Consulting: Empowerment & Championing

Today, I start a new chapter in my career as a technologist and problem-solver, as I officially join Vivanti Consulting as a founding member and Principal Consultant.

In honor of the occasion, I want to tell you a story about one of my earliest consulting screw-ups.

In the Fall of 2015, I was coming off of my first consulting engagement with a new firm to go spin up a brand new opportunity as a lead. This was going to be my moment to shine. I was scared, optimistic, and exhilarated all at once. For clarity’s sake, let’s call this client FlipChord, although that is not their name.

Things went well for the first month or so. We demonstrated that our team’s grasp on the chosen technology stack was both deep and broad. We helped them spin up some impressive automation. We even pitched in and helped them re-target some of their deep-down containerization code, to use a different runtime. You see, FlipChord had determined that to succeed, they needed to build their application deployment platform — a PaaS of sorts — in-house, from scratch.

This caused quite the stir internally. Senior technical staff (all consultants) were concerned that FlipChord was just reinventing the wheel. Management was concerned that FlipChord would fail as a result, and we would be to blame. Both groups started asking questions.

It is important to note that FlipChord was quite satisfied with our performance thus far on the engagement. We were hitting our milestones. They were delivering their platform. Their software teams were positively delighted. They certainly hadn’t considered it a failure.

Until we intervened.

In January, I was invited to a zoom meeting that included my higher-ups and the complete management chain at FlipChord. Some of the names on the invite were only academically familiar to me, in the way you would recognize a person because of their parking spot placard, or the fact that their name is on the building. The hairs on the back of my neck started to stand on-end as I read through the seemingly endless list of invitees. I had a bad feeling about this intervention.

The meeting was scheduled for an hour, but we didn’t use more than ten minutes.

First, my management made their case. That FlipChord was doing things wrong. That they were bound to fail. That we knew what was correct, and we would be happy to help them implement it.

Then, silence.

I will never forget that awful silence. No one was muted, but they might as well have been. My face grew hot. My mouth dried up. I could taste the shame and the embarrassment.

We should not have done this.

After an awkward silence, FlipChord management asked a few questions, none of which I can remember. They then thanked us, and informed us that they would be exercising the termination clause of our contract.

I was devastated.

I tell this story to people not so that they will pity me, but to understand two very important factors in consulting: empowerment and championing.

Empowerment is what happens when you let people make their own decisions. It’s a devilishly simple thing to do. As a leader, if you direct someone to do something, you give them the authority, the autonomy, and the equipment to do it. And then you get out of the way. You tell them what is to be done, but never how to do it.

Championing describes the complex relationship a consultant has with their client. It’s a relationship quite unlike the employer / employee relationship most of the workforce is accustomed to. A consultant works for the firm, but champions the client. The firm pays you, but the client retains the firm, based on you. Your work. Your advice. Your assistance.

The consultant’s sole goal is to make the client successful, in the ways the client wants to succeed. Opinions are offered during decision-making, sure. But once the course is selected and the approach identified, the consultant does everything they can to get the client there. Anything less is a disservice to the client, and cheapens the trade of consulting.

(If you’re a lawyer, or a financial planner with fiduciary responsibility, you understand this concept intrinsically. I pray that technology consulting gets to where you are, some day.)

With FlipChord, management’s intervention destroyed my empowerment. Insistence on “the correct way” was about as far from championing as you can get. I personally failed the client by not pushing back; by not standing up for their interests. I should have stopped that meeting from happening. I should have championed them.

In the end, we lost the gig, but more importantly, we lost the opportunity to help FlipChord in the future. We lost their trust.

And nobody felt good about that.

At Vivanti, my co-founders and I are trying to build a better consultancy. One based on empowerment, and steeped in this idea that a consultant’s first responsibility is to champion the client.

We’re hiring. Come join us.

James (@iamjameshunt) works on the Internet, spends his weekends developing new and interesting bits of software and his nights trying to make sense of research papers.

Currently exploring Kubernetes, as both a floor wax and a dessert topping.