The Art of ConsultationOct 24, 2023
I’ve worked in the education sector now for about 28 years. As I have climbed the leadership ladder, I have acquired a lot of new skills to help me build high performing teams and organizations.One of the toughest skills for me to both learn and appreciate is the Art of Consultation. I say ‘Art’ because I don’t think there is a formula. Depending on who you are engaging with, the culture of the group or the personality of the individual needs to be taken into account when engaging with folks.
Consultation is important because research has shown us that it improves innovation and success by bringing diversity of thought to an idea.
A study published in the Harvard Business Review revealed that companies that encouraged diverse perspectives through effective consultation were more likely to develop creative solutions, leading to a competitive advantage in the market. Consulting a diverse group brings innovation and creativity to the workplace and helps organizations adapt to change. Consulting experts within or outside the organization offers leaders access to a wealth of experience, knowledge and insight that would be impossible to gather on their own.
Consultation is also important because it builds engagement.
People do want to be genuinely heard and asked for their input when change is happening around them and impacting their work, team, or lifestyle. They often have a different perspective and lens that leaders may want to consider which could make a significant impact, make an idea better or help avoid a significant obstacle. A report by McKinsey & Company highlighted that organizations that consult their employees are more likely to make strategic decisions that are practical and executable.
Consultation, while important, interrupts momentum.
My first gut reaction, always, is somewhat reluctant because it slows the process down. Everybody has to have a chance to hear the idea, reflect on the idea and give their input on the idea. This is not something that happens overnight. Sometimes consultation evolves a project into a whole new idea that requires further consultation with all of your stakeholders. ¡Ay caramba! At times, I have felt like it’s impossible to move fast in a truly consultative leadership manner.
IMPORTANT CONSIDERATION: Seeking consultation can be misinterpreted as seeking consensus.
When you’re consulting with your stakeholders, folks take that as you are seeking their expert opinion, and they’re fully expecting to see it incorporated into your new idea. It can feel like failure to do so will result in armageddon and an implosion of your idea. Without clear and confident leadership, consultation and feedback can result in a reimagined idea that is nothing like what you originally needed or wanted. High performing organizations do not sacrifice excellence and innovation for consensus that results in a mediocre outcome. I’ve often found that I was excited to work very hard and ready to take a giant leap forward with a change mandate only to be stymied and deflated by feedback and the consultation process. Instead of a leap, I took a step. Consultation can be frustrating for a leader who likes to move fast and make big changes.
Here’s Three Steps to Keep the Consultation Phase of Change On Track:
- Define Clear Objectives: Start by clearly defining what the purpose of consultation is and what the parameters of the feedback for this phase are. This provides a framework for the discussions.
- Identify Key Stakeholders: Determine who the key stakeholders are and involve them in the consultation. It's not necessary to involve everyone in every decision.
- Communicate Expectations: Clearly communicate the expectations of the consultation process, including roles and responsibilities and the decision-making timeline.
WHEN CONSULTATION TAKES A DETOUR:
There will come a time in the process when you run into folks who are gatekeepers. The folks who can just stop your idea and thought in its track. This is where we move from consulting to negotiations. Distinguish this as its own phase in the process of change. Here, you can’t advance your ideas and initiatives without finding some sort of mutual compromise that will meet their needs, as well. This is where we have to adjust our ideas and our plans and try to come out with a win-win.
As a leader, your responsibility is to consult in order to weigh and measure feedback gathered during consultation and decide what you’re going to adopt. Let’s be clear, it doesn’t mean that you’re a poor leader if you don’t make everybody happy in the consultation phase. I want to remind folks that consultation of stakeholders does not necessarily mean 100% adoption of their exact feedback.
Your job as a leader is to genuinely and authentically come with an open mind to hear the critical feedback or even the positive reinforcement that can come from sharing your new idea or project across your team and consumer community. Choose what is helpful to incorporate at this phase of the project and message back to the stakeholder groups how their feedback is being used or why it is not at this phase of implementation. Simply acknowledging all of the feedback and explaining your rationale behind what is being used now is not a step to skip and can bring a team together.
Consultation is hard work.
I wasn’t a fan of it at the start of my career. I was too much of a bull in a china shop. But I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older, consultation leads to buy in and sustained performance--meaning I don’t need to drive it. I’ve got champions on the inside because it’s no longer my idea, it’s their idea. When employees know their voices are heard and their opinions matter, they become more engaged in their work and more likely to support change.
‘Organizations that actively engaged employees in the change process had a 73% success rate in their change initiatives, while those that did not engage their employees only had a 34% success rate (Prosci).’
A high performing team can’t be only motivated by the leader’s beacon. It’s got to be leader-full, and we can only have a leader-full team if folks feel like they’re genuinely heard and had input in making a good idea great.