Finding the client-consultant partnership

consultant client partnership KnowledgePath Business Transformation

Finding the client-consultant partnership

At KnowledgePath, we typically discuss business or technology topics pertinent to business transformation. This week, we’re taking a step back from that to discuss the partnership between your company and a consulting firm. Or, more accurately stated, what this partnership should be between you and your consultant.

First, a little background. My true passion is DanceSport. Also known as ballroom dance, it has been a part of my life for over 25 years. I’m obsessed. I could go on and on (and on) about all the reasons I love it; the benefits, the intricacies, and the crucial elements of technique. Those of you who know me well have no doubt this is true. But that is not the point of this particular article.

A client once asked me what dance I would use to describe KnowledgePath. That’s a good question: Are we the friendly, approachable and energetic Swing, a graceful and flowing Waltz? Do we have the surprise and spice of a Tango?

Here’s the thing: we are none of those. In fact we aren’t a dance at all. Neither is our client. We are the partners. The dance itself is the business with its own unique movement, timing, and personality.

Partnership is a common discussion, so what’s the big deal about this particular comparison? Putting aside my obvious bias, the overview has some key similarities. These similarities are something that you as a client must consider when you make the leap into your business transformation and look for the right partner to lead you through this process.

In a partnership dance, certain elements must be in place to work. There is a Lead and a Follow. Both must work together very well for the partnership to work. The Lead drives the dance, leading direction, indicating what steps to take, the timing, and the character of the time on the floor. The Follow must sense every indication from the lead and move accordingly. They must trust that the lead knows what they are doing and won’t drive them both into a pillar or a wall or other dancers, won’t step on their feet, and has a plan to make all the many, many intricacies work together for the duration of the music. Not only that, the Follow must have a solid understanding of the dance to understand the indications made by the lead. The summation associated with Ginger Rogers still applies: the Follow must do everything the Lead does, only backwards and in high heels.

That’s super, but how does this apply to your business transformation?

Partnership in Business Transformation

Now, let’s equate this to a client-consultant relationship. The Lead is the consultant. They must not only know how to transform a business (the dance) but also be able to see the big picture, lead the entire transformation, anticipate challenges that can occur during the transformation such as business processes previously unconsidered, team members resistant to change, budgetary constraints (unanticipated tempo changes, other dancers, pillars, walls) and be aware of their own place in the transformation i.e. not to step on their partner’s toes and know when to trust that the Follow knows what they are doing. This is a pretty straightforward comparison there, don’t you think?

The Follow – in this case the client – must follow what the Lead indicates they should do, but they must also have a good grasp of the particular dance to understand what the Lead is indicating and why.  In other words, the Follow must trust the Lead, but also trust that they know their own company inside and out. This partnership comes from knowledge both the Lead and Follow possess. The Consultant will drive the project, using their deep knowledge and experience from their many previous and successful projects, and the client with follow that lead, using their deep knowledge of their business, adding together a successful partnership that makes the dance (the business itself) come alive.

So I have compared consulting to dance. Big deal, right? I’m sure there are a million comparisons that, thus far, could be equally as effective. But this is where it makes a difference: the details. What I have described so far gets you around the floor (gets you through the project). It doesn’t mean it went well.

Communication

For a dance to truly work, the Lead and Follow must do more. When I mentioned that the Lead must indicate to the Follow, the was a verb used with purpose.  If you have ever tried ballroom even once, you will know what I mean here: Leading is all about indicating. It is using knowledge and experience to tell your partner through your body movements what should happen.  As a Lead, do you grip your partner’s hand in a vice grip and plow through the steps, taking them wherever you want them to go? No, you do not.  That would be called man-handling, not leading. As a Follow, do you second guess what the Lead wants you to do and then do that? Nope again. That would be back-leading. Just as bad is the unresponsive Follow who gives the Lead no feedback.  As a consultant, our job is not to man-handle our way through a project and push our system onto the client with no ifs, ands, or buts. Clients too, cannot back-lead the project, ignoring the advice and direction from their consultant with no explanation . If either partner does this, the project will not be a success. Instead, the consultant and client must communicate with transparency and honesty and let each other do their own part.

Back to the analogy, the Lead and Follow must also be aware of other couples on the floor – better known to you as your competition.  Navigating and out-maneuvering becomes a team effort. On the floor, you must stay in front of the judges and keep other dancers from stepping on you or backing into your partner. In business, you need to do what it takes to stay in front of your customers and help your partner stay successful in this joint venture.

Trust

Finally, a word or two about trust. If both the Lead and Follow don’t trust each other the whole thing will fail. As a Lead, I trust the Follow will pay attention and let me do my job while they are doing theirs. As a Follow, I trust that I chose the right Lead for this dance, that they won’t lead me into a wall or brake my foot. More than that, I trust that they will lead me through a dance that works beautifully, and that if something gets out of sync, we will work together to get back on track quickly. As a business CEO or other executive, you need to trust your consultant. You need to know they will lead you in the right direction and that their knowledge is right for your business. You can be as choosy as you like until you find that perfect fit and know your business transformation will be lead properly. At the same time, you as the client have to be prepared to be the other half of this equal and vital partnership. Can you question why your consultant wants to do certain things? Of course, and in fact your communication must remain constant and transparent (although unlike ballroom, you should probably actually use words to communicate!) But if you don’t really feel you can trust their skill and experience, keep looking. You will find your perfect partner.

In the end, both DanceSport and consulting are an art form. I have thought often of this analogy because to me, it perfectly sums up KnowledgePath; both our philosophy and the way we work with our clients. We are dedicated to be that perfect partner for the dance that is our client’s successful business transformation. But whether you work with KnowledgePath or any other consultant, keep the bar high and strive for this level of partnership. It is the only way to make your project the success it can be.  It takes experience and hard work for both the Lead and the Follow to do their part right, but when they do, the outcome can be spectacular.

Sarah Witter
Sarah Witter
Chief of Client Development, Business Analyst , KnowledgePath Consulting, Inc.
Ms. Witter has over 20 years of experience working with client development through branding, change, and communication management in multiple industries. She uses a multi-faceted approach to ascertain a solid understanding of client challenges, marketing goals, corporate personality, and workflow systems to ensure positive outcomes for client's business transformation. Sarah has a broad client background encompassing public broadcasting, retail and supply chain management, software sales, food and beverage, finance, real estate, health care, and technology.