Consulting and Professional Services Radio

Professionalism in Consulting

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Consulting and Professional Services Radio

Jeff Porter / Lew Sauder

Description: Ideas, Information and Inspiration for Consultants and Service Professionals

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Professionalism in Consulting

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consultant needs to be aware of in terms of professionalism and how changing attitudes have caused the concept and attitudes of professionalism to change as well.

  1. Why is professionalism something a consultant should be concerned with?
    1. When we talk about consulting and professional services, we often talk about the service part.  Professional service implies that we serve professionals.  And because of that we are working in a professional environment.
    2. So we need to be aware of the client’s standards and make sure that we live up to them. But sometimes that’s just not enough.  Sometimes there is a double standard.
    3. The client has one set of standards that they expect their own employees to live up to.  But when they hire a consultant or a consulting firm, they have a different standard they hold for them.
    4. And it’s not always the client that holds those standards. Sometimes the firm will tell its consultants that “that’s OK for the client, but not for you”.
    5. So the challenge for a consultant is to know what the standards are for everyone and which ones only apply to me as a consultant.
  2. Let’s talk about the double standard. What are some scenarios where the client will have another standard for consultants?
    1. Let me give you another example from the perspective of professional attire.  When I first started in the consulting industry, the standard attire for male consultants was a suit.  It didn’t matter what you were working on or what your client’s rules were, you wore a suit to your own office and a suit to the client site.
    2. I remember being assigned early on to one client that had a more casual dress code.  Their people wore jeans to work every day.  They informed our management that our consultants had better not show up in suits because they didn’t want the consultants to stick out.
    3. I worked for a large and stodgy firm.  They were willing to let our team dress down a little, but they weren’t about to let us wear unprofessional denim to a client site.
    4. They compromised and allowed us to wear khakis and button down shirts.  We still stuck out like sore thumbs because everyone else there was wearing jeans and t-shirts.
    5. So the result was that we maintained our self-perceived professionalism but what we really maintained was our elitism by making sure we dressed so much better than the client.
    6. We essentially told them that we would lower our standards for them.  We just wouldn’t lower them to their level.
    7. So here, we should have adjusted our standard to be the same as the client’s.  We would have developed much better rapport with the client had we done so.
    8. But there are other areas where I don’t think consultants should lower their standards.
    9. One example of that is with meeting timeliness.  I’ve worked at clients where showing up on time for a meeting was not even on their radar for a professional standard.
    10. Staff, managers and executives were habitually late for meetings.  As a consultant I could have decided that since it wasn’t an important standard for them, then I shouldn’t worry about being on time either.  Why should I waste billable time sitting waiting for them to show up?
    11. But I don’t believe that’s an appropriate approach. I always tried to be on time for every meeting.  I ended up waiting a lot, but I didn’t want to be the one that was late and held up one of their meetings because I was submitting to their standard.
    12. Another area is with emails and other documentation deliverables.  I think consultants should be diligent in proofreading and making sure even a minor email sent to a single person is free of typos, has good grammar and is just written professionally.
    13. Regardless of how the client sends emails or drafts a document, the emails and documents that a consultant sends are a reflection on them and on their firm.  That’s just a professional standard that I don’t agree should be compromised.
    14. One other area is just the basic level of professional behavior that one portrays in an office.
    15. For instance, let’s take standing around chatting in the break room.  I’ve been to client sites where I’ll go get a cup of coffee and see people chatting in there.  When I go back for my next cup of coffee, the same people are still there chatting.
    16. Now, I’m not against taking a break and chatting for a few minutes.  It’s a good way to get away for a few minutes and to just recharge your batteries a little.
    17. But milking that and wasting a lot of time is something a consultant shouldn’t do.
    18. I’ve also seen this issue when it comes to foul language.  I’ve been with clients that use foul language all of the time.  If I talked like that in front of them, they probably wouldn’t mind, but I also think it’s an unprofessional way to talk. I tend to stay away from it and I think consultants should as a rule.
    19. I just don’t think a consultant has anything to gain by trying to fit in and be like them that way.
  3. How have professional standards evolved over time?
    1. Let me go back to the dress code for a moment.  Many years ago, I taught a class at a client where there were also some EDS consultants.  Now this was many years ago when EDS had some of the strictest professional standards.
    2. The employees wore suits with jackets to the training.  They told me that they were allowed to take their jacket off to work at their desk, but if they got up, even to go to the washroom, they were required to put their jacket on as they walked in the hallways.
    3. Now that was extreme even back then, but it illustrates how strict it could be.
    4. Over the years, businesses have loosened their dress code standards.  It started with casual Fridays.  When I was in consulting at the time, their initial response to this was that, while the client may have lowered their standards, our consultants will continue to wear suits.
    5. Then after a while of that, the firm decided that we could wear business casual on Fridays in our offices if we didn’t have any client contact.
    6. That evolved to casual attire in the office any day that we didn’t have client meetings.  I knew guys who kept a suit in their office at all times in case a client meeting came up at the spur of the moment.
