Monday, July 28, 2014

Consultants (don't) add value

I was at this social gathering organized by one of the top global consulting companies for their current and potential customers. It had attendance from veteran industry leaders, founders of companies, CEOs and CFOs, sprinkled with a few Venture Capital heads and off-course partners from the sponsoring consulting company. I was the odd man out from IT representing my company; talking to a few known people in the room, introductions were made with some as the discussion veered from world economy to the best wine.

The Black Suits represented a diverse set of industries and functional experience easily mingling with each group and adding to the conversation. Enviously networking at its best, you could pick tips from these suave individuals on how to ease into a discussion and slide off without being rude. Their demeanor would teach many CIOs and CEOs how to conduct themselves in a senior gathering that expects you to merge in without getting technical or talking about IT barring a passing reference to the function you manage.

One of the cases under discussion revolved around a complex merger for a diversified group which was facilitated by the hosts. Everyone applauded the ease with which the deal was consummated, financially and culturally; a Partners remarked about a similar deal gone sour done by competition, stressing on the fact that quality matters when it comes to consulting and a little extra investment is worth the outcome. The wise men nodded and moved on to discuss multiple experiences and anecdotes around consulting that regaled the small gathering.

The comfort of the group with each other and the willingness to share and seek help from various quarters was a bit discomforting; these were industry captains that everyone looked up to. They controlled a large portion of the economy and influenced many strategic directions or shaped policy. They acknowledged the fact that every niche and skill has an expert or master who can do it better, faster, and consistently with successful outcomes. They sought these experts from the outside when they needed them.

That weekend mulling over the few hours spent, the big realization dawned upon me was the difference in the approach to solving problems taken by CIOs. Almost all CIOs believe that they are self-sufficient in their knowledge and skill to solve every problem that needs to be solved or opportunity to be explored using technology. They reach out to vendors and solution providers to discuss options; few subscribe to reports from IT research companies and engage their consultants to assist them. They hire consultants only when pushed by their boss.

Here’s a typical dialogue that happens with CIOs:
·         Do you need help with IT strategy or want to validate it ? That’s why I was hired !
·         Is there a business problem you want us to solve ? I know enough about the business to do that
·         Need help with any of your sticky projects where you’re struggling ? Everything is under control !
·         Are there any skills you need to augment in your team ? I will send my team for training !
It is not just the fact that CIOs are averse to seeking help from consulting companies, they even shun away individual consultants typically retired or out-of-work/in-transition CIOs. They are perceived as threats to their credibility and expertise. Why do you need to hire anyone to help you ? Not sure how many actually had the courage to go and ask their respective boss to seek external help. This is despite the fact that the enterprise may have a history of engaging consultants for various business activities, strategic or operational.

The strong individual is the one who asks for help when he needs it, said a wise old lady; how true it is in the current context of our work lives with the level of disruptions increasing day by day, expectations rising and uncertainty being the only certainty. Discussing the situation with many of peers I heard the same story again and again; no one wants to be seen as deficient in any skill or capability. All CIOs want to be superheroes, know it all and on top of every situation thereby digging holes for themselves to fall into all along.

In this case I hope CIOs will learn from their peer CXOs, it will help them be more successful.


  1. Agree entirely. CIOs also frustrate attempts by CEOs to push Consultants in their area.

  2. Gururaj Rao11:31 AM

    I agree with the statement that CIOs should welcome external help when required. However, I am not sure if this failing is restricted to CIOs or does it extend to other CXOs as well. I have met people and seen even entire organisations who dismiss external expertise as non value adding.

    1. My observation: some of the other CXOs are more forthcoming than their IT counterparts and I am hoping to create awareness that it is a good thing to seek a coach or mentor who can keep on showing you a clean mirror. Through my career as a CIO for over 2 decades, I had many mentors and coaches who helped me improve my effectiveness with targeted behavior changes.

      Also having interacted with one of the best coaches in the world, Marshall Goldsmith, I learned a lot on how I could pass on some of my learning to my teams who imbibed some of the learning and excelled in their own right

  3. Your statement that CIOs are averse to seeking help from consulting companies or from individual consultants typically retired or out-of-work/in-transition CIOs is correct. This is because they are not confident in being able to sell this concept to the Senior management and also are not sure how the management would perceive their knowledge/skills for suggesting the same.

  4. Being a consultant working in the industry for more than 20 years, I could not agree more with your observation. One of the most common problem of Indian CIOs is that they refuse to accept that there is a problem. Even the most badly managed IT shop claims that they understand the business needs and are highly aligned to business issues.
    The other part of the issue is that when consultants show them the path to follow, they expect a magic potion which will solve their woes in a short span. Walking the path together is not something most CIOs prefer.

    1. I tend to agree with you and the "insecurity" that they live in continues to haunt them through their careers with challenged effectiveness.