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Over the years I have heard consultants get a pretty bad rap. When I worked on the other side of the fence, I heard consultants described on occasions as ‘vultures’, ‘sharks’, ‘idiots’, ‘morons’ and everything in between. Ironically, the organisations which I worked in at the time had felt the need to bring them in order to get momentum and horsepower in areas where they were significantly lacking. On other occasions consultants were brought in to provide objectivity and impartiality.

I have only been a consultant for a relatively short time, and I chose the profession as it seemed like a logical choice which would enable me to support different organisations in achieving their goals, as well as entwine myself in varying and complex problems.

When we launched The Eighth Mile Consulting, we created a mantra and ethos of ‘good people, helping good people’ and made sure it translated in our service towards ‘positive projects and people only’. At the time we felt the need to do this in order to demonstrate some level of separation from what some people see as a ‘dirty’ word.

Since our launch we have kept true to our mantra and have supported only positive projects taking the form of social support projects, scholarship programs, Veteran services projects, leadership & professional development projects, medical projects, and more. It has been a roller coaster to say the least but here are some of the observations from a ‘bloody consultant’.

I hope that in providing some objective observations it might allow people to learn from some of the consistent friction areas experienced by many organisations

Be very wary of a ‘Yes’ culture

Just because your staff are telling you everything is alright; it doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, no organisation I have ever worked in is without its faults. It is impossible to have a perfectly oiled system and operation. If you cannot find areas for improvement, then you aren’t looking hard enough, or your staff aren’t raising it to your attention.

If your staff are always telling you what you want to hear, and not what you need to hear then there might be some significant issues with trust or rapport in the team. Either:

  • They don’t trust the information will be kept confidential and used for its intended purpose
  • They think you will react adversely against them or another member of the team
  • They believe its easier to just go along with whatever their manager or supervisor says than to raise issues.

There is a term I have picked up on my journey called ‘malicious compliance’ and it refers to a tendency for jaded staff to literally follow directions from their supervisors despite knowing that it will have significantly negative effects. When this occurs disastrous things happen, and what is worse is the leaders are left holding the ashes, not knowing how they could have stopped it. Rapport and respect are the weapons against evils like malicious compliance.

Many executives have called us in because they don’t feel they have a good understanding about an issue in the organisation. In this way consultants are gather in order to ground truth what is actually happening and provide truthful feedback for the executive or manager. This can be hard to deliver sometimes, as it takes a very courageous and well intentioned leader to open their doors to critique and objectivity. It also takes an equally courageous consultant to relay information that could be poorly received by their employer.

I have a lot of respect for those leaders and consultants willing to engage in open and honest conversation. It takes integrity, self awareness and professionalism to pull it off.

Plan to communicate

So many issues in the world are caused by miscommunication. In one of my previous articles I wrote that misinformation is worse than no information at all. At least with no information you can actively source data, but with misinformation it will corrupt your decision making and cause nightmares in your deliveries.

Many of the issues associated with the teams we work with are based around a distortion of information from the top to the bottom and back up again. There was a great scene in a Simpsons episode where Bart starts a rumor about another individual and by the time it gets to the end of a long line of people it has evolved into ‘purple monkey dishwasher’. Unfortunately this demonstration of information distortion is uncomfortably close to the truth for many organisations.

Here are some rules which I hope will serve some people in their attempt to tighten their communication:

  • More touch points or crossover points always equates to more errors. Ask yourself how many gates are required in order to get this information where it needs to go. Can we cut it down, or streamline it?
  • Translating information between systems and people dramatically increases the chances of errors.
  • Ensure your communication clearly answers an organisational question or need. Don’t create or collect content for the sake of it.
  • Too much information and no one will read it.
  • Less is more. Brevity is key in communication and stands out like a sore thumb in todays saturated environment.

Leadership will make or break teams

No brainer right? Wrong. I have been very fortunate to be mentored throughout my whole life by very capable and influential leaders. What I thought was intuitive and obvious is not. Leadership is learnt by seeing others and adapting it into a methodology that suits the individual and the circumstance.

People need to be trained and mentored if they are to become better at leading and managing teams. Worse yet, some people will have to be trained to drop bad or toxic habits. Unfortunately for people like myself, we cannot change someone else’s mind. All we can do is provide additional information and context that might lead them to another conclusion.

If your organisation genuinely wants leaders it needs to invest in them. This means (as a minimum):

  • Time
  • Resources
  • Executive and senior management buy-in
  • A strategy that they can understand and align to

One key mistake I see routinely is that people are promoted, or worse yet forced into leadership roles due to their tenure in an organisation. This is dangerous, particularly in technical or specialist streams. Someone might not want to be in a leadership role, or might not be suited to it. This opens a can of worms that can be very difficult to put a lid back on.

