Face Validity in Consulting

Some years back I made a very difficult decision to withdraw from a major consulting project. This was a very tough call, and not just because of the dollars involved. We had won the work against some highly credible competitors, and we saw it as an opportunity to substantially enhance our brand in what was a relatively untapped market for us at the time. Nevertheless, the decision became unavoidable because my project team kept coming back from each client engagement battered and bruised by my client’s behavior. Try as they may, they could not win her confidence. In the end I decided that the sustainability of my consulting practice would be jeopardized if I did not act to protect the well-being of my colleagues.

I’ve reflected on the project many times in an effort to discover what I could have done differently, given that the issue was a clash of values. The client’s values and our own were too far apart to permit a productive relationship. This was most obvious to me in the client’s express preference for a project team made up of middle-aged men like me. The smart, hard-working and insightful females I had on the team did not have ‘face validity’ in this organization. They suffered the apparent detriment of looking young!

This clash of values was real and it was significant; and I would make the same decision today to withdraw services if I was faced with similar circumstances. However, my musings on this project have led me to think further about the role that values play in every consulting engagement. I now think that there are at least three consulting assignments in play during most engagements. There is the assignment the consultant thinks they sold, the assignment the client thinks they bought and the assignment that actually takes place.

This bifurcated view may not apply to every field of consulting but it seems to prevail in my field of organizational effectiveness. This may have something to do with the fact the work inevitably involves human relations within the client organization and, in so doing, the values that filter and interpret what we see in each others behavior. In this project I was sending brilliant young female colleagues to work with older males who were just not comfortable taking advice from people who appeared to lack seasoned insight. I thought that was a reasonable challenge to put these stakeholders, but my client obviously did not agree.