Some years ago, at the end of my first gig in Dubai, one of the well-seasoned Production Coordinators pulled me aside in front of her team at the wrap lunch prior to my departure and said to me,
“…you know, we get a lot of Consultants around here (meaning, I believe, “older white guys with grey hair”); but you are different. You know what sets you apart?
I appreciated that acknowledgement at the time, and wrote about it; though, in my heart of hearts, I really did not think that Listening could be so unusual. After all; the value of listening before opening one’s mouth is no mystery…or so I surmised.
I make it a habit to strive to be sure that everyone in a given meeting has spoken before I weigh in; if for no other reason than to know the Lay of the Land, to have a sense of everyone’s perspective, to gain a sense of who may feel invested, have a strong opinion and may not feel heard. It’s a great way to suss out the interpersonal dynamic and glean the “energy history” of a project or team.
If I’m the guy running the meeting, it’s easy to be sure to hear from everyone. If I’m asked a question that relates to the purview of another; I first turn to that person for history and point of view. Everyone comes out of such a meeting better informed and a stronger team; even if they don’t know it, at the time.
This is just good. empowering (to the team), enlightening (to the leaders) management practice.
After First Contact, I make it a point to follow up, especially with the lower levels of management and staff, or with those with hands-on responsibility; asking their opinions on the meeting and what may have been missed or overlooked. These conversations virtually always pay off in knowledge and relationships for the run of the project…and beyond.
People need to be Heard.
Knowing one has been or is being heard immediately relaxes the “Inbound Portals” of the psyche, and the individual begins to hear better and more effectively, contribute more productively, feel truly a part of a given team.
And, as Leader or member of the team; one never knows what one is likely to learn by simply HEARING.
Then, last week, as I was saying my goodbyes to a number of the professionals in the company to whom I have been consulting; I heard it, again.
- “You know, for an American…”
- “I gotta say one thing about you…”
- “I sure wish more Consultants were like you…
- “So many of these guys come in and think they know everything and just start throwing their opinions around as though they are some sort of unquestionable treasure…”
And, you know what; they’re right. Over the past few years, as I’ve watched Consultants “parachute” into foreign situations with the idea that they are going to “straighten things out,” I have come to appreciate why “Consultants” so often have a bad name and are received with suspicion by the rank and file.
It’s the White Knight Syndrome.
The Consultants in Question regularly (but not always, I grant you) come sweeping in, surrounded by Fairy Dust and Special Effects and launch right into Solution Mode.
Allow me to paraphrase;
- “Well, here’s what’s wrong…”
- “That’s not the way to do it…”
- “Do it THIS Way…”
- “Over at D*sney, where I used to hang out with J*e as we built X Famous Project…”
(NOTE: By now, pretty much everyone has worked for the Big Boys at some point or other, so the names of Those Two Companies and the Principals Thereof, dropped like hailstones in a Kansas Storm, only impress the inexperienced and the occasional Money Guy. It does one no favors with the rank and file nor others on your team. Learn Discretion. Frankly, it’ll mean more when your impressive relationships are discovered obliquely than when names are shoehorned into conversation. If you have such awe-inspiring relationships, that fact’ll show up at the best time for it, surprise everyone and earn you even more respect for having been discreet. Your mom should have taught you this. Meanwhile, STFU about who you know in daily conversation.)
Back to our regular programming:
Rarely have I witnessed a conversation with a Star Consultant open with questions about How We Got Here, What is the History of the Project, What was the original Vision, How was the Decision Made to Do This…? I’m sure they happen, though through experience as sure that they don’t happen as often as they might. All too often the SC seems intent on making a mark on the project at the soonest possible moment.
Even the Lone Ranger would ask a Lady if she needed help before he’d just ride in and grab her. Well, most of the time; but you get my point.
Bigger than that, too, is what I see as a practical (and condescending) assumption that “…the Natives just don’t get it…” because they are not smart…rather than the more likely possibility that something cultural may be in the way.
People think in different ways in different parts of the world; not everything can be readily translated into Western Ways of thinking…or even understood by Western Thinkers. Some things simply must be embraced and worked-with rather than dismissed as “wrong.”
I see a lot of Condescension and Dismissal among Consultants, and I don’t know if it is realized just how much of that is so clearly seen and experienced by the Clients. It ain’t all that discreet, actually. Our value come in what we have learned and what we know and how we impart that information in a way that can be used. Our respect must be authentic.
I used the euphemism of “parachuting” into a situation, before. A parachutist spends no small amount of time in studying the lay of the actual land before leaping out of the plane. S/he has a firm grasp of what’s solid, where the roads are, which bridges are intact or burned and as much appreciation of the Language Spoken as might be possible before jumping in to solve a problem.
