Giving Advice Is Fraught With Danger

Abraham Lincoln advised us that those who would not be slaves should not own slaves. He was assassinated. John F. Kennedy advised us, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." He was assassinated. Giving free advice to some people can have grave consequencesno matter how true or appropriate it is. And people who are paid to give advice -- such as consultants -- live in perpetual danger. They are hired by successful people whose personal genius has reached its limitations and who are willing to pay for advice. Other potential clients include managements whose only tool is a monkey wrench and who, therefore, treat all problems like leaky faucets. Or executives who suddenly have realized that stubborn mules have neither pride of ancestry nor the hope of posterity. Many a chief executive has learned that its a short step from being in the groove to being in the grave. So dont give your consulting needs to those who solicit your business. If you need a consultant, take the initiative in seeking the one who is best qualified and with whom you feel comfortable. Also, be wary of those who are living off the intellectual fat theyve accumulated over the years. Those of us who have decades of experience are, in some respects, less wise about some subjects than people half our ages. The right consultant can be invaluable. At heart, consultants are educators. They can teach us lessons our personal experiences cant. Here are a few things I have learned from consultants: * Talk less and listen more; good listeners are skillful talkers who realize that they learn nothing when they do all the talking. * There are small differences among employees, but those small differences can make a huge difference in a companys success. * Ideas never work unless those who get the ideas do. * Ordinary people will produce extraordinary successes if they are given understanding leadership. * Captains of ships (and of companies) gain their skills and reputations from coping successfully with storms rather than from sailing on calm seas. * Competition brings out the best in products and sometimes the worst in people. Take the experience and judgment of a good consultant out of your company, and there wont be sufficient wisdom left to keep up with change. Successful organizations require continuing care, not radical periodic cures. Your advisers should be thoroughly indoctrinated into your companys culture. And you must be willing to trust them, and they you. In Smart Moves (1990, Addison-Wesley), Sam Deep and Lyle Sussman list seven tips on hiring consultants: * Check with credible sources to develop a list of candidates. * Make sure the consultant has specific expertise in the target area of your need. * Check references. How many clients? What did he do for them? How did they like the work? What was accomplished as a result? * If you decide to hire a large consulting firm, spend time with the individual or group who will serve your account. Dont accept any consultant with whom you dont feel comfortable. * Ask for a proposal. Never hire a consultant without a written agreement specifying objectives, outcomes, procedures, methods, projected length, and costs. The contract should be written in simple language and should avoid jargon. * Ask for best-case and worst-case scenarios. How likely is each? If the consultant tells you there is no downside risk, get another consultant. * Make sure the consultant you hire intends to self-destruct. The best consultants see to it that you no longer need them. Their goal is to empower you to become self-sufficient, not to remain dependent on them. With technologies, legislation, and markets changing so rapidly, a company that says it has no need for consultants is a company that is already in trouble -- or soon will be.

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