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The Importance of a Thick Skin for a Consultant

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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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The Importance of a Thick Skin for a Consultant

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One of the key traits of consulting is the ability to deal with adversity.  This often comes from clients but it could just as easily come
internally from your own firm.  This week we will talk about the ability to take criticism and deal with it in a positive way.

  • What do you mean by having a thick skin?
    • We talk of consultants having a thick skin meaning they have a certain numbness to criticism and adversity.
    • As consultants we’re placed in somewhat risky situations.  We’re held to a high standard by our clients and we’re expected to have opinions.
    • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked the client a question or indicated that I didn’t know something and they respond, “Well aren’t you the consultant?”
    • We can’t know everything and we’re human so we make mistakes.  And because of that, we’re bound to face client criticism.
    • In addition to that, your own firm is going to hold you to a high standard.  There are times when the pressure gets to people and your boss or a peer may take it out on you.
    • So you have to be able to develop what we call a thick skin.  Some level of armor so that you don’t get your feelings hurt every time someone criticizes you.
  • Why is it important for a consultant?
    • Well I think it’s important for everyone, but it’s more critical for consultants because we’re placed in front of the client and held to that standard.  It’s kind of like the old saying, if you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.
    • You’ve entered a profession and, in essence, proclaimed that you’re an expert in your area.  No one expects you to be perfect, but if you screw up, you have to be able to face the music.
    • Now, that being said, it doesn’t mean that you find being criticized as fun.
    • You just need to learn how to take it like the big dog you are and hopefully either learn from it or let it roll off your back so that it doesn’t end up consuming you.
    • It’s also important for a consultant because of that double standard that we’ve talked about in the past.
    • You may be sitting side by side with a client employee, doing the same thing.  But if you both screw up somehow, the consultant is probably going to take more heat because of that double standard.
    • In your experience, what best taught you to deal with criticism and adversity?
    • First, let me say that I can still be pretty thin-skinned.  I can still get upset over things that, in retrospect, seem pretty trivial.
    • So let’s just say that I’m still in the learning process.
    • But I’ve learned a lot from three different aspects:
    • First, I’ve learned how to stay calm under adverse situations by observing successful people.
    • I had a boss who has become one of my greatest mentors.  I had a situation early in my career where I had a client that I had been working for for about a month.
    • This client got his first invoice for our work and went ballistic.  He couldn’t believe how high the invoice was.
    • He called a special meeting with my boss and I’ve never seen a professional get so excited.  He got red-faced and did everything but call us immoral thieves.
    • He said that the work I was doing was of no value and that I was just a paper shuffler; that his team was providing all of the value.
    • I was really in there as an observer but the fact that he had insulted me didn’t go unnoticed.
    • My boss was very calm and sat there and just took his criticism.  I remember one point where the client made a point that my boss disagreed with.
    • He started to protest and the client just yelled at him “Let me finish”.
    • I laugh as I look back on it, but it was very not funny at the time.
    • So my boss sat there and took this tongue-lashing for what seemed an eternity.
    • And at the end he calmly talked him through the contract we had agreed to, without being accusatory.  They both disagreed, but he was able to calm the client down and diffuse the situation.
    • After the meeting, my boss and I went to lunch and I asked my boss how he was able to deal with someone who was essentially accusing him of dishonesty.
    • He explained to me that you always have to remain calm.  If you get upset and start yelling, each side begins escalating and it gets very nasty very soon.
    • So I learned a lot from observing people like him.
    • Another way that I’ve learned was from my experience in high school and college.  I waited tables for several years during that period and it gave me some great experience in customer service, dealing with the public and dealing with dis-satisfied customers.
    • One of the jobs I had was waiting tables at a country club, so you’d get the same customers over and over.  And if I really pissed off a member of the country club, they weren’t afraid to report it to my manager.
    • And finally, the third way I learned how to deal with these situations was something of a baptism by fire. And that’s from directly working with clients in a consulting environment.
    • I’ve really enjoyed almost every client I’ve worked with. But every once in a while, you get one that is just very difficult to work with.
    • I had one who never forgot a single mistake I made.  I remember I made a mistake early in the project and I was branded for the remainder of the project. He would always hold that mistake against me for some reason.
    • I had another who was just hyper-critical about everything I did.  Nothing was ever good enough.
    • And another was just arrogant and brash.  He would point out mistakes in meetings to try to embarrass me in front of a group of people.
    • He had this favorite quote in meetings.  He would ask, “How much are we paying you guys for this kind of quality?”
    • I used to get very upset, but I learned to live with it and it made me stronger.
  • How did you learn to live with it?
    • There are many tactics that you can use to deal with it.
    • One is to just blow off the steam.  You have to learn positive ways to do that.  If you go home and take it out on your significant other or your kids, you just end up creating more stress.
    • One thing that I did at one client; I had a friend who was also a project manager at the same client.  We would go out to lunch and just share our war stories.  It didn’t actually resolve anything, but just having a shoulder to cry on was helpful.
    • Another way is to ‘writ it down’. Jeff referred to Lincoln on Leadership explaining that one method used by Abraham Lincoln to vent his anger was to write a stern letter…but he usually never sent it. 

