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Taking Charge of Consultants

by Liz Mellon

David Levin, the CEO of UBM, says, “A good strategy is dynamic and markets need both evidence and instinct. The trouble with consultants is that they are all left brain; it is sadly often not creative. Too much data and not enough creativity.”

It’s rare to walk onto the executive floor in any kind of organization without seeing consultants. They often sit at desks full time alongside senior executives. Who are they, and what are they doing? Content consultants have answers to situations that they encounter time and again. Process consultants, on the other hand, help organizations to ask the right questions and challenge traditional thinking. What they all have in common is that they import a tool kit of models, from simple four-box matrices to complex mathematical algorithms. The global consulting industry has compounded over-focus on IQ by proliferating analytical models and charts. Consultants take our problem and turn it into their language. And the special language of strategy gets in the way of execution.

Another CEO explains how this can make life difficult. “The more time you spend trying to fit strategy into boxes, the harder it is to create a message that sells and empowers people to action. Strategy presentations contain magnificent charts and brilliant prose, but you lose the essence of what you are trying to do—it becomes lost in esoteric jargon. Strategy consultants haven’t moved on.”

It’s not a lack of comprehension. The CEO understands what the consultants are advising. His or her challenge is to avoid being hijacked by the jargon so that strategic direction can be translated into simple and direct language that everyone can understand. Business books and consultants have their own language, and it can appear esoteric. Just like the Eskimos, who have lots of words to describe snow, business consultants have lots of words to describe strategy and then lots of models to describe the many different kinds of strategies. The challenge is that this then leaves us trying to create a story that fits into a mold, rather than telling it straight. This CEO goes further: “The danger is that the CEO hears the jargon and chooses to delegate strategy to someone on the team who speaks the same jargon and who can keep up with it. Then the CEO loses ownership or the ability to translate. It’s dangerous.”

It’s almost as if strategy becomes a separate game with its own special rules and language. As a result, even the most senior executive in the business, the CEO, may not feel ownership of the strategy. It’s been delegated and turned into models and language that then get lost in translation. If ownership of the strategy is lost at this, the very highest level, the chances of execution are severely diminished. It’s like visitors from another village, who speak another language. The consultants come in and facilitate strategy formulation, but then they reshape the strategic conversation into their own dialect. This makes it hard to understand, let alone propagate. Rather than providing clarity, it can become an intellectual puzzle and then become hard to explain in a way that everyone in the company can understand.

More than that, suppose that it’s the wrong strategy? Without the business instinct to test it, it’s easy for the strategy to go off course. There has to be good, clear dialogue between the consultants and the business leaders, to test that it’s the right strategy. But how do we do that, when the language obfuscates the reality? The language sounds clever and convincing. A bit like the emperor with no clothes, maybe we don’t like to confess that we don’t really understand or that we have significant doubts about what is being proposed. We fit in, and we go along.

Consultants can be very powerful. One CEO told a story about his predecessor. Some consultants, hired by the director of research and development, exposed the CEO as apparently being a partial cause of the challenges facing the company. They formed strong alliances with members of the executive team, and, as a result, the CEO lost his job. So their impact can be dramatic. The top executive team cannot afford to become so dependent that they allow consultants to make their executive decisions for them. The executives run the risk of the strategy being the consultants’ rather than theirs, with a resultant lack of ownership from the top 100 leaders in the business. Lack of ownership means no sustainable execution.

Liz Mellon of Duke CE is author (with Simon Carter) of The Strategy of Execution (McGraw Hill, 2013) and Inside the Leader’s Mind (FT Prentice Hall 2011).

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