Luckily for me and my team, we love helping other organisations with leadership and management training. There is nothing more satisfying than supporting someone else to a point where they can support others.

Strategy reinforced by systems and processes allows you to scale

There is significant pressure placed on organisations who have scaled too quickly and are now forced into becoming reactionary and responsive to their operating environments. Their staff regularly feel like they are behind the eight ball (no pun intended). Over time this develops animosity against their teams and their profession. Scaling properly takes planning and preparation if it is to be done right. It also takes a concerted and deliberate effort in order to decentralise certain roles and responsibilities to other staff or capabilities. One person cannot do it all effectively.

Scaling a business should be leveraged off a unified strategy which can act as a compass during the confusion. When things get crazy and the operating environment becomes more complex, our staff need an agreed direction to head, as well as sanity check their decisions.

Companies that ignore the importance of a well communicated strategy do so at their own peril. Consultants are often well positioned to assist companies in developing a strategy as they are able to cross reference against market trends and other companies.

Resilience is not a buzzword 

Resilience is a serious issue in today’s society. With ever increasing psychological issues influencing our workspaces, it is becoming more relevant than ever to have teams that are robust, focused and unified. Without going in to my personal beliefs as to why this is occurring, I think we can all agree that a resilient team is often a key determiner in improving our chances of success.

Companies that invest in formal resilience training perform better overall, as they see benefits in their staff retention, leadership and their ability to respond to change. Companies that don’t take this seriously experience highly transient workforces, poor reputation, and numerous incomplete projects.

Change takes courage and commitment

The world is going to change whether you like it or not. The difference is whether you are leading it, or being led by it. Companies considering large-scale changes (structural, technological, product delivery, etc) need to seriously assess the implications on their staff, clients, profile and operational delivery. Being quick moving and agile is great providing you have a framework and team built to support such actions. Move too quickly and you will leave a wake of destruction in your path.

Good change management relies on strategic alignment, development of a ‘need’ (combined with an agreed sense of urgency), clear methods of communication, and responsible/accountable people who play a strong stakeholder game. Too light in some of these areas and the implications can be terrible.

Don’t wait until it’s too late

Many organisations wait until the damage is done in order to bring in consultants to support their work. This can be a tough gig for consultants as they are asked to achieve seemingly impossible results and are then chastised when it is not delivered. I believe this reflects poorly on the consultant in many instances, as they have not fully expectation managed their client and have then subsequently under-delivered. But in any case, we can probably agree that if issues are addressed early than we have an infinitely better chance of fixing it before it becomes a true detriment.

The key capability a consultant brings is objectivity, providing they are courageous enough to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear – refer to my first point about ‘yes’ cultures. Having someone approach the problem without the same biases and internal politics can be the difference between bad, good and expert.

Conclusion

I love being a consultant! I love being held accountable for my work, and my team’s work. Our consultants at The Eighth Mile Consulting are focused, professional and experienced and it makes my job of managing the brand a breeze.

There is no more satisfying feeling that supporting a positive project or initiative and seeing it through to delivery. Our measure of success is when we get called in to the next positive project, based on the success of the previous one.

I hope these observations serve others well. Remember, it is just one man’s opinions…

If you are ever think you might need an objective and friendly hand on something. Give us a call. We are always here to help.

Safe travels.

Dave

Have you ever completed an obstacle course… On your own?

Picture this, you have just scraped your knees crawling through a tunnel, mud all over you and heavy with water. Your feet are blistered, sweat is stinging your eyes. You hear your heartbeat in your ears and the sharp panting of breath. You are fatigued and in survival mode. You look up to see the dreaded wall. It is ten feet high.

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Too high to jump up, no ropes and it is stopping you from reaching your goal. If only you had a team… Even one other person and you could complete the course.

In crisis, much like obstacle courses there are those who choose to go it alone and self-protect, preferring to minimise personal risk at the expense of the team. They are 50/50 on success and failure. Then there are those that double down on teams and increase their odds of succeeding by sharing a common vision and providing different perspectives to problem solving and communicating effectively.

Share the load

In an average or sub performing team, people are happy to watch other people do the lion’s share of the work, the late hours and own all the pressure and responsibility. They would rather see themselves succeed and the team fail so that they appear strong. In a High Performing Team (HPT), people focus on the overall success and reputation of the team. They put team success before self and proactively search for work. They understand that sharing the fatigue and the burn so that everyone can perform means that nobody gets left behind. While they share the work and their fatigue so that the team achieves more, they all actively seek to be involved in planning at all levels.

Shared planning and supportive decision making

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There is a place for planning in isolation and it usually means there are substantial time pressures or trust issues within the team. A leader who doesn’t trust the team will not value their input into decisions. If they have been burned before, they will want to remove that possibility. In a HPT, everyone’s opinion is valued. It is understood that a wide range of perspectives on an issue may yield a better solution. The team also knows that when a decision is made, the time for shared planning is over and its implementation time!! 

