Getting Stuck – and how to deal with it

We’ve all witnessed (or even experienced) those moments when a speaker or presenter gets stuck. They stumble over their material, they offer an inappropriate response to a tricky question, or they simply go off topic and stray into verbal quicksand. And although they realise they are in difficulty, they carry on regardless, only to wade deeper and deeper into the mire. Some of our current political leaders know exactly how that feels…

Photo by Mark Roy - Licensed under Creative Commons

Photo by Mark Roy – Licensed under Creative Commons

In my experience, many small business owners do the same thing when they get stuck. They carry on doing the same as they’ve always done, even though they know they need to change course, take another approach, or try a different tactic. Which is where someone like me comes to the rescue. As a consultant, I can bring an objective, external and independent perspective that can help clients navigate away from the problem, and steer them back onto the right track.

The Inflexion Point

The typical scenario is that the business is faltering. Most often it’s about sales and business development – either not enough new customers, or too few of the “right” customers (and too many of the “wrong” ones). Sometimes it’s about an aspect of their strategy that isn’t working. It could be a problem with their operations, such as workflow, resourcing or IT systems. Or it might be that they have lost their way and are facing some sort of external challenge. Or maybe there is a disconnect between the products and services that they offer, and what their customers actually need. Or it could be a need to recast their financial information to get a better idea of how the business is really tracking.

Whatever the issue, the common feature is a point of inflexion – the business is either stuck, has hit a plateau, or come to a fork in the road.

So, how do they get help?

The 3-Step Recovery Program

First, the client has to realise that doing the same thing won’t work, doing nothing is not an option, and they have to be open to the idea of change. They recognise that bringing in some external help will relieve the log jam (even though at this stage, they don’t know what form that help will take, or where it will come from).

Second, they do some basic research, or get a referral from their networks, on where they can get help. Much of my work comes via word-of-mouth and personal contacts, and in large part this is due to the need for trust in any consulting relationship. Sometimes, a prospective client has liked something they read in my blog, or heard something in our conversation that has clicked with their own needs. There has to be a connection or match with what the business needs, and what someone like me can offer. It’s a bit like finding a GP, financial planner or personal trainer – there has to be a fit.

Third, they are able to define a specific problem that needs addressing, or at least prioritize the issues. This requires some reflection, self-awareness, and willingness to have their assumptions challenged. There is a need for honesty, and even vulnerability, if the intervention is going to succeed.

Helping clients get back on track

I will say upfront that my services are not suited to everyone. If your business is running like a well-oiled machine, I probably can’t add much value, unless you are looking to improve an area of your operations, or embark on a new initiative where you need help in getting it off the ground. Alternatively, I may be able to help if you simply want to tap into some external perspectives to challenge your current thinking, or if you require some specific expertise that draws on my knowledge and experience. Otherwise, my role is to help clients get free of what is bogging them down.

One of my clients recently said that working with me felt like “keyhole” surgery, rather than undergoing open heart surgery. I think I know what he means, and that he meant it as a compliment….. In my experience tackling “the whole” is not always practical. Rather, zooming in on a particular aspect of the business allows for incremental change, that if applied appropriately, can have a multiplier effect. Such an approach is hopefully less disruptive, and therefore less threatening, to the existing business.

As part of my consulting work, I tend to break the business down into its component parts, look at the business model, review the revenue streams, and analyse the workflow, both internal operations and customer-facing services. For example, clients often have a slightly misplaced perception of where/how they add customer value – so, if they spend a lot of time on a particular task or activity, they naturally assume that this should form the greater part of what their customers pay for. Whereas in reality, the customers may value something else the business does, but the business has not realised that value.

It’s always important to encourage clients to develop an action plan, with specific goals, responsibilities and timelines. I’m not talking about a 50-page business plan, but a more manageable working document for the next 6, 12 or 18 months (depending on their circumstances). A key outcome of this is a list of priorities, plus agreement on which activities to wind-down or discontinue. Despite limited resources, businesses often make the mistake of trying to continue doing everything they’ve always done, plus all the new stuff – the law of physics suggests that something has to give, so they need to stop doing things that are no longer relevant, or are no longer working.