    • Another thing I used to do to blow off steam was to go to a local driving range and hit a bucket of golf balls.  That could be very therapeutic.  Just the physical activity of hitting the balls felt good.
    • I suppose imagining the ball being the client could be helpful, but I always felt that was a bit violent and could just cause me to get more upset.
    • Another tactic is to have a sense of humor and make a joke out of it.  Not to the offending client’s face, but when my friend and I would go to lunch, we’d joke about the latest tantrum this client threw and what a fool he made of himself.
    • He would throw fits so often for meaningless things that he developed a reputation for it.
    • We also would hear other client employees talk about him behind his back, so he lacked credibility even within his own ranks.
    • Another way to deal with it is just to swallow your pride.  If you did something wrong, own up to it. If they continue to harp on it, they should probably get over it, but it’s just one of those things that builds character.
    • Finally, you could accept that that kind of criticism from clients is part of the job.
    • Think of all of the jobs that get public criticism.  Have you ever watched a professional sports event when an official makes a bad call against the home team?
    • I’ve heard some pretty loud manure cheers in some pretty large stadiums.  They also face the music on the sports shows that show the play over and over on the highlight reels.
    • Politicians are criticized on the news every single day. Anyone with any responsibility faces criticism and it’s not always fair criticism.
    • You just try to learn from the fair, constructive criticism and you learn to ignore the unfair criticism.
    • You have to realize how temporary it is and that it’s more a problem for them than it is for you.
  • Is this an acquired skill or are some people just naturally better than others?
    • It’s a little of both.  It helps to start out with a thick skin, but I’ve found that it’s more and more important the further up you are in the ranks, so you do have time to develop that thick skin if you’re just starting out. I think if you’re young and right out of college, they’re going to go a little lighter on you.
    • I’ve found that when a brand new consultant screws something up, the client will be more likely to go to their manager.  They’ll complain that they shouldn’t have placed someone so green in that situation or that they should have been overseeing them better.
    • But that all depends on how cocky you are.  And this applies to any level really.  The more humble and human you act, the less likely they are to come down on you hard.
    • As you move up the ranks in consulting and get more responsibility, you’re also more exposed.  The client will hold you to the wall when something doesn’t get done.
    • So, if you have a fair level of self-confidence, you’ve got some of that naturally.  If that’s not the case, you still have some time to develop it by the time you start getting responsibility.
    • I would recommend observing those managers you work for that are good at taking criticism.  If you watch them and can learn from their tactics, you can actually learn to have a thick skin.
    • But nothing replaces experience.  After you face a few tough clients, you’ll just learn how to deal with them.
    • It’s like a callous.  You just get tough to the treatment you can get from tough clients.
    • Either that or you decide it’s not worth it and you move on.  But hopefully you realize that it’s not the end of the world, the client is usually just blowing off steam and it’s not a lasting pain.
  • Any final thoughts?
    • Something I mentioned earlier is that you can get this kind of criticism from clients and internally.
    • That can be a peer or a manager.  And if that’s something you’re getting consistently, it’s just not right.  If the client is being tough on you and you’re not getting any support from your management, or your own management is giving you just as much grief, then I think that’s a red flag.
    • Your management should be a support staff for you.  Some people are tempted to get out of consulting altogether when they’re not supportive. In reality, maybe you just have a bad manager at the firm you’re at.  I’d urge people not to leave consulting just because of one bad manager.
    • It’s a great profession and a great industry.  I had a terribly critical manager once and I got out of consulting.  It took me five years to get back into the industry but I’m glad I got back into it.

Next week’s topic: The Importance of Flexibility in Consulting