Discoveries

Personal and professional lives can be difficult to separate in the consulting world, especially when you have clients who serve society in ways we all care about.  I know a consultant in New York who is working for a multinational consulting firm on ways to improve the efficiency of processing second mortgages for a US bank.  Part of her belongs in an Occupy Wall Street encampment denouncing the enterprise that sustains her, but this gets repressed and the conflict of values becomes internalized.  I remind myself of this whenever a non-profit client frustrates me, because at the very least I can usually get behind my client’s mandate.

Anyway, it’s misleading to say that a client frustrates me.  My colleague, Rod Smith, never approaches a company for funds.  He always approaches one person, because he believes a corporation to be nothing but a collection of individuals.  Although they’re organized within a framework of structures and systems that inhibits the free exercise of personal judgement, as in the New York example, agreement on values-based decisions like philanthropy begins one conscience at a time.

Unlike the commercial sector, where corporate values are sometimes in conflict with shareholder values, non-profit workers are much more clearly aligned with their organization’s values.  It’s true.  If you think that waterboarding should be an Olympic demonstration event, you’re unlikely to find employment with Amnesty International.  There are very few people at the Canadian Opera Company who despise the art form (unlike a character from In the Loop, nicknamed “The Angriest Scotsman in England“, who rants, “You only listen to it because it’s unfashionable to wear embroidered caps saying, ‘I went to private school!’ It’s nothing but f**king vowels!”).

So, professionals among my clients tend to identify more personally with their organizations than do their counterparts in commercial enterprise.  If that’s true, and if organizations are indeed comprised of individuals acting in concert, then it’s understandable that personal and professional behaviours can be confused, and that this can be frustrating to outside consultants like me.

An example would be the tendency of some people to avoid saying what they really want or need out of fear that their desire will be ridiculed or rejected, or fear that if they try and fail, they’ll be left with nothing, not even their unrealized dream.  We all do it in some aspect of our lives; avoid setting goals or diminish our true desires because they’re too daunting.

The alternative is to risk success over and over again, while learning to live with the prospect of failure.  The only way failure is certain is if the real goal, the heartfelt ambition, is never expressed or actively pursued.  If you can’t even say it, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever do it.

When this behaviour manifests itself in professional life, it has the same effect on outcomes.  It’s very hard to get clients to declare what they really want to accomplish because their ambitions become constrained by what appears possible.  Objectives are limited to incremental gains when real breakthroughs might have been possible.  If only people could speak the dream that is in their hearts, unexpected possibilities might be discovered.

Consultants can’t perform magic.  We can’t conjure up capacity and resources where none exist.  But neither can we invent strategies to achieve goals that no one dares to speak.  Too much of our time is spent studying and fixing little things when everyone knows on some level that there are bigger things to be done.

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