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Learning to love consultants

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Among the Fellows who hang out at the Society’s HQ there was one group whose social value I used to question. Now I am beginning to understand their worth.   

Learning lessons in middle age is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it is a bit humiliating to have to accept that one has been so wrong for so long. On the other, it’s kind of exhilarating not only still to be able to learn, but to see things in a different light.

The executive team at the RSA is trying to accomplish a step change to the clarity of the Society’s mission, the impact of its work and the culture of the organisation, including, crucially, the Fellowship. We have made good progress in many areas and the feedback we get from Fellows, partners and observers is very encouraging, but, as I suspect always happens in genuine change processes, there is no escaping the really knotty problems. This involves everyone in the top team having to accept their own strengths and weaknesses and explore the ways we need to challenge ourselves if the team really is to provide transformative leadership.

I am confident we will achieve our ambitions for the RSA (which I summarise as becoming ‘the kind of organisation the 21st century needs’) but it isn’t an easy process. Having spent twenty five working years working in organisations (fifteen in quite senior positions) only now do I feel I am getting fully to grips with the essence of change management, strategic leadership and cultural change. But, if and when we succeed, I suspect I won’t have the energy or inclination to take on such a process again. So what do I do with what I have learnt?

I have always been a bit suspicious of people who set themselves up as consultants claiming to be able to help organisations through change processes. I guess I couldn’t help thinking ‘if you’re so good how come you aren’t playing a strategic role in a major organisation rather than persuading other people to hire your services?’ I am sure there are a lot of consultants out there for whom that is a fair and difficult question but I now see another aspect.

Going through a major organisational change process is a bit like going through a life stage; you come out of it wiser and – hopefully – better, but that certainly doesn’t mean you’d want to go through it again. But you might want to use your expertise to help others about to embark on the same stage.  Of course, motivation is only half the story. Consultants have to be effective thinkers and communicators and their knowledge and insights need to be broad based. (As it happens, the people we are working with at the RSA are great.) But I suspect that whether or not the Society achieves the scale of change I hope for, I will emerge from the process as a kind of managerial Ancient Mariner wanting to stop everyone I meet to share my lonely adventure in leadership.

The best consultants - I now see - are driven not just by the desire to earn an honest crust, and have some control over their working life, but have a visceral appetite to share the deep learning that can only come from being in the middle of profound change.

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