Making a Difference

When it comes to more direct business coaching, I know from the client feedback I receive that the insights I offer and the way I reframe their situation are as valuable as a re-engineered business plan. By analysing the problem, taking it apart and putting it back together again, it allows me to share my observations and offer fresh thinking – which is sometimes all the client may need to get back on track.

If you feel your own business could use some external assistance in getting back on track, or if you think you may be stuck as to what to do next, please get in touch via this blog.

Next week: The David and Goliath of #Startup #Pitching

Help! I need to get some perspective….

At a recent professional networking event, I found myself in conversation with a business owner and tech entrepreneur. As I was describing my work, he suddenly asked, “Do you mentor your clients, because my business partner and I could use some help?”

perspective-35266_640I was somewhat surprised by the question, because although I see my role primarily as a business consultant and coach, it hadn’t occurred to me that what I did included mentoring, even though it’s probably in the mix of services and support I offer. And from experience, working with business partners can sometimes be likened to relationship counselling….

To be clear, though, I see that there are distinct differences between consulting, coaching, mentoring and counselling – even though the boundaries may at times be blurred.*

The one thing I believe they have in common is that they each bring external perspective, especially when there may be a need for fresh thinking, such as a new take on current processes, or simply a circuit breaker when businesses get in a rut or hit a road block.

Here’s what I regard as the essential and unique qualities of each of these roles:

Consultant

At its simplest, consulting can be described as initiating the dialogue between an organization and itself. When it concerns a review of ongoing operations, or a strategic initiative, most organisations call in consultants because they want an outsider’s view – not because they don’t know what they are doing, or can’t think for themselves.

As external consultants, we have the privilege to be invited into a client’s organisation; and our obligation to the client is to tell them what we really think, not what we think they want to hear. Our purpose is to capture the relevant information and “play it back” to the client to make sure we have understood what we have heard, whilst adding our honest interpretation of the data, along with some informed recommendations for action (which, of course, the client is free to disregard).

Our key contribution is to highlight inconsistencies or ambiguity in the data, to ensure that the client has considered all possible options, and to point out relevant external factors that the client may not be aware of. Above all, as a consultant I try to bring insights as well as perspective – what one person I have worked with described as “pure gold”.

Coach

The most effective coaches are those who can help clients identify specific goals, the steps required to achieve them, and then support them through the process. While business coaches can work with groups or teams, they are more suited to one-on-one relationships, to ensure they are keeping the client accountable for their own progress.

Many business coaches see their primary role as helping the client develop a strategic plan, and then making sure they stick to it, sometimes by telling them what to do. Whereas executive coaches may hone in on a particular aspect of an individual’s performance, to sharpen their skills and to make them more effective in their role; or in the case of a career coach, help them achieve a career change.

In some cases, a coach is similar to an instructor, and aims to help the client improve a skill or competency in pursuit of better outcomes and results. As a coach, I know the best work I do is when I get feedback like, “You’ve helped us to do in three weeks what it would have taken us three months!”

Mentor

Mentoring is mainly about helping the client to become the person they aspire to be. More so than coaching, mentoring is most effective in a one-on-one relationship, and unlike coaching may not be linked to specific or time-based goals. A mentor may bring deep domain knowledge and experience, but doesn’t instruct the client or tell them what to do. Instead, a mentor may ask, “So, what are you going to do about it?” when the client raises an issue or a problem.

While a coach may focus on “doing”, a mentor may be seen as helping to develop certain behaviours or attitudes. Although the mentor is also there to provide some external perspective, in some ways their role is to hold up a mirror so that the client can reflect on what they (and others) can see.

In some situations, a mentor can provide a role model, so long as this is not about following someone we admire, and more about self leadership. More importantly, a mentor can act as an advocate, which is significant for entrepreneurs, business owners, CEO’s and senior executives, for whom it can be “lonely at the top”.

The best mentoring probably happens when the “process” is invisible – and the dialogue happens in the moment. I know from experience that my role as a mentor has had most impact when I hear my words or ideas being expressed by others – not as plagiarism, flattery, imitation or even sycophancy, but because the mentee has taken on board what I have said, and made it their own.

