Can Influence, But Can’t Drive Change

Sep 30, 2013

“This time it’s gonna work because we hired a consultant.”

That statement was made by a vestry member of a small church that had been trying to grow since 1967. It was a little church in the woods, and the congregation (as tested by an interim rector) was overwhelmingly ISTJ.

It did work, however, as the little church in the woods is now a thriving, growing parish. But it wasn’t the consultant that led to success, it was a strong lay leader who took his time, energy and skill to identify and collaboratively overcome the obstacles in the way of growth.

The consultant served as an advisor, and the leader listened to the advice, but the changes were organically grown, not handed down by consultant.

Consultants can’t make change

Fast forward to a local organization under tremendous turmoil. I wrote about this organization in What Happens When Company Culture Gets a Big Wake-Up Call?  as the frivolity and hubris of the CEO became the subject of regular local media coverage, and the union organizers were hovering.

This week, the CEO stepped down. It wasn’t a glossed over, “she decided to retire” statement; it was the Board saying they wanted new leadership.

In the retrospective of her tenure over 30 years with the organization, one of the criticisms launched toward her was spending millions of dollars with a top tier consulting group to determine where to cut expenses.

Here’s the problem with that: Whether it is a small church or a top-tier consulting firm, it is impossible for a consulting firm to make change.

The very best one can hope for from a good consultant is to provide actionable data that those inside the organization are too close to see, and then to facilitate candid dialogue about what the data says. A really good consultant can quickly see the blind spots and the obstacles to change, and may be successful at influencing the organization to look at the data in a new way.

When executive leadership needs to take over

But the organization has to be open, be honest and be willing to scrutinize their own behaviors.

In the local organization, the consultants had their eye on expense. The executive team had their eye on expense. That singular focus led to decisions to cut employee pay, saying that the night shift differential was approximately $18 million over “market.”

The consultants were providing data and advice to a leadership team that was looking for quick, easy answers. The leadership team trusted the consultants to solve their problem.

Consultants don’t solve problems. They find the problems, offer possible solutions, but the change must happen inside the organization.

That kind of change takes openness, vulnerability, and courage. This is the role of executive leadership.

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.