Spring 2019
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Confessions of a Rogue Consultant
CTDO Magazine

Confessions of a Rogue Consultant

Friday, March 15, 2019

Don't violate the first rule of change management—work with people to effect change.

In my zeal to impress my construction client, I had gone rogue.

This isn't you, Bill. This isn't the quality of work I've come to know, and I'm deeply disappointed … and frankly confused."


Ouch. In the 25 years I had been a leadership development practitioner, no words had ever leveled me as much as those. In my mind, I had gone above and beyond my client's expectations by addressing a pressing business issue smartly, independently, and aggressively. The company owner's words hit me like a punch in the gut.

At that point, I had been working regularly with the client—a $150 million construction company—for five years. I had worked hard at earning my client's trust, to the point that the firm gave me increasing opportunities. It had initially brought me in to design and facilitate a comprehensive leadership program for its senior leaders. That had gone so well that the client had cascaded the program down to its next-generation leaders, and other courses I had developed had become part of its ongoing training curriculum. Before long, I was also facilitating the company's annual strategic planning process and a monthly meeting with its vice president and higher executives called "VP Teambuilding."

I especially liked facilitating this team building. It gave me close contact with the CEO, and I enjoyed collaborating with him to design each meeting agenda. The stated purpose of the four-hour meeting was to concentrate executive attention on some critical area of the business while resolving problems or exploiting opportunities. The CEO likewise had a more covert reason for the meeting: to tear down the divisional silos that were causing too much corrosive internal competition. The CEO reported to the company owner, and it was an issue both were keen to resolve.

All me for the good of you all

The VP Teambuilding meeting proved successful. This wasn't a boring status meeting where executives peacocked about how good their individual area was. These meetings were far more experiential and involved reassessing prior successes and failures, engaging around provocative questions, future-casting alternative scenarios that could affect the business, getting briefings from field personnel, identifying and removing business inefficiencies, and figuring out ways for the company to add more value to its current customers or move into other markets to gain new customers. The execs looked forward to the meetings, as did I. And the CEO (as well as the owner) was pleased because the meetings had, in fact, torn down the divisional walls. The leaders had become a strong executive body.

In a few meetings, I had heard some of the leaders express frustration with too many people in the workforce not being accountable enough. I had also heard that they wanted the next-generation leaders, with whom I was working regularly, to step up to a higher level of accountability.

I took it upon myself to dig into the issue. I decided to develop a daylong workshop on accountability and deliver it as part of the next-generation leadership program. I immersed myself in the topic, reading articles, books, and other resources. I found a solid accountability survey and reached out to its author to understand the ins and outs of her research and to review the survey scoring format. Then, I pulled together a slick PowerPoint presentation and fancy participant notebook. It took me hours of uncompensated time, and I was proud of myself for what I had built.

No one had instructed me to do this. I did it because this was my best client, I genuinely cared about the company, and I wanted to address an issue it had identified as holding the firm back.

The workshop with the next-gen group was highly successful, and the post-workshop evaluations were strong. Moreover, the survey results were insightful and surprising: The next-gen leaders viewed the executive team itself as contributing to the perceptions around the lack of accountability. Too many of the senior leaders, according to the survey results and ensuing workshop discussions, micromanaged to the point that the next gens didn't feel fully accountable for their own work. If their supervisor directed and controlled all their actions, how could they feel a true sense of personal ownership?

I decided to include my findings in the next VP Teambuilding meeting. The CEO hadn't known that I had developed and delivered the accountability workshop, but he was open to having me include an agenda segment to review the findings with the execs. I was excited to share the results with everyone—and show them how dedicated I was to their success.

The gap between to and with

The meeting went poorly in a hurry. First, some of the leaders became defensive about being seen as micromanaging. Some viewed the results as the next-gen leaders bellyaching and validation of their lack of accountability. Second, many people, especially the owner, found the survey scoring utterly confusing because it involved reverse scoring. Surveys that use a Likert scale (such as strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree) will sometimes include questions that are reverse scored, meaning the numerical scoring runs in the opposite direction. Whereas "strongly agree" would typically equate with a 5 for scoring purposes, the reverse score would tally "strongly agree" as a 1. Reverse scoring is a common technique when a survey includes both positively and negatively worded questions.

But when reviewing the results, this requires a mental backflip every time you see a reverse-scored question. This is easy to do if you're an organizational development professional who has taken many social science statistic classes like I had, but it can be perplexing and nonsensical if you're the owner of a hardscrabble construction company. And he let me know it.


With the benefit of hindsight, I know that I violated the first rule of change management: People resist changes that happen to them and embrace changes that happen with them. Ironically, it was a rule that I had known well. Before starting my business, I had served for six years as a manager in Accenture's change management and human performance practice. Yet, in my zeal to impress my construction client, I had gone rogue and attempted to solve an issue that was the company's to assess, address, and resolve. Ironically, by trying to solve the problem on my own, I had removed the client's ability to be accountable for dealing with its lack of accountability.

If I were able to start over, here's what I would do differently:

Listen and probe more earnestly.What did my client actually mean by saying that people needed to be more accountable? How long had the leaders shared this perception? If the accountability issue were resolved, what would be different for the company? I had no idea about the answer to any of these questions because I had never asked.

Get explicit permission. There's a word for a consultant who starts solving a client problem without first getting the company's permission to do so: arrogant. Who was I to start polling the employees and design a workshop without first informing the company executives?

Involve, involve, involve. Think of how powerful the entire experience would have been if I had involved key leaders and other internal subject matter experts in codesigning the accountability workshop and subsequent VP Teambuilding. With more hands and heads involved, it would have required much less work on my part, and accountability would have been shared.

It's been a decade since I learned those painful but valuable lessons. In the years since, I have been fortunate to have co-created numerous programs with this client. Our work together has made me a better consultant. My client has grown to become a $550 million organization and put me and my company on retainer. The firm also referred me to two additional construction clients with whom my company now works regularly. The entire experience taught me that work is so much more enjoyable, meaningful, and effective when I do it with—not to—clients.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Bill Treasurer is founder of Giant Leap Consulting, Inc., a courage-building consulting firm that designs, develops, and delivers comprehensive leadership programs. Bill is the author of six books, including Courage Goes to Work and Leadership Two Words at a Time. For nearly three decades Bill has worked with thousands of leaders across the globe, from such renowned organizations as NASA, UBS Bank, Saks Fifth Avenue, eBay, Lenovo, the Social Security Administration, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He currently serves on the board of ISA, an association of learning providers and recently received their Outstanding Contribution award. Learn more at CourageBuilding.com.

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