Strangers in our midst

“There are strangers among us.”  The lady was referring to the consultants that her company’s executives had hired.

The phrase hit me like a brick.

I’ve been a consultant for over 15 years – half of my career.  It’s funny, you don’t get into this game unless you have some desire for feedback. Given how competitive consulting is, you also have to be a bit of an over-achiever.

I confess.  Yes.  I was that kid in school who had all the answers — the one the teacher eventually stopped asking, or looked vainly to each side of hoping for someone else to raise their hand, eventually returning defeated to reluctantly accept the offering of the impatient know-it-all in the front row.  For anyone who worries about my social status, you can rest easy — I got over that part. In university I became the guy sitting at the backs.  Still an over-achiever, but now a rebellious one — I learned to be cool and disdainful.   But I still knew the answer.  At least that’s my perception.

I was so full of myself, I’m not sure how the profs would bear it.  I remember one prof – Barry Callaghan — a man with an ego bigger than mine at the time (a considerable feat in those days).  Barry proudly proclaimed that, “nobody in his class got a A”.   I stuck up my hand.

“Are you telling me,” I said, “that although I’ve got an IQ that’s north of 140, I am stupid enough to have signed up with a prof who is so terrible that he can’t teach me enough to get an A?”

Barry let me live.  Just.  And, yes…I got the A.  He made me sweat blood to do it, and I worked my butt off.

Affirmation was important.

Many times in my life, I’ve seen or heard people welcome critical feedback.  Only if we know what we do wrong could we improve.  I would, on command, mouth those words, and even appear sincere.  I didn’t have the nerve to question this.  It sounds so — stoic.  So right.  But inside,  I never believed it.  It shames me to admit that I always struggled with negative feedback.  I’d sit, trying to appear interested, all the while churning inside, hearing little of what was said until one nugget, one positive — I’d hear that, I’d relish it.  I’d cling to it like Gollum with the ring.

It’s not that I shut out all criticism.  I’m my own worst critic.  Nobody is more devastating or hard hitting than me.  Even while I’m listening to praise, feeding my addiction to affirmation, my own internal critic is at work.

I once described this to others using a picture out of a comic book.  It was like I had a little angel on one shoulder listening hard fo every nugget of what I was doing right.  On the other, was a little devil telling me what I was doing wrong. For years I would try to focus on the one and ignore the other.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the trick, at least in consulting, is to balance the two.  You need the self confidence to tackle tough problems.  You have to work your butt off like I did in that university class, to defy the odds and to come up with a great solution.   For the first part of my career I got that perfectly.   It was only in later years that I realized that I needed to listen equally to both the applause and the critic.  I needed  humility to take advice, especially when I was absolutely certain I was right.

That lesson was painful.  But I learned it.

It doesn’t mean that I enjoyed criticism.  I just learned — painfully and by brutal experience that I needed that feedback — as painful as it was.  I never learned to like it.  I did learn to  “suck it up” .

But eventually a light went on.   One learning for me was watching others, often consultants who had not learned this lesson.  I’d watch people so certain they were right, with clear and easy answers taken from books, making pronouncements and waiting for applause.  The best were devastating in managing any critique of their great solution.   It took years, but eventually this behaviour was a mirror — one in which I began to see my worst failings.

When I moved from industry to consulting,  I knew that the mirror sat on the other side of me.  The client was my mirror.  I had to speak the truth.  I had to give credible advice.  Yes, I needed he ego to do that.  But I had to have humility.   I promised myself that if I ever lost the feeling of what it felt like to sit on the opposite side of the desk — in the client’s shoes — I’d give it up.

Truth be told, I’ve probably broken this vow at times.  But if I did, something would give me a wake up call.  Today’s comment from this marvelous lady — who spoke of the “strangers” — spoke to me.

The strangers?   They were consultants.  This lady worked for a company where consultants were brought in.  Strangers.  And she didn’t trust these strangers.  They were giving all kinds of advice, maybe even some of it good.  From the sound of it I presume that in their meetings with senior managers, these consultants were getting applause for their work.  As there were more and more of them appearing, they must be finding some favour.