    7. So this slowly evolved to today’s standards.  I work for a small firm and we practice a “when in Rome” approach.  We can wear jeans in the office and wear whatever the client wears when we are at the client site.  Standards for dress, much like many other standards have become much more casual over the years.
    8. I think consultants, and particularly consulting firms, who try to have documented rules in place for professionalism, have had trouble determining when to use the ‘when in Rome’ rule and when to be stubborn about it and maintain their own rule.
    9. In most cases, I think you should adapt the ‘when in Rome’ rule for the client’s dress code.
    10. There are other practices where you can go along with the client.  Office pools for instance.  The firms I’ve worked for in the past had rules against entering an office pool for the Super Bowl or for the NCAA basketball tournament.  Still today, many would say to keep out of this.  You can argue that technically it is illegal gambling.
    11. You also may not look good if you ended up winning the entire pool, which can sometimes be in hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
    12. But you have to gauge the client and your relationship with them.  I would definitely check with my firm to see if there is a rule regarding this type of thing, but I do think consulting firms have loosened up a little on this type of thing.
  4. So when we talk about professional standards, are we just talking about what a company’s culture is?
    1. Sometimes, but I don’t think it’s the same.  I mentioned earlier about the client I had where everyone was late for meetings.
    2. I can’t think of a scenario where showing up late for meetings can be considered professional behavior.  It was definitely part of their culture though.
    3. Professional standards are most often documented.  Most companies have an employee manual that spells out at least a minimum level of expected professional behavior.
    4. You’ll find that at a client as well as at your firm.
    5. A company’s culture is more like the unwritten rules that have become acceptable, but aren’t necessarily documented.
    6. The client I worked at may have had a professional standard to show up to all meetings on time.  But the cultural rule was just the opposite.
    7. It’s actually not all that uncommon for cultural rules to trump professional standards.
    8. I worked at a client where there were professional standards against accepting gifts of any kind from vendors.  But I knew of several instances where executives accepted tickets to professional sports events and other gifts.
    9. It was fairly common.  It just wasn’t broadcasted and everybody just kind of ignored the formal rule.
    10. And I think that’s what younger consultants find difficult to navigate.  They’re told by their managers that this is the rule for professional behavior.
    11. Then they see widespread practice of doing just the opposite.  Some end up following the rules as they’re published and others end up bending or even breaking the rules.
    12. The problem comes when a consultant gets caught breaking the rules because they followed the cultural rules.  It’s what I call the Nixon Syndrome.
    13. I remember my dad talking about how US president Richard Nixon went down for the Watergate scandal back in the 70s.  He didn’t think Nixon did anything that all the other politicians weren’t already doing; he just got caught doing it.
  5. So how does a consultant define or determine an appropriate professional standard?
    1. We’ve talked about the double standard and how there is one for the client and one for the consultant.
    2. But I think it goes deeper than that.  As a consultant, you certainly have a certain level of professional behavior that you must adhere to.
    3. I think the minimum is the client’s level.  If the client has any type of professional standards, you need to learn what those standards are and live up to them.
    4. After that, you want to determine what your firm’s professional standards are. Are they different from the clients?
    5. You want to determine the stricter of the two and make sure you go with it.
    6. You also need to understand how your firm reconciles those differences.  Are there some that are non-negotiable?  No matter how casual the client’s standards are, your firm may say, you always follow our rules.
    7. Then there are things like dress code where you follow the ‘when in Rome’ approach.
    8. But on top of all of that, you may have your own standards for professional behavior.  And that’s where it can start to get messy because we start to get into judging other people.
    9. I work at a firm where on Friday afternoon around 4:00, if there are no clients around, we have beer-o-clock.
    10. Now, I like my beer and so do several of my co-workers.  And I don’t see anything wrong with ending the last day of the week having a beer with some of my like-minded peers.
    11. There may be some in the office who think that drinking alcohol in the office in any situation is unprofessional.
    12. Different people have their own thresholds of acceptability.  I would agree that having alcohol for lunch in the office is a bad idea.  But I make the exception for late Friday afternoons.
    13. So what if I see someone having a beer with his lunch on a Tuesday when there are clients around?
    14. He may think I have a double standard because I think it’s okay for me to have a beer when I find it acceptable, but not okay for him when he finds it acceptable.
    15. I think the bottom line is that you need to define for yourself what the acceptable level of professionalism for yourself is and live up to that standard.
    16. But then you have to determine the acceptable level of professionalism that you’ll accept in others and what level you have to say ‘that’s enough’ and you’ll call them on it.
  6. Any final thoughts on professionalism for consultants?
    1. I think professionalism is essentially a matter of respect.  How much respect you have for your fellow workers and for yourself.
    2. How we dress, how we act around others and whether we show up on time is often a matter of respect.
    3. I think everyone in the business world needs to assess what their employer’s standard is and determine if it fits with their own values.  Some companies may be too strict and some may be too lax for you personally.
    4. It’s a bit more complex for a consultant because they’re balancing their own values with that of their firm and then with each client they work with.  They need to strike a happy balance with all of them.

Next week’s topic: Leaving a client