This is the first of what I plan to be a series of posts on “A Foot Soldier’s Guide Leading Change.” See “I am not Jack Welch” for additional background.
Recently I was asked how to go about establishing credibility as a consultant during the early phases of an engagement with a new client. I immediately responded, “Expertise and execution.” To make a long story short, this question eventually led to a more in-depth discussion about why I feel that way – what experiences formed that belief. It took some reminiscing and some reflection, but three experiences eventually came to stand out in mind. I thought they were worth sharing.
The First Time I Taught a Class
The first was shortly after the first time I ever taught a class. In 1990, I had recently finished a graduate degree in instructional technology and I changed jobs to get an opportunity to teach classes. I’ll never forget the debrief after my first attempt at teaching and the feedback I got from my boss, “If you said ‘um” one more time I was going to kill myself.” But as many of you understand, I had been bitten by the bug. I loved it and was determined to be good at it. I wondered one day to my boss, “Wouldn’t it help if I were an expert in these subjects?” He responded, “You only have to be one chapter ahead of the class. That appears to be expertise to them. They come into the room assuming that you are an expert. As long as you don’t tell them you’re not, they will continue to think you are.” He continued, “Expertise will give you more confidence, so by all means learn more.” This has turned out to be true. Listen to Brene Brown’s talk on TED (Start at 11:20 if you can’t watch both her talks). Dare greatly! Don’t be afraid of failure. You just have to be “good enough” and then you must try! Of course expertise is helpful – it’s always good to “have more in your pocket than what you show.” But if you wait until you are “expert enough” to jump in, you may never jump at all.
Welcome to GE
The second experience was when I was hired as an instructional designer by GE in 1997 for a high-profile project run out of corporate headquarters. I was brought in because of my experience with technology-enabled learning to work on the Six Sigma Quality Coach (SSQC) – GE’s first enterprise-wide intranet-based e-learning application (see: Slater, R., 1999. The GE Way Fieldbook. New York: McGraw-Hill; p139-144). I had no idea what I was in for. My first day on the job I flew to Schenectady, NY and jumped right in. What honeymoon period? By 1:00PM that day I’m in a working team meeting, literally surrounded by Harvard Business School, Boston Consulting / McKinsey alumni. This was a very smart, very intense crowd. It was pretty intimidating. I kept a low profile while I got my feet on the ground. That evening, I confided in my new boss that I felt like youngster who had just been thrown into the deep end of the pool. She gave me some sage advice, “You were hired for your expertise. Don’t worry about what they know. Answer questions and offer insight about stuff you know. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say ‘I don’t know’ – tell them when you’ll get back to them with the answer and then be sure to do it.” She went on, “Ask questions when you don’t understand something, and don’t offer too many opinions about stuff that you don’t understand, and you’ll be fine.” This advice got me through that project, and it has served me well throughout my career as a consultant. Be realistic about what you do have expertise in, and what you do not! Good as your intentions may be, straying into areas where someone else in the room is the expert might do you more harm than good. Secondly, say confidently what you will do and then be sure to deliver.
The third was more recent. I did some work for a company through Patina Solutions (This is a great organization, for more information – see their web page). Their specialty is matching their client’s needs with a consultant who has deep expertise in that area. There niche is “50-25” i.e., consultants over fifty years old with more than twenty-five years experience – hence “Patina.’ During the on-boarding for a project, a Patina account exec asked a probing question that has stuck with me, and has permanently shifted my mindset. She asked, “How will you add value by Friday?” I’ve been to many career workshops etc. over the years and been to many “What is your elevator speech? – What is your sweet spot?” sessions. However, this question focused me like never before. With every project I begin now, I ask myself that question, and I continue to ask myself that question every Monday morning as I plan out the week ahead. How will I add value by Friday? This question makes you think hard about what technical expertise you bring to bear, what expertise you have regarding the client’s challenges and goals, and what you understand of your stakeholders and their perspectives.
In retrospect, these three experiences were formative and profound for me. They are at the root of my approach with my clients today. This exercise showed me the value of examining my beliefs, and understanding why I believe what I believe.