They align and get it done. They support the decision because they understand the importance of achieving the goal and they were involved in the planning. They leverage and reinforce their relationships and maintain open, supportive communication.

Build relationships and a team language

Ever wondered how HPTs can work with minimal communication, or when they do you can’t really understand them. It is like watching a group of soldiers use hand signals and you are standing there, having no idea. They have refined the way they speak to include their history, shared experiences, values and connection to remove superfluous chat. They still have fun and they still care for each other. However, when work needs to get done, they can streamline their language. They know they work from a position of care and support. The HPT will work to strengthen relationships and networks in the good times so that they can lean on each other in crisis. They are calm and deliberate in their actions and communication because they understand that the team’s reputation is more important than their own. These relationships and shared language help understand and communicate the context while implementing the vision.

Clear context and vision

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A team that works to understand and communicate the context in which they operate will be able to make decisions in the absence of leadership, direction and under extreme pressure. They share a common vision for success and work within the boundaries of the defined context. Pushing authorities and decision making as far down as you can, will allow a team to create momentum and take advantage of opportunities. This also mitigates risks associated with slow decision making. The key part of owning the context and implementing the vision is a shared trust in every member of the team.

Trust

HPTs trust each other to a point where they receive feedback without feeling hurt. They understand that the feedback is coming from a place of love and respect to build the overall team and is not a personal attack. They trust that when someone says they will do something, they do it. The behaviour and trust are forged through shared experience and values. They also understand that they will be represented well even when they aren’t in the room.

The steps

The theory of teams is built on a model originally published by Dr Bruce Tuckman. It encapsulates Forming, Storming. Norming. Performing. Adjourning. These steps are normal, linear (step through to build a team) and cyclical in nature (it can relapse back steps at any time) and cannot be skipped. Friction in the storming phase is normal, temporary and MUST happen. A HPT will minimise their time in both storming and norming to accelerate reaching performing. They will also have limited relapses to storming by:

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1. Sharing the workload

2. Conducting shared planning and supportive decision making

3. Building relationships and a team language

4. Having a clear context and shared vision

5. Building trust

6. Acknowledging the steps.

The point 

By understanding what a successful team looks like, how it operates and some of their characteristics, we can work to constantly improve our own teams. There is no secret that, teams are always evolving and constantly changing. Understanding the context allows you to have clarity and accommodate for the disruptions. The steps above are not exhaustive and based on my experiences and opinions. I will say this though, once you have been part of a HPT, you will understand the addictive nature of it. You want it back all the time and will fight to have it again. 

So, if I return to the scenario above. Imagine you are back in that obstacle course and you are looking up at the wall. You are fatigued, tired, wet and sore. Suddenly someone says, “you got this!” A hand reaches down from the top to grab yours and at the same time you are lifted to grasp it. Doesn’t it make a difference?

The best leaders and project managers I have seen are those that can differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information quickly, so time is not wasted unnecessarily. It is those individuals, whom through their line of questioning, determine from another person – ‘what is the thing you want?’.

Do not confuse what I am about to say as an excuse for poor stakeholder engagement, or buy-in. This article is geared towards organisations and teams which operate in high tempo environments, experience stressful positions and require streamlined communication in order to survive.

My previous role within the military was one characterised by high and low tempo periods. Due to the nature of high tempo periods, time becomes short to make accurate and well-reasoned decisions often concerning the allocation of resources, and judgements about personnel safety. But what struck me as odd was a phenomenon I can only describe as ‘rambling’. As people got stressed, they felt the need to justify their question prior to asking it. But why would you be saying more when there is significantly less time? – it doesn’t make sense. It only creates more stress. It took me a long time to realise what was happening, but after having reasonable time to deliberate on the phenomenon I think I have figured it out!

As people become stressed they internally perceive the stakes to be higher. In turn, people tend to transition into a self-protection mode (either physically or professionally) – this is seen particularly in the military where individuals are assessed routinely on their technical skills and their ability to operate complex/complicated systems under trying circumstances. As a result, people rearrange the way they ask their questions in such a way that they begin with the justification before asking the question. You might have experienced this before when someone opens with a massive preamble about a problem and all they really wanted was to ask for something simple like a signature for something you already knew about. This is the same issue on a graduating scale.

On one such occasion I was helping run operations in a large scale military exercise. A person (whom I have the highest respect for, particularly their technical ability and their integrity) was ten minutes into a ramble and unbeknownst to them – time from my perspective was very short! I had to ask directly:

“What is the thing that you want?”

They looked at me somewhat shocked as to the bluntness of the question, but I continued,

“If you had to describe in 50 words or less how I can help you best, what would you say? As I have to leave for a meeting.”

Their reply – priceless.

“Can I borrow your computer for a couple of minutes.”

