How Working with a Consultant is Like Working With A Therapist

The notepad in this photo, folks, is not for order-taking. It’s a listening tool. Make no mistake the therapist is driving the therapy, not you. This may be obvious to many of you. I have no idea.

Perhaps this teacher-student dynamic is clearer when you’re hiring a consultant to advise you on business strategy. My sense, though, is that, for founders without much experience hiring consultants, there is a tendency to want to define the consultant’s scope and deliverables upfront, because you tend to hire external partners to execute things to essentially make something and hand it to you. And so founders project this vetting habit onto high-level business advisors, simply because you are paying them.

Here are two important ways that you need to work with a consultant just like you would work with a therapist to improve your emotional state.

The first way is shocking to many: you don’t just hire a consultant when the house is burning down. That’s a huge misconception and throws away the best possible moments to receive expert thinking: the moments when you’re confident and happy. 

Most therapists today engage in cognitive-behavioral therapeutics. They intervene with patients who know they need help but simply do not understand how to proceed. Many do start full of hesitancy and skepticism because so few people talk openly even with friends about their experiences.

That was certainly the case for me in 2008. 

Whether you are hiring a consultant/advisor in a state of business duress or in a moment of relative strength, you simply must let these folks do their job. Or just avoid them.

Don’t try to define the scope for them. I don’t encounter this problem very often myself, once or twice a year, but I know for a fact it’s very common the cheaper the advisor is…hmmm.

If you are someone in need of therapy for anxiety or depression, as I was in 2008, and you can’t figure it out yourself, why would you start therapy by telling the therapist what the scope of their inquiry into your mind should be? Huh? You’re there because you’ve admitted you can’t do it alone. 

As Mr. Jobs said once in an analogous domain, “Why would we hire smart people and then tell them what to do? They need to be telling us what to do.”

Therapy engagements don’t work, if the ‘patient’ thinks they’re smarter than the therapist, doubts their ability to penetrate their mind through conversation and doubts the wisdom of the patterned findings their practice has yielded them over the years. 

Many early-stage founders are so used to hiring ‘vendors,’ it’s somewhat a habit to tell people what to do. But, this will literally kill a therapeutic relationship and a consulting engagement.

The second thing that kills any value from a consulting engagement is less obvious in my view: expecting the consultant to directly generate a change in business performance.

Again, I don’t encounter this much myself, but many consultants get folks who ask for business outcomes from their client roster. Prove to me, consultant guy, that working with you will change my business performance? 

 It seems innocent enough, but there’s a logical fallacy at play.

The problem is that consultants don’t execute anything for you. That’s why we get made fun of as the folks who don’t do things (because we can’t, ha, ha, ha). YOU execute everything. And you must have a fanatical, even delusional belief, that you can execute to succeed in startup-land. 

Consultants advise you at a higher level. So, they could literally hand you a brilliant playbook, but if you can’t execute routinely, it won’t matter.  

A smart consultant is NOT, therefore, going to promise business results, even if most of their clients end up accelerating after working with them.

Great advice is NOT easy to come by, but it’s even harder to execute. Those of us who have worked with hundreds of companies and seen all sorts of team dynamics know the latter all too well. 

And in therapy, cognitive analysis of your destructive thought patterns and emotional habits does little long-term, IF you don’t take measures outside of therapy sessions to block those thoughts or to stop getting in triggering situations you know you can’t control. 

Therapists are not magicians. Neither are consultants. They can’t provide discipline where there is none. They can’t provide motivation where it is lacking.  Meditate on this and proceed safely!

Dr. James Richardson

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