At Solvegy we say we are on a RIDE with our core values. The acronym stands for Relationships, Integrity, Diversity, and Excellence. In this series of articles, I will explore some of the lessons I have learned over the course of my career that have helped guide my client engagements. Each article will focus on lessons that relate, albeit sometimes loosely, to one of our core value groups.
This article focuses on the R of our RIDE: Relationships. In every consulting engagement, building solid relationships grounded in trust, mutual respect, and open communication will be critical to the success of a project or program regardless of the duration. These principles apply to relationships with your client’s team and within your own project team.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, it is not prioritized or weighted, nor do I guarantee your project will be 100% successful if you follow these tips. However, you, your team, and your clients will enjoy the interaction more and set a tone for success. We encourage you to share your keys to success in relationship building and look forward to your feedback in the comments section.
While I am taking the view of a management / technology consultant due to my role at Solvegy and my background, anyone can use these tips by treating internal clients like customers.
Let’s get to it…
1. Work as a Team
Team members do not succeed in a vacuum. Individual successes are the exception and not the rule in projects of the information age. Among many other factors, projects are successful because of exceptional execution and collaborative teamwork. Remember that the team consists of many core and extended members: project sponsors and advocates – typically senior management and C-level executives, client project leads, client subject matter experts, client technical experts, client end users, and your team – management or technology consultants.
Leverage the strengths of each team member and when necessary, supplement weaknesses to ensure the project’s objectives are met. When hiring prospective team members, consider leveraging tools like the Predictive Index or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® to identify team members’ strengths and weaknesses, to understand their natural tendencies, and to build a supportive framework for success. And always attribute successes to the team and view set-backs as opportunities for team improvement.
2. Speak with One Voice
Just as you will succeed or fail as a team, you should also speak as a team. As consultants we are brought in to supplement our clients’ teams, to provide expertise, and to fill in the missing pieces necessary to complete a project. Our clients look to us for guidance and for answers to difficult or complex questions. They want to have confidence in us as their trusted advisers. As such we need to speak with one voice to ensure our messages are not muddled and our recommendations are thoughtful and useful.
Project leaders should ensure team members’ voices are heard. Consult with team members before making unexpected or unplanned commitments. Work out internal disagreements and reach consensus before communicating with the client. If confronted with a question for which there is no immediate answer or several possible answers, defer the answer until the team reaches consensus and you can speak for the team. Do not deliberate in front of the clients. Doing so will waste their time and potentially result in confused, rushed, or less productive answers.
3. Practice Discretion
Be aware of your surroundings. Limit internal team discussions when in your clients’ offices, especially those that are deliberative or potentially contentious. You do not want your conversations being taken out of context or subject to misunderstanding.
During client meetings, sometimes discretion requires you to remain quiet, and sometimes in the interest of productivity it requires you to speak up. On this point you just need to let your intuition be your guide and remember that discretion is the better part of valor. During group meetings, deliberations among client stakeholders should remain among client stakeholders. However, if there is an opportunity for you to prevent misunderstandings, that opportunity should be taken with care and thoughtful, constructive, and non-threatening input.
4. Listen Closely and Concentrate
Client subject matter experts, sponsors, stakeholders, and managers can communicate quickly and seemingly disjointedly. Remember, they have more context than you do; they take elements of their jobs for granted like we take 1+1=2 for granted. Listen carefully and focus on the message, not the method of communication. Listen actively by verifying your understanding of the messages being conveyed. But don’t go overboard on that technique else you risk annoying the speaker and getting caught up in the weeds. Remember that you can always clarify meanings when meeting minutes are submitted.
Yes, listen and take notes – notes that can be transcribed and submitted back to the client for verification. I am very diligent about taking notes in meetings and distributing meeting minutes in a timely manner. This habit has served me well on dozens of client engagements helping to build consensus and prevent confusion. In this respect, the exercise will almost be like listening to your college professor with the expectation that you will have to demonstrate what you learned at a later date.
Taking notes requires concentration so it is a good way to discipline yourself and hone your listening skills. It also shows your clients that you are engaged. It shows that what they are saying is important and has meaning.
5. When in Doubt Defer to Your Client Lead
Remember that as consultants we listen, document, analyze, and advise – we do not decide. We help drive consensus and guide our clients to a solution. At Solvegy, we never claim to know all of the answers. If there are questions related to expected outcomes, project requirements, or project protocol, leverage the wisdom and experience of your client’s project lead. That person is the client’s spokesperson and sometimes the decision maker.
The client’s project manager understands the client organization’s dynamics, office politics, corporate culture, personalities, and interpersonal communications far better than someone coming in from the outside. Let the lead provide direction, clarify expectations, manage internal communications, and address internal conflicts. Your relations with the greater project team will be the better for it.
6. Be Nice and Be Respectful
It is hard to quantify the value of being nice in business situations but character counts. You know it when you see it and you feel it in your core at the end of the day. Clients also know it when they see it and they value it. Nice does not manifest in a vendor selection scoring framework for example, but I have advised dozens of clients on vendor selections and trust me, nice matters. At Solvegy, our services are retained for a myriad of reasons but I suspect one of the key ones not often articulated is that we are consciously nice and respectful towards all of our clients, our partners, our communities, and our employees.
The same holds true for your clients. It is cliché but let the golden rule guide you. Remember that clients, stakeholders, and fellow team members are human beings with feelings, frailties, skills, abilities, experiences, and opportunities for improvement. They are dedicating time out of their already busy schedules to support the project on which you are all working. Every team member has the ability to contribute to the project and make an impact. Showing respect helps one earn respect and being nice is priceless, even it if it is not always easy.