Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The current "genius" in most companies is invariably the "new guy."  I wrote extensively about this phenomena in my post "You're A Genius!" several weeks ago.  I did not, however, mention the most common exception to the rule -- the outside consultant whose brilliance supersedes that of all employees.

When there's an outsider "expert" -- even if that "expert" is nothing more than a recent MBA school graduate, what we not-so-fondly referred to as a "green weenie" -- it seems inevitable that this person has greater credibility than even the most experienced employee.  Even greater credibility than the current, in-house "genius."

Why does this seem to always be the case?

For the same reason that the "new guy" trumps experienced employees -- the consultant's strengths are readily apparent, while his/her weaknesses are carefully hidden away.  In fact, a key for the consultant to obtain follow-on work is to never let this mask slip.  Never to let the guard down.  Maintain that facade of infallibility.

This contributes to a demeanor that many people object to in consultants -- a haughty, "oh you poor misguided fool" attitude that seems to creep into their interactions with anyone who isn't the decision-maker at the client firm (her, they normally suck up to).

Is this human nature?  To assume that the stranger is always more capable and skilled than those whom we know well?  Does familiarity really cause us to hold those closest to us in degree of contempt?  It certainly appears to be the case.

I remember a particular strategic consulting assignment undertaken by one of my employers that illustrates this phenomena.  

The charge to the consultants was to help us determine the best way to organize a group of autonomous divisions (the company's current management model), to push a new technology that should help them all -- some more than others.  It had been repeatedly suggested by the management team that we could successfully accomplish this by setting specific goals and tying compensation to them, but the boss wanted to explore "other options."

Dozens of interviews and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the consultants recommended that we do exactly what the senior managers if the group already knew was the best solution.  Sure, they added a few ancillary ideas that helped with implementation, but fundamentally the consultants did little more than validate our solution.

In another instance, my employer hired strategic consultants to help us "identify attractive industries" for acquisitions.  The senior management team wasn't lacking for ideas, and we knew the industries and markets that were arranged around us, and had a pretty good fix on the attractive candidates.  The unfortunate fact was there were few that stood out as spectacular deals of the type the CEO was after.

The consultants' final presentation covered a number of highly improbable industries that were far from our current lines of business.  And they weren't particularly obvious as "structurally attractive" -- our key criteria in the first place.  It looked like the presentation was going to be a massive failure, but the consultants saved the day by profiling a large company that was competing with us in some markets, and was active in others.  Indeed, the company was interesting because we would have significant synergies with the part that overlapped our business, and the other pieces had the potential to be platforms for further growth into new markets.  It was a home run recommendation, and saved their bacon.

The problem was, we had been salivating over this company for years!  Every time the potential for a deal with them was brought up, however, the CEO was reluctant to start a discussion because the company was so large.

When the consultants showed up and offered it as a recommendation, however, it carried the day.  Suddenly the company was a viable candidate that we could pursue, after all.  Eventually, the target was acquired and it turned out to be a spectacularly good deal.

Again, the consultants had more credibility than anyone on the management team, despite the fact that the balance of their recommendations were laughable.

Which brings me to some practical advice when it comes to consultants working in your organization.  When they show up, you should do your best to co-opt them for your own purposes.  Tell them with conviction what you think should happen to make the company better, what projects should be taken on, what acquisitions should be done.  You can specifically push agendas with them that would be politically impractical for you to push on your own, as they aren't likely to attribute their ideas to anyone specific in the organization -- after all, taking credit for their recommendations is a key part of their playbook.  

Then stand back and let them do some of the heavy lifting that you can't accomplish on your own.

And try not to resent the fact that, in the eyes of your firm's top managers, they have more credibility than you do.  15.1

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Novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZEDELIVERABLES and now HEIR APPARENT (published 3/2/2013) -- note, the Kindle version of DELIVERABLES (a prequel to HEIR APPARENT) is on sale for a limited time for $2.99.

To the right is the cover for INCENTIVIZE.   This novel is about a U.S. based mining company, and criminal activity that the protagonist (a woman by the name of Julia McCoy) uncovers at the firm's Ethiopian subsidiary.  Her discover sets in motion a series of events that include, kidnapping, murder and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.