In my office I have a picture of a woman with her head to the ground, looking up cautiously at the foot of an elephant, which she is gingerly “holding” with one hand just inches from her head.  Under its foot is an object that was obviously causing the elephant some discomfort. She knows the elephant might decide at any minute to shift its position and she could be crushed. This is often what it feels like to be a consultant — dangerous!

Many times people hire me because they are in some kind of pain.  And “naming” the elephant is just one of my duties — helping it to heal it is the other. Which is why this work is so dangerous. It is only with the consent of the” elephant” that I can do my work; any power or control is purely an illusion, something I remind myself about all the time.

My life as a consultant usually starts with a call to assist in some initiative, project, or planning endeavor. The client is usually very judicious in describing what the issue is and what they want to see happen. Over time I have learned that the presenting issue is rarely the real issue, which may be buried under layers of bureaucracy, process, culture, or dysfunctional relationships. Thus, I have learned to dig for the real issues, getting as much info as possible before agreeing to a contract, although still I might not uncover it until well into the work.

Here is where it gets most dangerous. I see patterns very quickly and can name an elephant in the room faster than you can say “boo.” This is not always welcome. Often the elephant has something to do with people in power — the very ones that have hired me. How do I point it out, clearly yet nicely, to those in charge?   I have not always done a good job of this — sometimes I have been incredibly clumsy and hurtful.  When that happens I can be (and have been) out of a job, or at least, never hired again.

Over the years I have come to believe two things about leaders, which helps me to address the elephant politely yet firmly:

  1. I believe that leaders are trying to do the best job they can — I have rarely found intentional malice.
  2. My experience has taught me that leaders are often really nice people with some really bad habits, to which impact they are often blind.

If my contract does not include taming the elephant, I feel it is at least my duty to give feedback, and to do so in a way that makes it possible for leaders and the system itself  to see themselves as part of a larger whole in which they can (and often do) have great impact.  Even then, it is still scary, and doesn’t always work out.

So, I have come to see consulting as a dangerous job, because we are only as good as our names and the customer’s last experience of us, and yet we need to be true to our values and code of ethics as well.   Thus, we trust the elephant not to crush us while keeping a wary eye out for any shifting movement as we get down to work.

Cathy Perme is the co-owner of Perme & Peterson Associates, LLC.

Fizz by Cathy Perme

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Catherine Perme

Fizz! How to Succeed as an Independent Consultant author Cathy Perme also wrote Confucius in My Cubicle: Practical Wisdom for the Leader in All of Us, released by Wisdom Editions.