First-class coach

Q: I'm a senior manager in a fairly large business that hasn't been doing too well recently. Various top-down ideas have been tried but nothing seems to work. My CEO wants to bring in the consultants but I'd like him to try my ideas before he goes ahead with a costly programme. I've spent time talking to people right through the business from shop floor to senior level and have formulated my own ideas for change. I'd like to submit this to the board but I'm not sure how well this will go down. How can I persuade him to give it a go? A: Time was when any large organisation that could afford to bring in one of the big five management consultancies to sort out its strategy or structure would have been thought wise to do so. These consultants were smart: 'big picture' thinkers who brought models and theories that could revolutionise a business. But in the late 20th century, much of the glitter fell off and a cynicism grew about the effects they might have on an enterprise - aside from the large amount of money they would cost. A consultant was cynically described as someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time - and then keeps it.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

There were conspicuous consultancy failures - cases where the new strategy developed by the consultants seemed plausible but was never implemented, because it was impossible to put into practice or the management felt no sense of ownership of it and so blocked its adoption. No wonder many of the big practices have retreated from general management consultancy to focus on IT and outsourced HR. Yet even this has its pitfalls, as the recent fiasco with Accenture and the NHS recruitment software demonstrated.

All the above may help your case. The board may be uneasy about significant expenditure with no certainty of success. Nevertheless, your firm is in a parlous state, and desperate causes require desperate remedies, which could include bringing in external advisers. Even if your ideas are good, you risk being labelled as an enthusiastic amateur, incapable of making a difference.

You could increase your credibility by recruiting other respected managers to back you or even join you in this project. And if you employ some of the approaches used by management consultants, you'll greatly increase the likelihood that your ideas will be accepted.

Rather than diving straight in to present your ideas to your boss, put together a proposal to justify delaying the decision to bring in consultants and to give you permission, time and a budget to carry out your own formal review and make recommendations. You'll have to make a compelling case. Just offering to save the business money by acting as an internal consultant is unlikely to win acceptance for your proposal. You need to tantalise him with a glimpse of the benefits it could bring. Without giving all your thinking away, you will hint at a possible solution to the company's woes, whether it's through greater efficiency, cost-saving, generating more sales or profit, or some new area of activity.

In this initial proposal, sketch out your methodology. Establishing the true state of affairs makes your recommendations realistic and relevant. The first stage is some robust data-gathering. Conduct proper interviews, where the people you talk to know the purpose of the conversation. Cover all relevant questions and record their answers. One thing consultancies do well is reviewing trading figures and costs, and spotting where there are problems and inefficiencies. If numeracy isn't your strongest point, enlist the help of someone used to interrogating figures and devising sound business plans.

If you get approval to carry out the review, include scenario planning of the best and worst cases of the business continuing as it is or choosing to follow your recommendations. Being clear on the potential downside of your ideas will dispel doubts that you are over-optimistic and unaware of the harsh realities of business.

If you can combine the professionalism of the management consultants with your greater understanding of the business and your strong connections at all levels of the company, you could end up doing a better job than them. Just don't expect to be paid the same!

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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