Conversations to Engage, Develop and Challenge

Talk is cheap … or so the saying goes. But when it comes to what matters most to employees today, talk is one of the most valued commodities organizations have to offer.

In a recent survey by Career Systems International, a vast majority of Human Resource and Talent Management professionals said career development conversations are the types of conversations employees most want to have with their manager. On the flip side, these same professionals report they are not happening. What is? Conversations about daily operations and tasks.

And while every employee needs to know the “what and how of their job today,” they are thinking about a whole lot more. Can I see my future in your future? Do I really like it here? What’s next for me?

The simple truth? Talk is exactly what employees want … we’re just not giving it or giving the kind they want. Conversations to engage, develop and challenge employees are the bedrock of strong relationships between employees and managers. These conversations can and do create an environment where employees feel valued, respected and heard.

So, why aren’t we doing it? Turns out, talk may not be cheap, and it can be hard. For some, that is. Common fears from “what if I can’t give or get what I want” to “I don’t know what to say” hold all of us back from having meaningful, authentic conversations at work. What if it wasn’t that hard?

Turns out, it doesn’t have to be.

Start by cultivating a sense of wonder in your organization. People are inherently curious. Conversations can help us harness and direct that curiosity to engage, develop and challenge others. How? Remember, it doesn’t have to be that hard.

Ask powerful questions and then listen, really listen to what others are saying. Then, ask another. Suspend your need to rush the conversation along, stop yourself from answering the question for them, and approach each and every conversation with a sense of wonder … I wonder what really inspires this person … I wonder what they want to get out of this opportunity … I wonder what skill they really want to develop.

When we really listen, we are often really surprised. Let your employees surprise you and don’t be afraid to surprise others. After all, we all want conversations to engage, develop and challenge. It’s up to you to make them happen.

Conversations kick-starters you can use in your organizations today!

Conversations to Engage

  • What makes for a great day at work?
  • What makes you stay?
  • What might entice you away?
  • How do you like to be recognized?
  • What kind of support do you need from me? What are you not getting?

Conversations to Develop

  • What opportunities are available for your continued growth and development?
  • What skills do you most want to develop in the coming year?
  • What career option most appeals to you in the next three years?
  • What do you most want to learn about?
  • What is the most enriching aspect of your work?

Conversations to Challenge

  • What is holding you back from taking the next step at work?
  • What is your reputation in the organization?
  • Who do you enjoy collaborating within the organization? How are you building that network?
  • What can you improve on?
  • What feedback do you need and from whom?

“Let your employees surprise you and don’t be afraid to surprise others.”

This article is written and published by Career Systems International.

  Wendy Tan   Jul 03, 2017   Article-Consulting, Career Development, Engagement   Comments Off on Conversations to Engage, Develop and Challenge   Read More

Elevating the Employee Experience

Employee engagement. What is it? Where do you start? And how do you go from a place where you are managing attrition to attrition managing you? EY, a global professional services organization of member firms with more than 200,000 employees and operating in more than 150 countries, faced a problem common in the professional services industry: attrition. In past years, attrition of personnel from the assurance practice of the U.S. firm’s central region started to trend upward. Today, the U.S. firm is seeing a decrease overall and, at some levels, more than a 10 percent decrease. What happened? Did people just stop leaving? No, but EY realized success when it began to understand what was behind the attrition in the first place.

“Attrition challenges led EY to re-evaluate its employee engagement and career-planning strategies.”

Connecting the dots: Exit data and onboarding

“We started centralizing our exit data and connecting it to our onboarding process,” says Diana Kutz, a talent leader at EY. “By connecting these dots, we got ahead of risk. We also started conducting focus groups with our professionals on why they stay. Why people leave and why they stay is not always the same, so understanding both is equally important.”

Some of the data captured include whether professionals feel they are using their skills and if they are experiencing and doing the things EY described during the interview process. Personnel also were asked if they understand EY’s vision, how they fit into the vision if they would recommend EY as a future employer to others if they are satisfied with their decision to join EY—and would they make the same decision again, knowing what they know now.

Exit surveys also are telling. The information learned from these conversations fed into the company’s onboarding process, so EY can see at an individual level how one acclimates over a period of time. “It’s all about putting leading and lagging indicators together,” Kutz says.

The firm also started to track if an individual’s departure was a push or a pull. A push means EY had complete control over the turnover, and a pull means it did not.

A typical push could be the lack of honest feedback and be passing the responsibility to someone else to deliver the performance feedback. A pull could be a situation where a professional leaves the firm to care for a sick relative or because of a spouse’s employment relocation to a region where EY does not have an office.

