I’m often asked the difference between three kinds of external helpers that a business or individual might need — coach, consultant, and contractor. Just as often, I’m not asked how to make good use of these important helpers — even though I often hear from my colleagues how many clients don’t know how to work well with and get real value from these often highly paid individuals or firms. Since I can and do function in all of these three roles, I need to maintain constant clarity about the kind of assignment I’m working under.
Here how I distinguish these three “C’s”:
- As a coach, I help my clients find their own clarity, their own strength, their own resourcefulness. Rarely will I offer advice, or take on a task that they could and should be doing. I think of myself holding a flexible mirror in front of them, helping them see themselves in a new way.
I had one client who was great at maintaining accountability, budget controls, a good work environment, and other such aspects of the present situation. But he told me that he had trouble planning, visioning, and otherwise getting beyond his organization’s present situation. I gave him no advice, but simply asked him to imagine that his organization was going to hire a director of planning and visioning, and to bring me a job description for that role. I also asked for an initial work plan. What he brought back to his next coaching session was stellar. Clearly, and despite his negative self-appraisal, he had quite a command of how to envision and plan possible futures for his group. The real challenge, it turned out, was figuring out which of his tasks he could and should give away, and which tasks might not be needed at all.
- As a consultant, I do offer advice — extending the client’s knowledge and vision. I might be called upon to review a client’s action plan, facilitate a meeting, interview stakeholders, map out possible strategies. I will make recommendations to the client, that make include some surprises.
One consulting client hired me to review some technology work that was very poorly done, in the expectation that I could serve as an expert witness in a lawsuit against the technology provider. Indeed, the work was seriously deficient, and I could easily have provided a legally correct statement of that assessment. But my advice to the client was to step aside from the potentially consuming legal process, and to use all their resources to get enough of the technology working that they could get back to their core business. This was not the advice they expected or wanted, but they took it and it served them well.
- As a contractor, I take on tasks that my client might have handled themselves, but for whatever reason choose to out-source to another. My role is not to offer advice, and not to catalyze their growth, but simply to perform the tasks they have assigned.
One software company used to regularly contract with me to teach their training classes. I followed their course outline, used their other training materials. and represented myself to the students as somebody working on my client’s behalf.
After teaching a number of these classes, I expected that I might then be hired as a consultant to design improvements to the classes, drawing on my in depth experience delivering the material to a wide range of students. However, that never happened.
When hiring a coach, an individual or organizations needs clarity about what change outcomes are desired. A speech coach might help somebody speak clearly and forcefully before large groups, where that person might already have had a great mastery of the material but only felt comfortable sharing in small informal settings. But that same coach would probably not be helpful when the challenge is to develop an inspirational message that requires a new definition of the organization’s mission. Bringing in a coach will generally increase the workload for the individual or group, as the coach will prescribe exercises and activities that engage the whole team but require real effort. Prior to hiring the coach, there needs to be a commitment to the learning process.
I’d offer similar comments about hiring a consultant — the need to have a well defined problem (or, perhaps, an agenda that starts with defining the problem), the commitment to staffing the consultant with access to the right information, insight, data, and experience, and the need to work with the consultant throughout the process.
A contractor needs an even more detailed job description, but, in return, should require less staff time for support, supervision, evaluation, and collaboration.
I’d strongly suggest that before hiring any of these helpers, the organization develop the evaluation tools to assess the success of the engagement. Knowing how evaluation will take place means really knowing what’s expected and what’s important.
Coach, consultant, and contractor — They are all important helpers. But know what kind of help you need, what you expect to receive, and what commitment you have towards reaching that end.
December 13, 2012
I didn’t have to look far to find these “scripts”. I’ve played each of them many times before in conversations with friends and colleagues, and expect that I’m in good company. Most of these are not scripts that nourish relationships, cultivate friendships, build self-image, or free up our positive creative energy. And yet how often do these scripts guide our behavior?
My suggestion — Try playing each of these scripts for a day. Rehearse your lines, and be prepared to deliver them with passion and energy. But stop short of speaking. Think twice, and experience how the “real” you can best come forward.
Have I left out one of your favorite — or least favorite — scripts. I’d love to hear from you. Post on this blog, or e-mail me.
- Woe is me — Let me tell you all that has befallen me this week, the people who have been so mean or thoughtless, those who I thought were my friends, but finally showed their true (selfish) colors.
