Exploring the consultant’s helping role


At the heart of effective consulting is helping.

While the helping function is often implicit in producing a deliverable or completing a project, it warrants particular focus. So often, consulting engagements fail to deliver the anticipated long-term results for organizations. The root cause of those less than satisfying consulting engagements may be traced to a lack of careful focus on the fundamental nature of the helping relationship underneath the assignment.

Edgar Schein has studied the helping relationship in consulting and offers wise and practical guidance in his book Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help. He illustrates that a quality helping relationship is at the heart of effective service for many professions – from physicians to lawyers, clergy and social workers. While the nature of the helper-client relationship is often part of formal study for other professions, it remains relatively unexamined in consulting. (I have written previously about this pattern and its negative consequences among internal consultants in communication here.)

In essence, helping is the currency of the consulting relationship – for meaningful results to be achieved, the client and consultant need to create the conditions necessary for the consultant to provide useful help, and for the client and organization to be in a state of readiness to receive and act on that help.

In recent years, I have become increasingly aware of the enormous impact of understanding factors that affect a positive, or even breakthrough client-consultant relationship. It’s that awareness of the limitations of the traditional outsourcing model (both in terms of results for the client and in terms of a satisfying experience for our consulting practice) that led us to shift Ingenium’s business model to a strong focus on partnering with clients in a capacity building structure. We are guided by the principle that a client organization should be left stronger after an engagement – a commitment that comes from observing the insidious and damaging pattern of dependency and erosion of internal talent that exists in many traditional models of consulting engagements.

Unquestionably, the best results we have achieved among hundreds of client assignments have been those where we truly partner with the client in a collaborative and co-creating process, rather than simply completing a task that is disconnected from the organizational structure, culture and decision-making.

Schein’s work is valuable in helping to uncover the important underlying conditions required for a successful consultant-client relationship. Specifically, he emphasizes the following key principles:

  • At the beginning of a helping relationship, there is a state of imbalance. “The client is one down and therefore vulnerable; the helper is one up and therefore powerful. Much of what goes wrong in the helping process is the failure to acknowledge this initial imbalance and deal with it.”
  • Creating a truly meaningful and effective client-collaboration relationship takes trust. Building trust takes time, and that must be built into the pacing of an assignment.
  • Invest in the advance work required to provide candid input. “Feedback is generally not helpful if it is not asked for… it generally works best if it is descriptive rather than evaluative.”

In this context, Schein invites consultants to be deliberate about choosing the role they are playing in the client relationship. He emphasizes three main roles for consultants – (1) an expert resource who provides information or resources (2) a doctor who diagnoses and prescribes (3) a process consultant who focuses on building an equitable relationship and works with the client to determine what kind of help is needed.

Schein encourages us to avoid falling into the trap of defaulting to the familiar “expert” and “doctor” roles, and instead favour the more ambiguous, iterative but ultimately much more effective “process consultant” role. This emphasis on the process consultant function is particularly relevant to transformation and change assignments which require a high degree of agility, collaboration and alignment between the consultant and client.

In a world operating at an unprecedented pace, in which clients and consultants share an impatience for finding instant results, Schein’s sage counsel is instructive. In my own practice, his guidance encourages me to continue honing my craft of humble inquiry, and accepting that often the best service I can provide a client is not to try to come up with all the answers, but rather focus carefully on asking good questions.

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