Consulting beyond the Froth:
A welcome return to ‘home cooking’ … or the scarily ordinary done exceptionally well
During a recent meeting with a prospective client (let’s call him Paul), I was struck by how much he didn’t want us to sell what we did. He seemed to be much more fascinated in how we felt able to “just be ourselves”(his words). At one stage his challenge was “yeah, yeah I know when you are consulting you can do all that. I’m sure you will be good at partnering with us or anyone. What I really want to know is how comfortable you are with each other and then with someone like me and the people I have in mind. So tell me: what does a group of people like you do for a Christmas party?”
Now some readers at this point might be more interested in how we answered such an unexpected question. But what struck me was that Paul had sought us out purely from his intrigue at how we showed up on our website and then how that matched with how we related to each other. Of even more interest was the fact that he hadn’t quite worked out precisely what he was looking for.
He just wanted something different. Something a little less elaborate than the leadership development that his colleagues had been served up in recent years. “It’s as if we have got far too used to dining out in Michelin-starred restaurants with all their frothed up garnishes. Yet sometimes you just want to eat something straightforward and be back with the people who really know and care about you. Where you are delighted just to eat something basic and wallow in the ordinariness of a typical day at home”.
It reminded me of those moments when I am more than happy to heat up some beans on toast and grate some cheese (if I’m feeling indulgent). As I sit down to eat with my sons, I amuse myself when I proclaim: “cheesy beans: the food of kings and queens!” And I actually mean it too.
The best articulation that Paul could find was they needed now to focus on what it takes to bring some ordinary management practice back into what they were referring to as leadership. “Part of the problem”, he went on, “is we have got so used to lurching from one drama to the next that we have started to lose sight of what we value closer to home. In other words: the stuff that happens in the everyday. And it is only becoming apparent because it seems we are running out of dramas and the expectation that there is always something lying around the next bend. Indeed we can see much further up the road and, whilst the business is in good shape, it all seems scarily ordinary. For now at least.”
It brought to mind another client conversation (let’s call her Dawn) where we were discussing the challenge of sustaining cultural norms over time. The business in question was well known for its innovative and unique approach to its brand identity. To both consumers and employees the brand has always stood for innovation and quirkiness even 20 years after its well known products were first conceptualised.
I asked Dawn how they had managed to keep their values so fresh and vibrant for such a long time. Her response was illuminating: “well people often assume that we have a unique approach to the way we engage people and how we go about HR stuff. Yet you will find that we have pretty similar policies and processes to most progressive businesses – it’s just that we try to apply them in a super authentic way”.
Looking beyond the Froth
So I wonder, should we be paying more attention to the craft of leading and organising that is exceptional and super authentic in its ordinariness?
If I think of the consulting world or more specifically the world of OD and Change, it reminded me that we are so often seduced into believing that we always need to offer something new. This is why we are never short of fancy language and fancy packaging that disguises something that has usually been borrowed and might even be a little old. Nothing wrong in that if it keeps us away from a cookie cutter approach to our consulting proposals. But are we trying a little too hard to dress up that which often just needs something basic…but served up with exquisite care and attention?
Being Extraordinarily Present
My experience is that what often gets most valued is our ability to hold safe spaces for people to talk to one another and perhaps get heard in a way that they rarely experience. To do this ordinary consulting work well, we have to be extraordinarily present. We see our job as creating the conditions for people and their colleagues to witness what each other has to say about how they feel in their work, how they feel in their relationships to each other and most importantly what they are hoping to get better at. And then of course feeling able to do something about it.
Being really heard can feel quite profound for some people. Yet holding onto our curiosity and with a little less judgement is not something that can be easily bought or sold. So whether you are a leader or change agent, if you look beyond the ‘froth’ you might find the essence of what you really need is something quite straightforward.
You might even want to try some of our Metalogue-starred ‘home cooking’ from time to time.