I don’t see the Army of Western Consultants doing that; not as a Best Practice. (Again, I do know some who do, and do well; these are Heroes.) I’ve simply been surprised at the otherwise-intelligent people who don’t study the host culture and its ways of communicating and doing business as something to embrace and learn rather than something to “fix.” Most often, it can’t be “fixed.” Nor need it be.
Here’s the Thing: it’s easy to impress the Money Guys – the CEO’s, the CFO’s, most of the C Levels – with pedigree from the highest levels of experience from the Western Leaders in Theme Parks. But to really affect the flow of a project, to have positive effect on the team, process and result, one must KNOW ONE’S AUDIENCE (or, in this case, team) and be respected by that audience.
The Western Way isn’t the Only Way. Nor is the Disney or Universal Way the only way…any of the Disney or Universal ways…there are myriad “western” ways…many of which have roots in the East. Open up!
As with Salt, I suppose.
Salt is, like, the best thing to ever happen to food (right?!). But, too much Salt, or only Salt, will yield something inedible, unworkable. Perhaps our Western approach is the Salt we bring to themed entertainment. And, just as there is no One Salt, there is no One, Western Way to do things. Different of us bring different backgrounds, skills and talents to the table and create differently-applicable solutions for the projects we address.
Judiciously and effectively applied, the Western POV can yield the best possible result or contribute to it; but one cannot dismiss the host culture(s).
Time and again, though, I’ve witnessed Consulting companies and individuals view and treat clients with barely-concealed condescension because of the way things are done in a host culture, because of what is expected. That’s not productive.
What is productive is Listening. Listening with eyes and ears. Listening with Respect. Watching the body language of the team members at every level. Openness toward being shown how best one can help a project happen, a vision become realized.
Recently, I watched a strong business relationship crumble, 100% from simply not listening and hearing. The principal of the consulting firm suddenly quit, after nearly 20 years with that company and after having been the primary conduit for communications between the Consulting Firm and the Client company since inception of the business relationship. This shot the relationship off balance and caused much alarm within the Client company; with worries that he was going to their competition.
He assured them that he was not going to the competition. He went to the competition. It caused further frustration and unrest in the Client company.
Unfortunately; this intense consternation that manifested on behalf of the client was met with stonewalling on the part of the Consulting firm. The importance of building and maintaining (or rebuilding triage) of personal business relationships didn’t seem to have the same level of importance for the two parties.
When a man thinks he’s drowning, that is not the time to withhold that floating log from him and tell him he needs a Life Jacket in order to be properly rescued. That is the time to let him grab the goddam log and allow him to catch his breath….then sell him a Life Jacket.
The client, with the disappearance of the One Person with whom they’d been dealing, began making some demands that were outside the scope of work for the Consulting firm. (To me, this looked like flailing for some sense of control.) The consulting firm resisted, demurred, cited scope, agreed to things but did not do them…did everything but make it clear that the Client was being heard. (The client was not being Heard.) And did it all, long distance.
The relationship continued to degrade to the point where it was anyone’s guess whether the firm would quit before it got fired; the edge of the cliff was imminent. Then, it came.
All of which could have been avoided – tension and repercussions alleviated – with one visit by the CEO of the Consulting Firm to the CEO of the Client. But there was no budging.
Face-to-face is almost always the answer; if one wants to preserve a relationship.
These days, face-to-face is easier than ever, with Skype and FaceTime. And if the stakes are that of a strong and profitable Business Relationship; my advice is to get on that plane and share a table…especially with cultures not of the West.
Face-to-Face; listening and hearing, learning and teaching. It’s only scary when it’s avoided.
The eschewing of that action, the failure to simply Face things and work them out, says everything to your troubled client about priority and respect…perhaps not what you want to say… Whether or not that is the message sought to be conveyed, that is what is communicated.
Where am I going with this?
When building or maintaining a relationship of any kind – especially with or in another country – remember that You Don’t Know Everything. You may know a helluva lot about what you do in the places you’ve done it; but you don’t know everything you need to know to do it, somewhere where you have not done it, before. Be ready to learn as you teach.
(<Ahem> Tenet #1: Exploration of Assumption)
Remember you are being invited to come to this other place, into this other house, to join this other team because you have been successful on similar things in the past. The requirement is not that you are to show up with the answers, the theory is that you will know how to find the way in what is always an unique situation and confluence of circumstance and fact.
In fact, thinking one is showing up with the answers is just being arrogant and letting down the client.
So before Solutions are Offered:
- Ask Questions
- With Respect
- Ask Advice
- Build the team
- Ask more questions
- Curb the Ego. You are there because you are good. No need to remind anyone.
- NO project is cookie-cutter; not from barn to barn, stage to stage, park to park and certainly not from country to country.
- Strive to balance teaching with learning for you and the team, and discover how happy and productive becomes your team and environment.
IMHO: You’ll likely be pleased with the result.
“IMHO” the eBook is a free download from iTunes; containing Kile Ozier’s basic tenets for Creation of Compelling Experience. Free. Really. Go for it.