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Ahoy! Who’s Running this Ship?

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.

Written by

Alan Weiss is a consultant, speaker, and author of over 60 books. His consulting firm, Summit Consulting Group, Inc., has attracted clients from over 500 leading organizations around the world.

Comments: 6

  • Graham Franklin

    January 8, 2011

    What a great piece of advice that I all too easily forget.

    Thanks Alan.

  • michael cardus

    January 8, 2011

    Great advice, recently I was speaking with a trainer and she was complaining about how people calling her are all messed up. I share a quote from you, “They were smart enough to call you”.
    Remembering that a title, certificate, and even many years of repetitive experience trumps your personal knowledge and experience, unless you see evidence and respect that the person has enhanced wisdom and cognition.

  • michael cardus

    January 8, 2011

    Alan, yes I meant “doesn’t trump”…

  • Pat Ferdinandi

    January 9, 2011

    It’s important to look for where you can help…not that the customer has a flaw. Everyone can use help…sometimes in area’s they are not aware or know how to change.

    I don’t know enough to be able to make a judgement on Capt Honors.

    I do remember when a branch manager enjoyed dressing up as a woman for monthly sales meetings. Everyone laughed in respect. In the background, he lost respect. You can’t lead without respect.

    Could I have “helped” this branch manager? No, because he wasn’t ready to hear of the consequences. I also wasn’t in a position where he would have accepted my help. Instead, sugestions were made to those who were in the inner circle. But, they were the “yes-man”.

    I agree with you Alan. You can’t assume a client is damaged. Added to this, you can’t assume s/he will listen if s/he is unaware. All you can do is your best, hope for the best, and move on. And, as your article premise states…know you are an equal…not better or worse if the advice is not “heard.”

  • January 11, 2011

    You know it’s funny, as I’ve grown older I’ve grown increasingly intolerant of people who don’t do business in a peer-to-peer manner.

    In my case it’s not just that it’s good business to treat clients as peers – it’s also that I feel uncomfortable doing anything else. And if I’m not treated as a peer in response, the relationship is unlikely to last long.


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