Manager or Consultant?
What are consultants for? The key to understanding the consultant role is to distinguish between a consultant and a manager – and it’s all about control, or power.
A consultant is a person in a position to have some influence over an individual, a group, or an organisation, but who has no direct power to make changes or implement programmes. A manager is someone who has direct control over the action. The moment you take direct control, you are acting as a manager.
When you are asked directions and you tell someone to get off the bus two stops before you do, you are acting as a consultant. Every time you give advice to someone who is faced with a choice, you are consulting. When you don’t have direct control over people and yet want them to listen to you and heed your advice, you are face to face with the consultant’s dilemma. For some of you, this may be your full-time predicament. Some of you may face it only occasionally, functioning part time as managers (having direct control) and part time as consultants (wanting to influence, but lacking authority to control).
Most people in staff roles in organisations are really consultants, even if they don’t officially call themselves ‘consultants’. Staff people function in any organisation by planning, recommending, assisting or advising.
Then there are the clients. Sometimes the client is a single individual. At other times, the client may be a work group, a department or a whole organisation. The client is the person or persons that the consultant wants to influence, without exercising direct control.
The distinction between consultants and managers is important. A consultant needs to function differently from a line manager – for the consultant’s own sake and for the learning goals of the client. It’s OK to have direct control – most of us want it in various forms of disguise. It is essential, though, to be aware of the difference in the roles we are assuming when we have it and when we don’t.
Much of the disfavour associated with the term ‘consultant’ comes from the actions of people who call themselves ‘consultants’ but act as surrogate line managers. When you act on the behalf of, or in the place of, the manager, you are acting as a surrogate manager. The attraction of the surrogate manager role is that, at least for that one moment, you assume the manager’s power – but you do the manager’s job, not yours.
People in a staff role really need consulting skills to be effective – regardless of their field of technical expertise (finance, planning, engineering, personnel, law). Every time you give advice to someone who is in the position to make the choice, you are consulting. For each of these moments of consultation, there are three kinds of skills you need to do a good job – technical, interpersonal and consulting skills. Here are the distinctions:
Above all, we need to know what the person is talking about. We need expertise about the question. Either at university/college or in our first job, we were trained in a specific field or function. This might be engineering, sales, accounting, counselling or any of the thousands of ways people make a living. This is our basic training. It is only later, after acquiring some technical expertise, that we start consulting. If we didn’t have some expertise, then people wouldn’t ask for our advice. The foundation for consulting skills is some expertise.
To function with people, we need to have some interpersonal skills; some ability to put ideas into words, to listen, to give support, to disagree reasonably, to basically maintain a relationship. Just like technical skills, interpersonal skills are necessary to effective consultation.
Some authorities suggest that good consulting actually requires only good interpersonal skills. This is not true. There is a set of skills that is an essential part of consulting over and above technical expertise and interpersonal skills – these are consulting skills.
Each consulting project, whether it lasts ten minutes or ten months, goes through phases. The steps in each phase are sequential; if you skip one or assume it has been taken care of, you are headed for trouble. Skilful consulting is being competent in the execution of each of these steps.
With thanks to Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting.
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