Internal Consultants are expected to perform complex and challenging work and to act as trusted advisors without always having the skills, influence or credibility to do so. They need not only excellent technical skills but also a range of advanced relationship skills to establish their own authority and develop trusted relationships with senior stakeholders.
There are challenging jobs in any organisation but the role of internal consultant must rank as one of the most difficult.
Recently, when working with a group of internal consultants, we asked them to describe their ongoing challenges. This is what they told us:
“I feel like a data lackey. The stakeholders want information from me but don’t want to listen to my opinion on what they mean or what the implications are.”
“Stakeholders expect me to come to the conclusions that they want. I am used to justify action they have already decided to take. Any contradictory information or opinion is ignored.”
“They don’t trust me. I know because they continually ask me about my process or my data or how I came to a set of conclusions even when it is all quite simple.”
“I can’t manage my boundaries. I am continually asked to provide data or write quick reports on topics which are not important and distract me from the project I should be working on.”
“I can never get agreement on the scope of a project. Different stakeholders want different things to satisfy their own agendas.”
“I work really hard at preparing for presentations. When the day comes, someone asks a question and the discussion goes off-track and I often don’t even finish the presentation. I just stand there while everyone ignores me.”
“I have so many competing priorities and find it hard to cope. I often end up doing the work demanded by the person who shouts loudest.”
One issue is that businesses are not always focused on ensuring that internal consultants have the necessary professional skills and credibility to be successful. So, what can be done to solve this problem and to improve the value and recognition of internal consulting roles? Hiring experienced consultants from external firms to fill internal consulting roles remains an ongoing trend and is one way of filling the credibility gap. However, they quickly realise how difficult the roles are and frequently move into management positions within the organisation. Consequently, the developmental route is often the best way forward. Organisations wrestling with the challenge of enhancing the role and credibility of their internal consultant teams should consider the following:
- Positioning the function internally and providing senior sponsorship. Attention needs to be paid to the internal ‘brand’ or image of the function to ensure that it is valued and recognised as being strategically important.
- A clear definition of the strategic function of the role. The purpose and boundaries of the roles need to be clarified and widely communicated. It may be beneficial to specify what is NOT included to prevent internal consultants being side-tracked into less important tasks.
- Skill development. This includes technical and non-technical skills. Any effective learning and development programme should include the following elements:
- Scoping a project (including understanding and diagnosing a problem)
- Developing and testing hypotheses
- Analytical thinking and problem-solving
- Data analysis and synthesis
- Devising effective and insightful recommendations
- Project management
- Stakeholder management – building trust, listening, setting boundaries and conflict management
- Communication Skills – Presentation skills and Storytelling
- Influencing skills
- Personal brand and presence
Finally, there is a huge focus of attention on the professionalisation of the consultant role, driven by the Chartered Management Consultant qualification. This is being widely embraced by the leading professional services firms both locally and globally. There is a strong argument to say that the charted qualification should form part of the career development path and mix for internal teams, along with membership of industry bodies such as the MCA. Taking these steps would certainly go a long way to boosting the credibility and morale of those in internal consultancy roles.
About the author
Debbie Dudley is a Director at The Openside Group
Openside design and deliver tailored programmes to ensure that Internal Consultants have the skills to operate effectively and ensure maximum strategic impact in project delivery. All of our tutors are experienced consultants and many have been successful in both internal and external consulting roles.