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How Ex-Consultants in a corporate role master the Leadership Gap

When consultants change sides and become part of an executive team, they have their hardest task ahead of them: They must overcome patterns of behaviour that were necessary for their previous work but are pernicious in their new roles. That`s what we often observe in our clients` teams.

If after 10 to 15 years consultants on partner level switch into executive management roles, they bring along patterns of behaviour that were particularly successful in their consultant career. Among these are a focus on rational problem solving, sophisticated analytical skills, not beating around the bush, having a distinct point of view or working in small, highly motivated teams. When the consultant joins a company, the same patterns of behaviour often have negative side effects. The experienced consultant’s tools turn into a problem.

Case 1: The Bad-Mouther

Let us take the example of a marketing executive who used to be a consultant. “He continually invokes the image of a burning platform so that he can rise out of the ashes like a phoenix,” one of his peers in the top team put it bluntly. Of course, being able to address critical issues directly is a strength.

But the conclusion was clear: “He is always talking badly of the past and collectively stamps us as losers.” It was obvious that the other board members weren’t going to tolerate this behaviour longterm. They would create significant headwind.

Ex-consultants have an advantage in that they recognize problems in the system easily. But over time, they can become part of the problem themselves. They trigger confrontation so that they can position themselves more quickly, but, in doing so, they don’t think about the longterm effect. We repeatedly observe this external perspective provoking significant defensive reactions among those who built up the system. To be more effective with a fresh external mind, we would recommend newcomers to keep in mind the following principles:

  • not over-exaggerating deficits from the past
  • not taking credit for alleged successes too quickly
  • not being too opinionated or didactic.

Case 2: The Internal External

A second example: “He uses our management team like a pool of consultants. But the ‘captain’s dinner’ approach is too shortsighted for the longterm,” was one manager’s opinion of his new CIO. In the world of consulting with its highly motivated lone wolves, the recipe for success is focussing on clearly definable problems and blending out the interpersonal level. “One problem, three men, three months,” is the usual working mode.

But what effect does this approach have in normal companies with mixed teams and longterm business relationships? “He has no sense of holistic leadership,” a member of the IT team said, “and he doesn’t seem to mind either. His entourage of ex-consultants gives us a clear indication of what he thinks of us.” According to this manager, the ex-consultant’s leadership style is neither appreciative nor particularly motivating.

It isn’t easy moving from international consultancy to the day-to-day business of a company. Many consultants behave as internal externals and try to integrate their familiar model for success into their new surroundings. However, in this scenario, the focus isn’t on organizational leadership and employee development, it is on managing rational problem-solving intelligence – be that with external teams of consultants or internal mobile task forces. While emotional intelligence is theoretically considered relevant by ex-consultants, in practice it is neglected. Rather, the ex-consultants only try to solve problems on an “objective” level. Therefore, we recommend that ex-consultants should avoid:

  • limited focusing on rational problem solving
  • using their best people as a pool of consultants
  • rallying an entourage of ex-consultants.

Case 3: The Clan Leader

“He has built a fort and is pitting himself against other departments. You ask yourself where his loyalties are.” The board members were in agreement of their new colleague: “He’s alienating the whole company because he is protecting his own clan.” Distinguishing a department from the others is a popular and effective way of rallying one’s own team.

But it has consequences: alienating criticism of others is highlighted, while one’s own team is protected from any criticism. When identities are constructed this way, effective cross-functional cooperation seems impossible. As a result, approval and decision-making processes are slower, conflict increases among board members and effective leadership slackens.

Of course, every new executive first wants to redefine the world to legitimize his or her presence. But ex-consultants are particularly prone to prove their leadership abilities quickly and with great resolve. A bold repositioning of their own department is often the weapon of choice to bind managers to them. Considering the longterm consequences, we recommend ex-consultants to avoid the following:

  • creating a departmental identity by setting apart from others
  • protecting their own team without question
  • underestimating the necessity of cross-unit collaboration.

Boost the Conscious Leader inside you: If you are an consultant switching into a corporate leadership role, your will to change mindset and behaviour is decisive to your success. In the consultant world, the motto “if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem” applies. Remember? Our experience shows that ex-consultants have to keep this mind as well: “Only if you see yourself as part of the problem (and thus part of the company) you can be part of the solution.”

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Dr. Kai W. Dierke + Dr. Anke Houben

Top Management Coaches, Authors and Adjunct Professors of Leadership

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