My reply – and a quick pat on the back later.

“No worries”.

Our relationship since that time has never been better. There was no massive social blunder, no awkwardness, just professional courtesy. Since that time, it dawned on me – how many hours of other people’s busy lives I have needlessly wasted by asking questions in the wrong way.

In certain circles within Defence, a technique called Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) is utilised. It directly addresses this problem – it formally requires the individual to rearrange their correspondence in such a way that the question is the first line read on the document, brief or presentation.

BLUF Example:

I seek approval to move item X to area Y?

Justification:

  1. The item needs to be serviced
  2. Replacement items are inbound
  3. The item will no longer work with system Z which will be introduced in June.
  4. Etc.

The result is the decision maker is queued towards the problem early, and can actively consider the justifications without getting lost in the data.

Please note, when I refer to direct questioning, I am not implying one has to be rude, or unapproachable – quite the opposite. I am suggesting that a strong team with well rehearsed lines of communication should be able to circumvent the need to talk unnecessarily in times of extremis, or high stress. Team members should be confident in asking questions directly, and leaders should be comfortable in their team members’ abilities. Those teams that can achieve this level of operational ability are routinely the same that outperform their competitors.

Now I am not suggesting that Nirvana can be reached in terms of perfect communication, but I would suggest that there are certain things we can do at our level to improve our communication when it counts the most:

  1. Think before you communicate – What is it you want? Be prepared to explain why if they ask. Rehearse your question and answer.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask the direct question – ‘What is the thing you need from me?’ or ‘Please describe exactly what you see me doing to help you?’
  3. Train your personnel – Encourage people to be confident enough to ask direct questioning.
  4. As a leader, be approachable and explain your intent – If you have to ask someone to be direct with their question also explain that you are not being rude and you appreciate direct questioning as it helps you problem solve more efficiently.
  5. Reinforce the correct behavior.

In my own experience, I have seen this work very effectively. Not just within Defence but across a multitude of different agencies. By cutting out the white noise I think I have significantly improved the way in which I communicate. My team members have also adopted the same line of questioning, to a point where it has become habitual. Give it a try!

We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Our experiences over the last decade and specifically, transitioning from the military into the corporate world has given David Neal and I some perspectives on characterising leadership.

  1. It is not easy and requires constant development
  2. It is lonely and the results rest on you
  3. It is not about you
  4. Be accountable

It Is Not Easy And Requires Constant Development

Leadership is not a nine to five ‘job.’ It requires constant evolution to remain relevant. The leader you were when you began the journey is not the leader you should be today. The lessons learnt, from failure and successes, will shape your leadership style and effectiveness. When you shift roles, projects and teams, the dynamic changes and the personalities change. Therefore, your approach must change. You cannot succeed if you do not continually develop. You will lack the tools to be adaptable in changing environments.

It Is Lonely And The Results Rest On You 

Poor leadership sees a need to lay blame upon others for failure, inability to gain results, poor performance or unmotivated teams. Subject matter experts may be involved in planning and preparation, tech experts may execute the practical and technical delivery but you own the outcome. A leader needs to maintain relevance in teams, actively fight to accept responsibility, and provide a means to buffer other members of the team from unnecessary business friction and white noise.  

It Is Not About You

Your co-workers are more important than you. This might seem confronting to some. If you genuinely care about your people, open yourself up to professional feedback on your performance from them. Your staff and peers will influence your projects when you are not present. By building rapport and loyalty, your team will protect your interests and the interests of the team. Many managers have been compromised by their employees applying ‘malicious compliance’. Meaning, they will abide by the literal directions provided by a manager knowing it will cause issues later.

Strong leaders fight for raises for their staff, not themselves. The outputs of the team will determine whether a leader is deserving of progression. Never forget the team that achieved the delivery. Especially those that surged, stayed late, put their own and their family’s needs aside to deliver an output that would ultimately reflect favourably on you. 

If you are unable to lead you have three options:

  1. Get out of the way and find a better leader 
  2. Become a better leader
  3. Create/Mentor a better leader

A useful explanation can be found in this article, “It’s All About The Humans: Effecting Change Management” by David Neal.

Be Accountable

Team decisions are your decisions. Own them and deliver the outcomes. Team decisions are your responsibility. If something fails, it is your failure (not your team’s failure). If you fail, learn from it and evolve. If it succeeds, it is your team’s success and make sure they are recognised for it. In the long-term, you may benefit from the team’s success but your personal recognition must not be your primary focus. 

Summary

These are our observations and in no way are they a sequenced road map to succeeding. That is your responsibility as a leader to find, and shape. David and I are passionate about leadership and investing in teams. We believe that people make a team, and teams make an organisation. 

A good leader can lead anyone. A good leader also knows how to be led.

We welcome any feedback on our ideas. We are continually evolving our leadership styles as well. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.