Ahoy! Who’s Running this Ship?
I tell every consultant whom I mentor to assume the client is “healthy.” That is, the client isn’t “damaged” until and unless you see evidence that the client is the problem: screaming at subordinates, lying to colleagues, cheating on expenses. In my experience, the client being the problem occurs in a small minority of cases, yet too many consultants assume the person smart enough to bring them in to help is also dumb enough to be setting his own pants on fire.
Having established that, this column is for all of you who feel you are subordinate to your client; that common sense pales against complex models; and that a large organization’s sophistication dwarfs your own.
My case: Captain Owen Honors of the United States Navy, former commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, independently capable of destroying a major part of the world.
We only have about a dozen of these behemoths, so only a dozen people are commanding them at any one time. Quite a rare club. It makes the Senate seem like an open house, and the House look like a Boston bar.
Captain Honors is a product of a great education (the Naval Academy), strict military discipline (the Navy is perhaps the most rigid and doctrinaire of all the services), and extreme competition (there are fewer and fewer capital chips to command). He served as executive officer of the Enterprise, and was promoted to command in May, about to set sail on deployment, until his unfortunate, bigoted, and sophomoric videos were inevitably leaked.
There are many saying he’s been sacrificed on the alter of political correctness. But another and prevailing view is that officers of any rank simply shouldn’t act that way. (It almost seems like the residue of an age of YouTube and Facebook, when there are no restrictions on what anyone chooses to say at any time to anyone.) It’s hard to imagine the legendary Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, whose name is given to an entire class of these huge carriers, conducting himself in this manner or tolerating such conduct from his officers.
Captain Honors is one in twelve, perhaps. What I’m telling you is that just because someone has a large office, a huge paycheck, and hordes of subordinates doesn’t mean that the individual is any smarter or more sophisticated than you. In small businesses, we’ve seen inventive and risk taking people build firms which they were atrocious at managing. In large businesses, we’ve seen people ascend the hierarchical ladder through connections, politics, and luck. It happens.
Don’t be intimidated by your client’s background or wealth. Simply treat the client as an equal—a peer—unless you see evidence that proves otherwise. Maintain command of your own ship, and earn the respect that you’re due from clients and colleagues.
That will keep you safe and strong even when you have to sail into harm’s way.
© Alan Weiss 2011. All rights reserved.