- Gratitude — I’m so thankful for you as my good friend, and you’re part of a community surrounding me. Stuff keeps happening, but I’m glad that I’m not alone.
- Entertainment — I’m an entertaining speaker, and I’ve lots of new stories and jokes, so — hold on to your seat — let me sound off.
- Compassionate curiosity — It’s been quite a while since we’ve really talked, and I’d love to hear what’s happening with you. What’s happening with you now? What’s important? I’d like to know.
- Interview — I want to hear about you, but let me take control of the conversation. Are you ready for my first question (of twenty!)?
- Flirting time — I’d like to offer you much gratuitous praise — not that I really mean it, but can’t we enjoy flattering each other?
- Far from the personal – Let’s talk about politicians abroad, or movie stars, or scandals . . . anything that keeps us from revealing much about ourselves today.
- Not so hidden disinterest — I asked you how you are, and about your family, but please don’t say anything too challenging. Running into you has been a diversion from how I really wanted to spend my time.
- Saving the world — I know you’re compassionate about world hunger, torture, and other such tragic issues, but are you feeling enough guilt? Let me offer some concrete things that you can do, and a big dose of guilt for you to absorb if you’re not willing to take these on.
- Please set the pace — Glad to run into you. I’ll be relatively quiet, just wanting to hear from you.
- Our fortune is overwhelming — Let me tell you about my promotion, the fantastic job our daughter just got, the contest we won. I’ve so much good news to share with you that I really don’t have time to listen to your story today. Oh, yes, and I was sorry to hear your bad news.
- False pretense — Let me pretend I didn’t see you. I won’t say a word, but trust you won’t be offended.
December 12, 2012
I recently met with the organizer of a fledgling non-profit, that will help “new Americans” find best place in our society, offering mutual support, and drawing wisely upon existing resources.
Then, after some reflection, I wrote the following summary of our discussion (slightly edited here for publication). I share it here not for the specifics regarding this new organization, but as a possible model of the kind of thinking needed to give birth to a vital and well purposed group.
Vision — A world in which the phrase “new Americans” is not even necessary, as all are treated with such dignity and respect, and receive assistance fulfilling their potential, in an open society that values differences as well as strength, that supports varied cultural forms, and that is open to growth and change. [I've just listed my thoughts here, probably not in the most refined, and final, wording]
Mission — New Americans helping each other take their full place in the economic and cultural life of this society, sharing their strengths, receiving help and support, and maintaining their dignity and sense of self worth. In particular, supporting new Americans who have experienced torture and other trauma, as well as abuses from the systems in place that should have offered support and welcome.
Support committee — An informal group offering you (the presumed director) counsel and support, but that has no decision-making power or formal organizational role. This group could be a group that can be a sounding bound for you, a source of advise, a place to test out ideas without making them visible to the whole community.
Executive Board — The formal group holding the “vessel” that is your organization. This is a point of organizational grounding, financial accountability, legal integrity. But it’s not the place where program originates. Largely consisting of new Americans, it may also draw upon others who can offer expertise in law, finance, non-profit grants, publicity, development, and other such areas. With good fiscal sponsorship, this group may not be needed right away to handle the organizations’ grant income, etc. Still, the structure of self-government is important, and experiencing this mechanism of self-determination right away can be an important experience and inspiration.
Community Board — A representative group, that ideally has members from all the ethnic groups being served. This is the group that identifies and then evaluates program, insuring that it really meets the needs of the communities it is supposed to serve. You will need to find clarity about how this group should function, how decisions are to be made, etc.
We spent time discussing the names of these last three groups. I still support my original comments, but believe you could call them anything — as long as you define clear and appropriate roles for each group.
These words are clearly not definitive. And that’s precisely why I’m sharing them here. If I’m incorrectly reporting what was shared and generally agreed upon, or if in retrospect some of these ideas are questionable, this is a great time to correct and move forward.
December 12, 2012
I’ll be offering this week long workshop at the week long “Friends General Conference” gathering this summer. But I’d love to work with anybody about how Quaker-ish process might work in any secular setting.
“We’ll explore ways in which something akin to a Quakerlike process can be used for secular decision making, and how it brings clarity and community to the life of non-profit organizations and even to for-profit companies. What’s left of Quaker process without it’s emphasis on spiritual discernment? Come and find out!”
