"Top management hate that I’m there to rock the boat, but that is what they need".
When he walks into a consultancy environment, Morten Kaiser is mentally naked. In his own words, ‘I come in with nothing, I lie with a pen.’
Of course he’s visually respectable, but what Morten means is that he doesn’t want to walk in on a situation with a ready-made solution. No prejudgments, he wants a clean sheet to start with; he doesn’t want to be constricted by preconceptions. For those paying the fee this might seem a bit of a cop out, but it’s his way of saying I’m not here to lecture, I’m here to listen.
Morten is a consultant – one of today’s ‘in’ titles, so ‘in’ it is often over-used, abused and consequently misunderstood. The dictionary broadly describes a consultant as an expert sharing their expertise, for a fee. To Morten his form of consultancy is not about transferring knowledge it is about triggering change. It is a concept that many misconceive and misplace in the ‘fluffy soft skillsection’.
‘To be a consultant you need to grow big ears and the ability to appear to know nothing.’
He had an example of a full day meeting with a company. ‘For the first four hours I was constantly thinking and said nothing. They were probably wondering what was I doing there, adding no value, being paid and not contributing anything to justify it. Then they ran into a problem and I asked them a question and within five minutes I’m sure they felt they had their money’s worth.’
The irony is that consulting in the People Skills arena that Morten works in, suffers from a bit of an own goal. They can look at other companies and identify solutions whilst their own image is often under communicated. That’s because there is a strong distinction between consulting and educating, one that is often misread at the highest level. They are both horses often kept in the same stable, but breed for very different roles.
The former spend their time transferring the information from their heads into the heads of others, the latter listens, nudges and motivates, hopefully creating change in behavioral performance. ‘To be a consultant you need to grow big ears and the ability to appear to know nothing.’
The problem is that anyone can be a consultant in any field, it is situation that muddies the waters for those who want to clarify exactly what they can do. Rather like the overuse of words like senior, executive, professional, there are times when it fits the bill, times when it is just egotistical pampering, or over marketing or as a justification for high fees.
Morten reaches for a book, he calls it his Bible, a title a little more catchy than that given by its editor, but it does contain many gems, including what Morten sees as the definitive definition about consultancy:
Management consulting is an independent professional advisory service assisting managers and organization to achieve organizational purposes and objectives by solving management and business problems, identifying and seizing new opportunities, enhancing learning and implementing changes.
Management Consulting – a guide to the profession 4th Edition – Milan Kubr
‘It starts and ends with the customers ambition, what do they want to achieve,’ says Morten. ‘To inspire customers to see and challenge their problems with a different view. Quite often leadership teams are stuck, they are trying what they can and are doing their best to achieve an ambition or vision such as incident-free or team zero but they are not achieving it and they can’t, from their current position figure out how to go about it.’
There’s little wonder there is so much confusion about the job. If you Google ‘What is a consultant?’ you are at the bottom of page 14 before the answers start to dry up.
The Third Option
Consultants, at the very least, fall into three areas. One is technical or medical, where years of experience are turned into advice that you would ignore at your peril. Brave or stupid would be the doctor who didn’t react to the consultant’s advice, or the Wall Street rookie who dismisses advice from a veteran. The second is more ethereal and much harder to convey or measure. It’s like calculating the value of insurance if you never have an accident, or marketing a product that might just have sold anyway. It is a valuable contribution, but one always open to skepticism.
What Morten and his team deliver is a third option. It is perhaps easier to equate to the sporting rather than the business world. The world’s top football teams, golfers and tennis players all get to the top through another set of eyes blessed with the drive and ability to cultivate talent. Call them the manager or the coach, it doesn’t matter, what they do is to act as consultants, only that their heads are on the line for anything less than success.
‘I think that the best results come when we stop dictating and we start asking some of the questions that make problems disappear.’
‘Our heads should also be on the line,’ says Morten, ‘we’re quite happy to take a punch, the problem is that people often misread “soft skills” as being what they sound like. It is frustrating because the value is lost in the phraseology. Nobody belittles what makes their computers work simply because it is called “software”.’
It is not thinking outside the box that makes a consultant, it is being outside the box. In the human factors side consultancy could include training, facilitating workshops, seminars, it could also include 1on1 coaching teams and mentoring.
‘Top management hate that I’m there to rock the boat, but that is what they need. Sometimes supporting, sometimes challenging, sometimes inspiring them so that they dare to get out of their normal way of thinking. Decision making is down to managers not consultants. However consultants should have an opinion and stand by it and more importantly be given the opportunity to express it without penalty. We can support and challenge, but it is down to them to decide.’
The Plus Factor
‘The trap some organisations fall into is that they get course bound, they have all the answers and they can dictate them word for word. But I believe you can get more out of people with physiology and other skills. I think that the best results come when we stop dictating and we start asking some of the questions that make problems disappear.’
What helps is the unique set-up that Morten’s team of four, with an additional six externals, has at Maersk Training. They have access to technical experts and some of the world’s most sophisticated simulators. ‘No other consultants have the benefit of going into the next door office and seeking advice from someone with 20 years maritime or offshore experience and then be able to pressure test participants in almost ‘real-life’ scenarios in the simulators.
‘We have the technical DNA, people who know what it is like to be in the dog house, engine room and discuss leadership with them.’
It is a combination that has proved to be the tipping point for some organisations in selecting a company destination or employee learning path. It is a path that Morten sees as a clearly marked dual carriageway. ■