I’ve talked to a number of leaders recently who are retiring and thinking about becoming a consultant. Having coached and mentored others who have made the same transition, I have one major piece of advice: Remember that you are no longer in charge!
New consultants who have been former leaders often run up against their own “Make it so!” approach. That might work when you are hired to lead an organization, but not so much when you are hired to consult with it. That’s because a consultant’s role is to assist the leader’s efforts, not take over for them. A good consultant recognizes this boundary and honors it.
I saw this first hand a while ago while mentoring a former police chief into becoming a law enforcement consultant. As a chief, he was listened to, respected, and obeyed. As a consultant, he was frustrated with clients’ resistance to his ideas and the slow speed of change. Learning to be a consultant meant realizing that he was no longer “the law” – and accepting that clients were making the best decisions possible for situations in which they lived every day.
A consultant is in danger of overstepping their bounds when they:
- Do not listen well to the client’s unique situation, making assumptions instead
- Try to impose their will on a client (for solutions, decisions, or action items)
- Dismiss objections as “resistance to change” versus digging in to understand and work with them
- Act hurt, defensive, or angry if the client chooses not to take a recommended course of action
As a good consultant, you will use understanding, knowledge/information and encouragement to influence clients. You will accept their leadership and not take it personally if a client decides against what you suggest. That said, if in the end you don’t think you can support the client’s direction, you don’t need to take the next contract with them. It is, after all, their organization, not yours!