November 12, 2012
“Hurry up and finish speaking, so I can tell you why you’re wrong!”
Have you ever found yourself thinking such a thought, instead of really trying to grasp what truth might be said? Of course, such impatient waiting is not true listening, and rarely serves us well. It leaves us poised for a fight, rather than ready for insight, understanding, and growth.
Listening is a critical skill in all of our lives. In business we’re concerned with management, supervision, marketing, sales — all tasks involving relationships. We need to listen to employees, managers, customers and potential customers, suppliers, stockholders, neighbors — all those who are impacted by our policies and operations.
October 26, 2012
I’ve been aware of much work on personal communication styles — how we each can best receive support, advice, criticism, support, validation, etc. And, of course, there are various personality models that help us understand all these things.
But I’m aware of much less work characterizing organizations. Thus I set about to put together this simple model. I present it here as something in process, for discussion and validation only. Please add your commentary. And if you’rereading this through another blog or medium (such as a LinkedIn group discussion), please make sure that you post here any comments that you post there as well .
I characterize organizations along two dimensions:
Traditional . . . Visionary
Weighty . . . Agile
And the, for each quadrant, I’ve assigned a name:
A traditional organization, that has some agility but not vision, is Awkward.
A traditional organization, that is more weighty than agile, ia probably Stuck.
A visionary organization, that remains weighty, is truly Reaching.
And, finally, an organization that is both visionary and truly agile is truly Creative.
Although I suggest that this characterization is for organizations, it may better fit organizational segments, perhaps a department or work group.
How helpful is this model? Are the quadrant names appropriate and helpful? And how useful is this picture to you? Please comment.
October 4, 2012
M. C. Richards in her book, “Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person” draws on the metaphor of the potter centering a piece of clay. The potter pushes against the clay but leaves space for it to move, until it is well centered on the wheel. At that point the potter can touch one point of the pot and the whole moving piece of clay will respond.
The potter must be careful — for if the clay gets off center a strong touch might pull it apart. Instead, the potter will carefully lead the pot back on center, and then continue working it. Of course there are limits to the strength of the clay, especially when it is wet and heavy. An understanding of this reality must moderate the potter’s touch.
Similarly, we need to re-center ourselves as we begin any meeting, or even any task. Left unchecked, we may drift or get pulled away from where we need to be. We may find that we’ve taken a wrong turn, or gotten off the trail and need to find it again. This is not a sign that we are imperfect or inexperienced, but simply that we are human. And when we are on center — everything is possible.
Things don’t always go well. Sometimes “centering down” seems impossible, as laundry lists of tasks and issues keep running through our minds. Undone tasks, complex relationships, or other matters may loom large, and not let themselves be pushed aside even for an hour. Withhold judgment, be prepared to let go, and wait. Let the center find you.
September 6, 2012
I was so impressed with this article by George Ambler, that I’m posting this link to the article, The everyday tasks of leadership.
Ambler talks about three major leadership tasks:
- Setting direction (mission, vision, values)
- Building commitment (trust, accountability, cooperation)
- Creating alignment (common ground, shared responsibility)
Are there others that he left out? Do all the significant leadership tasks fit into these three themes? Please share you comments on this blog, and let’s make this a fruitful discussion.
September 5, 2012
I do ask lots of questions, but sometimes I also do provide answers! Here’s are some of the answers I provided to the Linked In “Answers” forums:I
As a nonprofit consultant, which assessment tool(s) do you recommend when trying to understand and evaluate where the organization’s biggest problems lie?
The starting point is not a set of “tools” or automated programs, or report. It’s my own ears, listening to staff, board, and critical stakeholders reporting their understanding of the organization and its issues. And it’s the probing questions I ask, to elicit these comments. Once I’ve identified some core issues, various reports and tools may be relevant. And if the issues are primarily with finances, I may involve other consultants who work more intensively in that area.
Think about getting a good physical exam. After a few simple preliminaries (height, weight, pulse, blood pressure, etc.), the doctor will ask how I’m feeling, will look VERY carefully at my posture, demeanor, coordination, etc., will feel my skin for temperature and moisture, etc. More detailed tests may follow, but they are never the starting point.
How do you personally evaluate speakers you hear?
Great speakers have me engaged. They present memorable images, powerful questions, great metaphors. I don’t have to “evaluate” their performance. Their message stays with me, guides me, informs me. I notice that.