Counsellor

Counselling could be defined as the dialogue around change and transformation, although it is different to mentoring in that it can address cognitive perspectives, as well as behavioral issues.

We are familiar with the role of change managers, but without engaging the organisation on the need for change, their work can become process-driven (and a thankless task). It’s much better to foster an open dialogue about the broader context and opportunity for change, which can open up new possibilities for transformation. Ideally, this approach can take some of the fear out of the change program, as well as creating a sustainable change model.

I have known some managers to use counselling techniques to resolve operational issues within their teams, because it can be an effective way to get to the bottom of a problem without apportioning blame and without being judgemental.

Counselling can cross the line into “giving advice”, which is not always helpful if clients are not receptive, or if it means clients don’t learn to think or decide for themselves. I once trained and worked as a counsellor in helping people resolve personal, employment, financial and legal problems. The key requirements of the role were helping the client to see that there may be a number of different solutions (without telling them which one to choose), and to uncover the underlying issues (rather than dealing only with the presenting problem).

The best counselling provides clients with a sense of empowerment, backed by a clear understanding of their responsibilities, and an appreciation for the consequences of choosing one course of action over another.

Putting it all together

As mentioned earlier, despite their differences, the roles of consultant, coach, mentor and counsellor can overlap – and there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as practitioners and their clients understand when and how the positions may alternate between one state and the next. Ultimately, it will depend on both the circumstances of the situation, and what is appropriate to the clients’ needs.

 

Note:

* There is a particular tendency to use the terms “coach” and “mentor” interchangeably, even though they are quite separate. For a good summary of the differences, see this recent article.

How Can I Help?

My purpose in launching this blog was to develop a personal brand, to engage with an audience, and to provide a platform for my ideas and interests, especially in respect to navigating the “information age”.

At the risk of self-aggrandizement, I’d like to think that this blog is helpful, informative and even entertaining. After two years of blogging, I have a sizeable and regular audience, my content gets shared and commented on by numerous readers, and key articles continue to be read many months after publication. (Two of the most popular articles in 2014 were actually published in early 2013.)

Several of my core followers have mentioned why they enjoy my blog, and these are some of their reasons:

  1. The content is original and well written
  2. The articles make them think about things in new ways
  3. I write about novel ideas
  4. My thinking reveals hitherto hidden or less obvious connections
  5. I’m never afraid to state my opinion

Which all suggest to me that they derive value from my analysis and conclusions.

So, my offer of help is this: If you would like access to this creative process, either in support of a specific business opportunity, or to address a strategic issue you face, or simply to help with your own content development, please get in touch via this blog or direct by e-mail. In return, I will provide you with an initial assessment of the issues as I see them, and an outline solution, at no obligation. It’s simply my way of saying “thank you” to everyone who has made an effort to engage with Content in Context.

 

Tools vs Solutions: When does our core offering need to change?

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, recent posts have focussed on digital – content, products, pricing etc.

I’ve also been immersing myself in the digital design process (next step: learn code?) and earlier this month I attended a workshop by a leading digital design studio. While most of the session was devoted to their own particular design methodology (basically, UCD with some fancy footwork) it also revealed that in developing tools to help customers undertake their own design projects, they have become a subscription software business. No doubt, they will continue as a design consultancy, but clearly the core offering is changing.

This shift echoes an analysis of McKinsey Solutions by the Harvard Business Review in late 2013. Basically, it suggested that rather than providing an all-in-one solution (based on black box consulting methodologies and processes), consulting firms are having to unbundle their offering, allowing them to remain relevant and move to more defendable positions in the value chain. In the case of McKinsey Solutions, embedding analytical tools at client sites is a cost-effective way of delivering services, while gaining insights on their customer needs, which in turn allows them to develop enhanced tools.

So it raises the question: Do consultants need to re-think their offering – rather than being solutions providers, should they focus on being enablers? This may seem overly disruptive (and potentially disenfranchising) for the consulting industry; but in the long run it should mean clients become more reliant on value-added solutions that deploy tools that they know, understand and trust (and can use for themselves). It should also mean that clients will want to retain access to these tools as they evolve, because they will be more invested in their development and use.