How does a nonprofit find the right consultant? (part two)
November 14th, 2007
Which is better: to be smart or to be bold?
What would you rather have: a cool head or a fiery belly?
For much of my life, I've chosen smarts and cool-headedness. The educational culture which so strongly shapes our preferences also tends to reward those traits more highly. And as a Chinese kid who immigrated to the US at age three, I was already strongly conditioned to adapt to what the teacher wants.
Even apart from the influence of those two cultures, however, I am temperamentally more wired to assume a detached analytical stance. I’m the guy who likes to first stand back to work out all the angles and probabilities before I commit. And generally speaking, those are traits that make for a good consultant.
But not always.
When I first considered this strange idea of a firm comprised of cause motivated professionals who would offer their high-end services at affordable rates, I consulted with two main types of people. One was the entrepreneurial type who wasn't a consultant himself and/or didn't necessarily know the field in depth. Many of this type had started their own companies.
The second group I consulted with were experts who already were consultants. Some of them were particularly versed in serving the nonprofit field. I respected each of them and their ability to think analytically.
As a rule, the first group of listeners grew more excited as I spoke. They might raise a point here and there, but the general reaction was "Hey, it sounds promising - go for it!" I almost always left thinking, "Maybe I'm not so crazy after all!"
The second listened politely but responded in a tone that was the equivalent of a raised eyebrow. One even told me flat out that this idea would probably not work. They invariably sniffed out flaws, raised excellent points, and drew on lessons from their own consulting practice. They were to a person nice to me and genuinely wanted good for me. But walking away from those meetings, I felt naive and vaguely exposed.
In the end, after having gleaned the insights from these experts, I had to summon something within to nevertheless plunge ahead. It is still very early in the game, I know, but I think it's fair to say we've done better so far than what many predicted.
I'm not recounting this to throw our success thus far back into the faces of those well meaning critics. Rather, I recall this dynamic to remind myself about how to be a truly good consultant, especially in serving the kinds of organizations that tend to be our clients.
It seems to me that a truly helpful consultant must always know the limitations of his tools. He can wield standard metrics, analytical paradigms, research data, and even sheer brainpower. But there will always burn bright some causes that defy those measurements as the final word of judgment. And whether certain concepts can fly or not can only be known by the bearer’s willingness to leap off of the cliff. Since starting Consulting Within Reach, I’ve come to even more appreciate that fire in the belly that can override even strong signals from the brain. And the world can be a better place for it.
I believe you help leaders best when you've understood the fire that burns within. Many of the individuals who enlist our help have made crazy decisions to leave a high paying job, to address some awful pain in the world, to start an endeavor that risks very obvious and public failure. You can't truly understand them and their organizations unless you grasp their visceral drives. And perhaps even share in some of that fire.