How successful is your donor newsletter at raising money?
I’d be surprised if most donor newsletters succeed at raising money — since that’s not what they are supposed to do. They keep donors and prospects in touch with the organization, cultivate them as stakeholders. Then, when the “ask” comes, the donors or prospects want to support the vital organization that they are so clearly in touch with.
What is your favorite way for nonprofits without alumni to get email addresses?
Just be very careful that you understand “opt in”. An e-mail sent without permission, and without explanation, casts a very bad first impression.
What is the biggest mistake you see new, first time EDs make when working with their Board?
The most common mistake I see new executive directors make is to regard their board as more a burden than an asset. Indeed, it takes work to maintain a board, but a board is a resource to help keep an organization on track, connected, and grounded.
How do you find web developers/designers that are willing to offer Pro Bono services to a NFP?
In most communities, you’ll find an organization that brings together web developers and designers to share skills and insights with each other. Try to identify that group (or those groups) in your area, and ask them to circulate a request from your nonprofit. Be clear what the request is, and include a short statement about why it makes a difference. But do be careful that the skill set you get pro bono is the skill set that you need. A web developer MAY not be the best web designer or web marketing consultant. Interview your pro bono workers just as you would any contractor.
What’s the best accounting software for nonprofits?
One early responder to this question asks, “Why do you think it would be different from any profit making business? ” In many many ways, the needs are the same. But many non-profits need fund accounting, as they keep track of many different grants, contracts, etc. There are packages designed for this, and I’m aware of several add-ons for Quickbooks to provide fund accounting functionality. How important is this for your nonprofit? For many, it’s not important at all. But it makes sense to have on your board at least one person who really understands these issues, and can help guide the organization. As with any software choice, the REAL cost is not the cost of the package — It’s the cost of working with it daily, of putting up with unexpected quirks or lapses in support, and — worst case — of replacing it if a wrong choice was made.
Chartered affiliate organization must file state filing and register for the DOJ and FTB, yet Central Org won’t sign documents, claims it’s unnecessary. Central org does not include chapters in 990 or file a group exemption.
Speak to a lawyer in your state. Informal advice on forums such as this can be valuable in many ways. But it’s no substitute for good professional legal advice. I’m amazed how often people don’t go to the source — and here the source is somebody with the precise legal knowledge.
What is your best tip for leading effective online small group coaching programs?
The key to any individual or group coaching is clarifying goals. Often that’s the full agenda, and its’ repeated again and again. “What are we trying to do?” “Where do we want to be?”. Individual (1-1) coaching may be a useful adjunct to group work. But be careful that people don’t try to use this to point towards others as the source of a problem. The only place that belongs is in the whole group, stated in the most positive way. Yes — accountability is important. I’d suggest that the last part of each session be on “confirming agreements”, and that the first part be on “agreement check in”. I agree that “homework” can be a negative word, even though the concept is great. I might call it “preparation”.”
- Work with staff and their managers to identify the skills on which training is needed. Communicate this clearly to the training group.
- Allow enough time and space for the training to really work. Often going off site is helpful. In any case, staff should be totally free to be present with the training.
- Insure that staff will be able to use the skills they have learned right away. I used to run a technical training department, and was amazed how often staff were sent for training on a new piece of software, but didn’t get to work with it for six months or more. By that time, the value of the training has long been lost.
September 5, 2012
Any consultant wanting to hone his or her skills should read this recent article by Bernard Ross and Sudeshna Mukherjee in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Here are the ten points they list: (For a detailed explanation, read the article!)
Following this list, I’ve added eight more that I believe are at least as important.
* Have self-confidence and be as adept at delivering bad news as good.
* Have a good understanding of the business and of themselves.
* Have transferable skills.
* Have the ability to simplify and explain a problem.
* Have more than one solution to a problem.
* Be a good listener.
* Be a team player.
* Be able to market.
* Gain client trust.
* Remember who’s the star.
And while I agree strongly with all of these, there are more traits that I believe are equally important:
* Be comfortable telling the truth. Clients may just want to hear positive words, expressions of praise. A great consultant is willing to say what needs to be said.
* Be tactful and affirming. Truthtelling doesn’t need to be negative and abrasive. A great consultant can phrase criticism as helpful suggestions, and can lead the client toward constructive action.
