The Tensions of Being a 'Management Consultant'

Megan Taylor explores the tensions and paradox she experiences in her consulting practice - and how they often raise more questions than answers.

Life is full of tensions. As I work with people in organisations I am forever noticing the ubiquitous nature of the tensions that are a reality of how we live and work with one another. Their existence is an indicator of the complexity of our social experience. They make me feel uneasy, uncomfortable and unsure and yet safe, held and with options (Yes, isn’t that a paradox?!)

Becoming increasingly aware of how we are surrounded by tensions and paradox has been illuminating as well as confusing and has shed new light on how I view my work as a consultant. Below are just a few of the tensions that I experience in my work. I’m sure they’re not unique to me. Perhaps by sharing my experience, I can continue to be a part of a conversation about what it is we do in this messy reality of life.

But there are no clear solutions or answers...

An organisation will bring us in because they are stuck and they are seeking to get un-stuck. Whether that be a group dynamic issue, or a strategic direction challenge, or something else. I am brought in as a ‘consultant’ to provide support and guidance with the expectation that it will deliver the desired result. Often people think that if I do x to the organisation then y will happen. The issue is, however, that these challenges don’t just go away and there is often no one right answer. Engaging with a client requires me to believe in my practical judgment and intuition, tapping into the experiences I have had in order to provide perspective and challenge to a particular situation - but I don’t come with an answer or a simple way forward (as much as I’d like to!) Something we pride ourselves on is not having an ‘off the shelf’ approach, but it isn’t easy. I often feel uneasy when a client in their enthusiasm for some “magic bullet” discusses what the ideal scenario might look like - and I say “but what if that doesn’t happen?” “what if what you’re experiencing will always be the case in some way shape or form?” - it’s hardly a good sales tactic, yet it feels authentic and is said with integrity. 

If so, then what am I selling?

I feel frustrated when I read misleading blogs online such as “10 steps to becoming a great leader” or “5 ways to a really effective team”... if it was that easy, surely we wouldn’t be facing the display of poor leadership we are seeing around the world? Hypocritically, I also recognise that in some way I am doing the same thing; offering hope that by engaging us as consultants we might be able to provide relief and some ‘sustainable strategies’ for improving the effectiveness of how leadership groups in organisations work together. Yet, at the same time (the tension), I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t believe what I did had some use for myself and for others. Hearing people share their experiences of their personal learning journeys as part of a programme I have been running makes me feel validated, useful and that I am making some sort of difference to people’s lives. 

Who is it that I am really serving?

Me and my family? My organisation? The client organisation? Or the people within the client organisation? The reality is, I think it’s all of these at the same time and therefore the way in which I choose to act and respond in my work is inherently conflictual. Is it really possible to serve each of these groups in isolation? To satisfy the needs of one without sacrificing the needs of another? My experience says it’s not. I am working because I need to earn a salary in order to support the well-being and lifestyle of myself and my family. That means that I am incentivised to retain my position within the organisation and that means ensuring that the organisation remains a viable business. To remain a viable business and do the work we believe is ‘good work,’ we need clients. 

When working with clients, whilst on one hand I believe in ensuring the ongoing sustainability of our work by building internal capacity, I am also hoping to retain and extend the client partnership for as long as I can if we believe there’s still work to be done. (of course, there always is!) Lastly, riddled within all these tensions, I often notice being pulled between supporting the client (the sponsors of the organisation who engaged us as consultants) and the individuals I end up working with within the organisation. I learn and care about each personal story; their challenges needs and desires and often hear varying perspectives on a situation - each valid in their own way. When an individual shares something that is in opposition to the needs of the ‘sponsor’ I can often find myself serving both and neither of them at the same time in my response.

These are just some of the questions I find myself asking. If these tensions are true for me, then I also believe they might be true for others. When we work and live with people it is inherently conflictual and we can’t pretend it isn’t... (yet we often do, in our desire for a harmonious, homogenous society - I certainly do!) How is it then that we can name some of these more uncomfortable parts of our social experience with one another and explore them more usefully? What even is useful? Maybe the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ is quite compelling after all.

To continue the conversation with Megan, you can schedule a time with her by clicking here.

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