For decades already, strategy consulting is seen as an excellent career starter and high-status job. One makes good money and works for respected clients on interesting and challenging engagements. And those clients are willing to pay large amounts of money for strategy consulting services.
At the same time, strategy consultancies are heavily criticized—by their clients, by former employees and in numerous articles and books carrying titles such as Dangerous Company, Consulting Demons and The Witch Doctors.
They are criticized for their arrogance, their pretence of knowledge, their fad-selling, their lack of ethics and responsibility and a host of other criticisms.
Being a strategy consultant myself, this paradox has always intrigued me. It suggests that strategy consulting is important, but that there is something not entirely right about the way it is done. Apparently, the approach used and roles fulfilled by strategy consulting don’t match the real need of their clients in today’s world.
Given that the criticisms date back more than three decades, this has been the case for a while already. But today, in times of radical changes and uncertainty caused by Covid-19, the criticisms apply even more. This means something needs to change in the way strategy consulting is done.
But there is a second paradox here. Traditional strategy consulting (against which the criticisms are leveraged) is expert consulting: clients have problems and questions for which strategy consultants are supposed to find solutions and answers based on their expertise and experience with other clients.
In times of uncertainty—especially the magnitude of uncertainty today—clients want solutions and answers even more, because they don’t know these themselves. So there is more need for expert consulting.
However, consultancies don’t have these solutions and answers. They don’t know either (or at least I don’t) because they face uncertainty and change too. This suggests that expert consulting is not the way forward.
As part of the research for my new book Strategy Consulting (freely available until August 24 here), I have tried to identify what the role of a strategy consultant needs to be today, in the “new normal” of continuous uncertainty and disruptive change.
I found that, to be effective, a strategy consultant ideally needs to combine no less than nine different roles. They are:
Role 1. Attentive Listener: Listening is crucial. Not just to find out what clients need or what their problems and aspirations are, but also because clients want to be heard. They need someone to share their anxiety and doubts with.
Role 2. Principal Investigator: Strategy consultants don’t need to be data analysts. But they need to be able to connect the dots. By listening to people they can obtain relevant information and turn these into valuable insights.
Role 3. Discussion Leader: Organizations are groups of people. This means that helping organizations generate and execute strategy involves working with people, collaborating and guiding productive dialogues and discussions between them.
Role 4. Critical Inspirator: Consultants don’t need to have the answers, but they are not mere process facilitators either. As valuable outsider, they need to give their ideas and question assumptions and claims that are made. As such, they inspire and challenge their clients to think differently.
Role 5. Communication Channel: Working with people all over the client’s organization, the strategy consultant is a de facto communication channel. They can help make sure that employees’ voices are leveraged and taken into account by the board and management.
Role 6. Progress Manager: Good strategy consulting doesn’t end with a strategy, especially when strategy needs to be updated frequently. To effectuate actual changes, strategy consultants also need to be involved in execution—as mentor and coach making sure progress is being made.
Role 7. Stable Anchor: New strategy tends to lead to significant change. Add to this the uncertain and disruptive world of today, and it is evident that there is much uncertainty and anxiety. This requires an (emotionally) stable anchor on which clients can rely.
Role 8. Moral Guide: The times that consultants could stay neutral and simply follow their client’s requests are over. Especially in these uncertain times, moral guidance is important—not by preaching but by weaving ethics and sustainability intrinsically into the consulting.
Role 9. Practical Educator: With their knowledge of strategy, strategy consultants can have most long-term added value when they help their clients develop and improve their strategic competence. By working closely with clients end educating them, clients learn from the consultants in a practical manner.
Many of these roles were already relevant pre-Covid-19. Listening, for example, was always important. But the roles have become more important today than ever before.
This applies specifically to the last three roles—of stable anchor, moral guide and practical educator. It is in these roles that strategy consultants can help their clients develop and improve into organizations that are ready for the new normal.