Internal consultants, not internal combustion

Mar 06 2006 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Here are a couple of interesting tidbits that showed up lately. They say a lot about communication in big companies. At the very least they explain why the bill for consultants in some companies resembles the GDP of small island nations yet we still can't get a database system that really gets the job done.

First up, a study showed that on the really big, expensive decisions, CEOs look for outside help (consultants, subject matter experts) over half of the time yet middle managers feel they are consulted less than 30 per cent of the time

Another study says that half of senior executives believe their company is on the right track and in touch with their customers. But only a quarter of line employees and three out of 10 middle managers think the same

What these two studies suggest is that senior management is looking for help making major decisions; that middle managers have a better - or at least significantly different - idea of what's going on with their customers than their bosses do and yet they're not being consulted on the really big decisions.

This matters because middle managers are the only part of an organization with both direct customer contact and influence upstairs.

They have the same view of customers that employees on the front lines do - give or take four per cent. This small difference is attributable to illusion that we actually have some control of the situation. This denial is necessary for most managers to get themselves out of bed in the morning and shouldn't be messed with.

Yet these folks feel their views aren't being discussed at the highest levels. If they are, they're being dismissed as quickly as they come up.

But much as I enjoy placing blame on the higher-ups, both parties are responsible for this lack of communication.

It's not necessarily a willingness to accept input. Senior leadership frequently solicits opinions from throughout the organization (or at least goes through the motions of "inclusion"). The problem is that the suggestions seem to serve the department making the suggestion and not the organization as a whole.

Most managers understand their functions intimately - but may not understand the rest of the big picture
The reason is obvious, most managers understand their functions and departments intimately - but may not understand the rest of the business or the big picture, so their ideas may not take important factors into account.

Before soliciting opinions, Leaders should do two things. First, they have to have to include the people who will be affected in the process. Then make sure that the parameters of the decision are understood.

"We need a billing process that does X and Y, because we have to increase cash flow" is a different conversation than "We need to look at a new billing process". The upshot of vague goals is often while Sales is looking for a process that is more "customer friendly", Accounts Receivable is focused on a process that shortens the days outstanding.

The solution could well accomplish both, but if it's perceived as a turf war, it's easier to pay a neutral third part to come in and offer a fresh set of eyes than to play referee.

We managers also have to take responsibility for how we communicate our ideas. A big mistake managers make when passing suggestions upstairs is to pass the information on the same way they collected it. The deductive approach - starting with all the evidence and building to a conclusion - works fine for analysis, but most executives don't have the expertise or the time to wade through the facts. Bludgeoning your boss with statistics and data won't endear you to her and has been known to cause internal bleeding.

Note to engineers and financial analysts: this doesn't make them bad people. Have a little pity on them- you'll be amazed at the results.

Influencing up an organization usually requires an inductive approach. Start with the recommendation or call to action and how it will solve the business problem. Then be prepared to back it up. You know those short summaries at the beginning of a report called "Executive Summaries"? They're not called that for nothing.

I know a CEO with a powerful motto- "Be right, be brief and be gone". Like most senior executives he's a busy guy with the attention span of an Irish Setter. Access to his office is in inverse proportion to the number of PowerPoint slides it takes to make your case. If he feels like you're making good use of his time, you're in. If he senses you're wasting his time it's the last time you'll see the inner sanctum for a long time.

Here's the perfect inductive PowerPoint presentation for any recommendation. It consists of exactly three slides:

1. What's your suggestion?

2. What's it going to accomplish?

3. What's it going to cost?

When senior management clearly defines the goal, and middle managers take the decision maker's viewpoint rather than starting from their positions, the quality of communication increases dramatically, better decisions get made and internal resources become more valuable than the outside consultants.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.