I knew what that felt like.

But I wondered — did they know how little they were trusted by this lady?  Did they care?

I’ve always known the names we’ve been called over the years.  In my early days with a CA firm, some clients called us the “suits” – in reference to our uniform of blue suits and white shirts.  I enjoyed the joke, quipping back that that we got to wear grey suits on casual day.  The clients laughed.

Over the years, I’ve heard a million jokes.  When told in good humour, I could usually laugh along.   Sometimes I would exploit this humour to bridge a gulf.   I remember in Indonesia when I invited a group of the staff to my house (unheard of, I’m told).   That night, I made a joke about the name that they called us expatriate consultants.  It’s a little difficult to translate, but let’s just say it wasn’t flattering.  When I mentioned it, they looked shocked.  I laughed.  Then they did too.  It broke the ice.

In the days when everyone was on planes and you couldn’t work in your own home town, we were nicknamed the  “seagulls”.  We flew in, did what seagulls do and flew out.  I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.  Funny?  Yes.

I laughed when I heard that as well.

But I’ve told you that criticism still stings and as much as I laughed,  I also heard what was behind the humour.  It reached me in a way that direct criticism sometimes didn’t.   It mad me think.  And I think that that saved my consulting career.   Arrogance is the death of good consulting.

I remember one day when we were discussing an outsourcing project and I questioned how we had got to our cost savings over the current costs that the client has.

“Easy” said one of the young turks at the table. At the time, he wore red suspenders under the blue suit.  The mark of a true rebel.   “You just cut 25% of the staff.  You get rid of the dead wood.”

I resented  the glibness.  These were people’s lives.

So I asked my young turk colleague, “Have you ever done a mass firing before? (I purposely didn’t use the word lay-off.  I wanted this to have punch. ” Have you ever looked someone in the eyes and told them that they were fired?”

“No.” he said, “but I’ve been involved in it.”

I didn’t even ask what that meant.  Instead I muttered some glib line about the difference between the chicken and the pig.  The answer is, of course, when it comes to breakfast, the chicken is involved.  The pig is committed.

But after my anger faded I was left with a realization.   I could be as smug as I wanted.  But if I was honest, I’d been in industry a long time.  I’d done layoffs.  I knew that lay-offs may very well get rid of some “dead wood” but more often – you slash cut a lot of live trees.

So while I could try to find the moral high ground here, it’s a lot like the old joke?

“Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?”

“Yes.”

“Would you sleep with me for ten dollars?”

“What l do you think I am?”

“I think we’ve established what you are.  Right now, we are only negotiating price.

I could be as indignant as I liked.  But I had done what he was only talking about.   The fact that I felt bad didn’t give those people their jobs back.

I could judge his arrogance.  Or I could use it as a mirror.

Those are some of the memories that came back when this marvellous lady talked about the strangers. It still wasn’t comfortable.  After all these years, I’m at best a “recovering praise-a-holic”.   I take it one day at a time.  And I don’t like negative feedback — but I do love good advice.

And I was getting some good advice.

I could resist it, or I could use it.  I could look in this mirror and ask myself,  “have I been a stranger?”  Not for regret.  Not for self-flagellation, but as a learning experience.  Maybe I’m maturing?  Who knows?

Here’s the learning that I got.

As consultants, we may have the ear of the most senior executives — but that’s not where recommendations are going to get implemented.   Peter Drucker – the great management consulting thinker of our time said it clearly.   “The best and the brightest are volunteers.”

So as I started the session, I thanked the lady who made the remark about the “strangers”.  If there was any danger of me having anything glib in the session that I led with this group, it went out the window.  As I had in my university days, I worked my butt off – only now, not for the marks or the praise, but because I was reminded that I had a choice.  I was the “expert” – but I needed their trust.

We were in this together.  I couldn’t succeed being a “stranger”.

I dug deep.  I did my best to listen.  I offered honest advice.

As it turns out, it was a great two days, at least in part because of that great comment.  As I said good-bye to them all, I couldn’t help thinking of that old parting line — “don’t be a stranger”.

Good advice.

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Filed under Change, Organization, People

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