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Why consultants should take notes from honey bees

There's much more to consulting than saying you add value. Here's the type of partner all consultants should strive to be.

by Tim Letscher

Last fall, I wrote about how excited I was to join the world of consulting, particularly on why I joined Slalom. Now, nine months later, it's time for a self-assessment. So I asked myself, What kind of consultant am I, really?

Consultants often justify their presence with the “adding value” line. Someone I admire refers to that as “blah, blah, blah.” It’s not that adding value isn’t important, but it isn’t precise enough. It doesn’t hold a consultant’s feet to the fire. The better question to ask is, Did I make it stick?

This got me thinking about the different ways a relationship develops between a consultant and a client. And that got me thinking about symbiosis. I recently rolled off of my first client engagement representing Slalom, so now is a great time for reflection.

Symbiosis (noun) [sim-bee-oh-seez]:
The living together of two dissimilar organisms, as in mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism.

In any symbiotic relationship, both parties are affected but only some types of relationships turn out mutually win-win. Here’s a primer on the symbiotic relationships between consultants and clients.

The mosquito

Symbiosis: parasitism

The mosquito sweeps in and ultimately leaves—belly full. It’s the only party benefiting from the relationship. Sure, the consultant gets noticed and leaves a temporary impression, but it’s obviously not a positive experience for the client. In fact, when a consultant causes too much discomfort or acts purely out of self-interest, a client might justifiably cut the relationship off quickly. Splat.

The barnacle

Symbiosis: commensalism

The barnacle is, by most accounts, harmless. It typically hitches a ride on a whale—a client—hardly getting noticed but somehow hanging around for what seems like eternity. A barnacle becomes a familiar face in the halls but people aren’t quite sure what it does. While the client isn’t noticeably harmed or damaged, nobody’s quite sure what projects are benefiting.

The honey bee

Symbiosis: mutualism

Flowers need bees to proliferate. Bees need flowers for their nectar and pollen. Consultants should surely make the needs of their clients a priority, but it’s still important to ask, “Is this project good for me and/or my firm?” A healthy relationship is where both sides benefit and grow from the relationship. Win-win.

Four ways to maintain mutual symbiosis

  1. Trust 
    As the foundation to any strong relationship, trust allows for calculated risks, respectful honesty, and genuine partnership. It’s not always instant. It’s typically earned and begins with presenting your authentic self.
  2. A well-defined project charter
    Is the ask clear? Without clear alignment, expectations on either side of the equation could be way off.
  3. Regular check-ins
    Even a detailed plan needs to flex and adapt to evolving conditions. To paraphrase Mike Tyson: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. We can’t see every fork in the road and neither can our client. Regular check-ins track progress and maintain alignment.
  4. Teaching them how to fish
    Keep an endgame in sight—or risk becoming the barnacle. Part of making it stick is establishing systems that empower a client to eventually take the reins to sustain the processes you helped establish. Concluding a project and reaching a milestone doesn’t mean the relationship ends. Think of yourself as a teacher in the guise of a subject matter expert.

If I’m rolling off a project and things aren't permanently improved for my client, I’ve failed at my task. It’s my hope each day to not only bring value but to make it stick.

Tim Letscher originally published this post on Medium.