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After many years as an organizational and leadership consultant I was convinced that I would make a great executive. And so did the people who hired me. After all, I had advised so many C-suite folks in so many industries and they were all doing quite well. All I had to do was apply my smarts to my own situation. Right? Ahhhh….

Long story short, I discovered there is a huge (really huge!) difference between talking about leadership and actually leading. So for all the consultants who imagine you’d be a great leader and for all the on-the-market leaders who think you’d make a great consultant, allow me to offer a few, very hard learned, lessons.    

Companies pay consultants big money to tell them the unvarnished truth.  Executives who do the same will find themselves on the fringe. 

This was the hardest thing I learned.  Unfortunately I had to learn it over and over again because I never understood this.  Before becoming a VP I had been a trusted and respected consultant and had provided hours of straight talk to leadership teams. It took me three years to comprehend that truth telling on an executive team is quite a different beast.  Any seasoned executive would wince at my naïveté that ignored the complicated relationships, history and politics at play. It wasn’t until my last year as a VP that I learned to keep my head down, nod and smile a lot and to speak of tough issues in private or with the three confidantes I developed. If I had to do it all over again I’d pick my timing and phrasing better.  But not calling out the obvious is not in my DNA.  Experience has taught me that bad things can happen to people, teams and organizations if the truth is offered only selectively.  Only consultants get the luxury of speaking up all the time.  If you don’t, then you’re not worth your fees.

Consultants see things at high altitudes to prescribe the best solutions.  Organizational success is achieved at the ground level.

The part of my consulting training that made it possible to roll out big plans and listen to the specific needs of various clients was that balance between great thinking and implementation. The best ideas for the client to achieve objectives were based on solid research and staff input. This became an area of many successes for me as an executive. I was able to get good data, create a robust overall strategy, sell the plan to key people and mobilize the team to implement it.  I took an active role in monitoring progress and was willing to modify plans to meet individual client needs. Lots of hybrid approaches and very few cookie cutters. Consultants aren’t interested in the nuts and bolts of implementation; rolling up their sleeves, working side by side with staff and changing the rules when necessary.

Organizations have a monochromatic template for leaders.  Consultants understand that effective leaders come in many forms.

As a consultant I was able to identify not-the-usual-suspects to CEOs and encourage them to take a chance.  Conversely I shed light on the-anointed-few and sounded the alarms.  I backed up my claims with data and feedback.  Generally my clients were willing to take a second look at a highly effective but under the radar leader with good outcomes.  Getting them to pull in the reins on a stallion was less successful. As the VP of HR this was a very tough sell. The very same guidance I would have given as an external consultant was rejected when I was an internal leader.

Executives receive mixed messages about spending time developing talent.  If you don’t do enough you aren’t doing your job.  If you do too much you aren’t doing your job.

I learned three very tough lessons in this area.  One is that, in general, staff is sorely neglected because of lack of time and attention devoted to their supervision and development.  Two, if you spend next to no development time as an executive with your people but get good results you will get admonished but rewarded.  And last, if you spend 40% of your time (the recommended amount in all the executive leadership literature) developing your people you will be drilled about your results…even if they are good. In reality, executives who do what the consultants recommend regarding talent development (and what the senior team signs up for) will not be the conquering the hero. It will always be the one with the best business outcomes.

A core competence for consultants is improving the effectiveness of the executive team.  An executive who volunteers to do the same will be shut down yet become the primary individual confidante for all team members.

When I told the CEO that two of my peers were creating a divisive atmosphere and undermining his authority I was told not to meddle in team dynamics.  When I suggested that I facilitate some meaningful conversations amongst executive team members to get us pulling together I was told that wasn’t my job. It took me too long to understand that a peer cannot do what a consultant can do.  Naïve?  Yes.  Well intended?  Yes.  What really messed with my head is that everyone on the senior team (and well beyond) beat a path to my door to vent about the dysfunction of our team.  When I asked “what can you, I, the team do about this?” nearly everyone backed away and claimed they just needed to get this off their chests.  So I’m hearing two things: we suck and someone ought to do something about it but I don’t want to initiate anything.  No wonder I made such silly errors as walking into the CEO’s office and imploring him to address these issues!  I was being filled with data points daily.  I totally got my consultant and executive wires crossed.

Most major organizational initiatives or changes are planned without any consideration for the impact on the people…unless there are good external consultants assisting.

The best consultants help executive teams discuss the human consequences to significant business changes.  It’s part of the strategy and planning and expert resources are brought to bear.  Communication specialists will draft talking points and coach executives in how to position the change.  Managers will be trained to tell the truth but provide a motivating message about how things will be better.  HR will be engaged in revamping processes to train and reward new skills.  Consultants understand all the elements that are touched by organizational change and this is one reason they get paid the big bucks; extra help during extraordinary times. I ran into a wall repeatedly as an executive until my peer group finally relented and began to acknowledge and then plan for the people issues. It was a very hard won challenge.

Leadership is hard.  Any consultant who presents a formula has never run anything.

A consultant, a business school professor and an executive walk into a bar.  The executive says, “Geez, I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”  Concerned, the consultant and professor asked what was going on.

“The CFO told me that if we are going to hit our targets for the first couple quarters that we’re going to have to cut expenses by 10% ASAP.  We just went through this fire drill six months ago.”

The consultant nods sympathetically and says, “You know, in times of crisis it is imperative for you to be visible to the organization, to rally the troops, to engage them in making changes, to communicate constantly and lead them towards the light.”

To which the professor adds, “Research shows that in the most successful Fortune 500 companies these moments of downturn are actually the beginning of transformative reinventions.  The best CEOs pull together a tight group of advisors that lead their organizations into greener pastures.”

The executive picks up a double martini, takes a good, long drink and turns to the consultant and professor and declares, “I can’t believe you get paid to say crap like that.  You clearly have no idea what it takes to lead in the real world.”

If I hadn’t already felt like a charlatan before I took this executive role it would have hit me like a ton of bricks within the first few months of my job.  I was so convinced that everything that I had learned from books, research and clients would help me make a smooth transition into leadership.  My boss spent the first year repeatedly telling me, “We are not on consultant time here.  Slow down.  Organizations move slowly.”  Heard it, understood it but could not digest it.

Organizational culture is the key to success or failure.  Both consultants and executives have thrown their hands up because changing a culture is the singularly most difficult change to make.

Culture is the elephant in the room.  Open any book and somewhere in the first paragraph it will state how exceptionally difficult it is to change a culture.  Many consultants have either dropped this service or dramatically modified it because consultants and executives alike know that the returns on this investment are sketchy. As a consultant I have focused years of my time on this issue.  As an executive it was front of mind always.  In my reflections I seem to keep returning to one simple truism.  Put a bunch of smart and sane people together and stupid and crazy behaviors can appear.

I remain committed to helping my clients on the topic of culture.  How does a leader optimize productive human behavior to generate a critical mass of the right stuff over a sustained period of time to root out negative and unproductive behaviors?  I have parts of the answer that come from a lifetime of study but I’d be lying if I said more than it’s a bitch.  I am convinced that a healthy culture leads to productive behavior and satisfied employees.  I used to think if you just get enough of the right people in the room that the right things will happen.  Sometimes you luck out.  But we are all so ridiculously human that I know the clues are in that confluence of all the personalities and abilities that create the culture.

There was much more that I learned during my stint as an executive. One thing is absolutely clear to me. I am a different and better consultant now that I have had a turn in the seat across the desk. So, consultants out there…take the plunge. For execs making a transition into the world of consulting/coaching…learn some of the tools of the trade. They are invaluable and will give you a much broader perspective.

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