* Know how to ask great questions. Great consultants ask great questions. It’s through such questions that we learn what’s really going on, what the client thinks is going on, and what different groups within the client organization think is going on.
* Be willing to play together. You can learn only so much sitting at the conference table. Spending some quality time with the client outside of the office environment is important as well. A great consultant can engage the client in different venues, and, by so doing, learn much ore about motivations, hopes, fears, etc.
* Have lots of integrity. Confidences need to be respected. Promises need to be kept. A great consultant only makes promises that he or she can and will keep.
* Admit mistakes. Great consultants aren’t always right. What’s important is that they take responsibility for the advice they offer, and are willing to acknowledge when it proves to be “off” in any way.
* Love simplicity. Even when Business and organization problems seem quite complex, some simple models will help clients understand. A great consultant and report and prescribe in very simple terms, but will still be ready to address the added complexity that may be part of a full understanding.
* Enjoy the work. Great consultants have fun. Working with clients can be like playing in a sandbox, and helping clients solve their own problems can be like building those sand castles most of used used to create as children. Clients will catch on — that it’s fund to learn, to develop new understanding, to think up new possible solutions, to test ideas, and to work together in a collaborative environment.
October 13, 2011
I still remember that deadly class period in Junior High School — social dance class. After reminding us to stand up tall, lead firmly, look your partner right in the eye, smile, start with the right foot, listen to the music, be aware of other couples on the dance floor, point your feet straight forward, hope that your teeth were brushed and that your breath is okay, and more pointers that I’ve surely forgotten, she gave us one last piece of deadly advice:
“If you take little steps, you’ll make only little mistakes”.
That was horrible advice for the dance floor and for life, for me in Junior High, and for every later period of my life. Even as I first heard those words, I knew they were a motto for the life I didn’t want to live. Read the rest of this entry »
September 19, 2010
Why did I have to travel with this colleague, for whom everything about Europe was wrong?
It was a beautiful Saturday morning when we arrived at the Holmenkollen Ski Hotel, atop a small mountain on the east side of Oslo. I took a quick shower, then a short nap to recover from the long airline flight, and a delightful buffet breakfast before starting my trek down the small road to Oslo city center. But my colleague stayed behind, “to watch television”. And when I completed my downhill adventures, enjoyed a quiet day of art galleries, city walking, and gourmet foot, and took a train back up the mountain to the hotel, his only comments was, “The coke was warm!”.
Our next stop was the town of Hilversum, the radio and TV center of Holland. I always like to work hard and live well, and so when our consulting was finished I took him to one of the finest but least formal restaurants I knew — a small auberge in the seaside village of Oude Loosdrecht.
January 28, 2010
An important lesson for any professional to learn is that not all money is green. There are some clients you just don’t want as clients, and the sooner you learn to turn them away the better. Some lack integrity, others don’t really want advice, guidance, or collaboration. Others don’t know how to work respectfully with professionals.
Yes, the sooner you move away from them (even if at some cost), and cast you lot with great clients, the more you’ll prosper and enjoy life.
January 28, 2010
Effective managing involves catalyzing, facilitating, inspiring, modeling, organizing, creating respected methods of accountability, and much more.
But there’s more than just such outward tasks, I believe. Dancers take class every day to keep up their physical agility. Creative and successful professionals need to nourish our right-brain agility. One of the important tasks of management today is to foster that agility, and the kinds of preparation that lead to it.
How to do that? Well, that’s why we have organizations like the Center For Creative Emergence in the Washington DC area. That’s why I do the consulting and run the workshops that I run in New England, that’s why many of us are exploring other initiatives in this relatively new area.
January 28, 2010
I can be in several different states of creativity:
- Creating: Feeling that something exciting is coming out through me, and though related to my intention, my vision, and my skill, is larger than me.
- Editing: Doing good — though perhaps not exciting – work, that ties together or refines what I’ve created. I’m using my skills, vision, perhaps even my imagination to see more.
- Marking time: Balancing my checkbook, and doing all those other things that are neither exciting and creativity nor so mindless as to be great for meditation.
- Using my other senses and muscles: Walking or shoveling snow, or doing exercises at the gym . . . doing out of mind things that are nourishing in other ways.
My challenge is to get enough of all of these (along with social life, worship, prayer, etc), keeping them all in balance. The words or definitions don’t really matter; balance does matter.