“We directionally look for our push to come down, which indicates our culture is moving in the right direction,” Kutz explains. “Since our journey began, we’ve seen our push come down over 15 percent and it directionally continues to come down over time, which tells me we are moving our culture in the right direction.”

Next, EY introduced an engagement team survey called “Rate My Engagement,” which enables team members to share their experience at the engagement team level in four key areas: team culture, flexibility, client environment/engagement, and communications.

“Collecting these insights enabled us to understand trends at the engagement team level, where our professionals spend over 80 percent of their time in an average week,” Kutz notes. “Rate My Engagement also enabled our teams to focus on their unique needs as a collective team, providing greater ownership into the team’s experience.”

She adds: “Teams are recognizing engagement team efficiencies and, ultimately, achieving better business results, such as higher levels of retention that increases team continuity and other sustainable results.”

Looking back, the best part about Rate My Engagement is how the firm has been able to replicate it. What started as an idea from junior staff, adopted by regional leadership, has been rolled out rapidly across the firm and is expanding globally.

“Connecting the engagement team experience to our exit and onboarding data has given us a deeper appreciation for what impacts the experience for our people while seeing a direct correlation to a team’s business results. It’s been incredibly powerful,” Kutz says.

JournEY Day

Collecting the data from all three sources also helped to inspire members of EY’s workforce who wanted to be a part of the solution. Their inspiration? JournEY Day.

JournEY Day is an annual event dedicated to focusing on key business drivers, learning, and critical issues facing the assurance practice of the U.S. firm’s central region. The theme for JournEY Day shifts each year and often is based on the pulse of the organization and what’s top of mind with EY professionals.

To take the pulse, EY pushes out regular surveys to professionals of its assurance practice, but not just any survey. It’s a gamified “morale thermometer” designed to help the organization understand how employees are feeling on a five-point scale. “The thermometer is pushed out to employees during the busy season, arguably the most stressful time each year, so we can really gauge people’s sentiments,” Kutz explains.

“Our theme for 2015 focused on cars, so we featured a morale speedometer with the scale ranging from ‘My tank is empty’ to ‘Topped off and ready for the long haul.’” It turned out that the tank was empty for quite a few EY employees on the topic of planning and managing one’s career at EY, so career planning became the focus of JournEY Day in 2015. Leveraging the thermometer, EY follows up with team discussions on what the firm can stop, start, or continue doing. Those thoughts are centralized at the regional level so top themes can be addressed. These meetings also allow for innovative ideas to be shared and, more importantly, implemented.

This year, leveraging the car theme, event organizers created and deployed a personal application for employees called “Me, MY experiences” in time for JournEY Day. The tool showcased the many experiences available to assurance professionals at EY and provided employees with a way to sort potential career and personal experiences in the short-, medium-, and long-term categories.

At the same time—and because EY wants its professionals to envision their career journey—employees could rank how they were feeling along the way with road signs such as “Baby on Board,” “Dead End,” or “Green Light—Full Speed Ahead!” The tool enables consistent conversations between managers and their employees and a way to drive dialogue around many important topics.

The personal application was only the beginning. On JournEY Day, leaders and managers gathered face-to-face to focus on career planning and value. Some of the events of the day included:

  • A team building activity that highlighted how a career in audit might look like. They developed a game that challenged employees along their career route, and participants could collect envelopes with tips, similar to tips one might gather from a mentor, to help them successfully navigate their journey.
  • A panel discussion with boomerang employees (those who left the firm and returned), experienced hires, alumni, headhunters, and global exchange employees to allow for varying views in careers. “No two careers are alike, even if the same in the title, so it’s important to share stories of varied experiences as likely many of our professionals have similar questions or thoughts. Our message is ‘Don’t go it alone—have conversations, be curious,’” Kutz explains.
  • Breakout sessions, by level so that employees in each rank could see the next steps and get curious about the possibilities of their future with the firm.

Who am I and what are my options?

To further demonstrate the value of an EY career, the regional assurance group recently added a framework it has coined “Upnext,” produced and developed by the group’s professionals, that enables them to see the peripheral and upward view of the opportunities both inside and outside the firm, including the value of their experiences over time. Accompanying the framework were monthly calls with rotating topics on the various options available at various points in an employee’s career both inside and outside the firm to further develop and expand one’s experiences over time. The topics range from internal service line

Accompanying the framework were monthly calls with rotating topics on the various options available at various points in an employee’s career both inside and outside the firm to further develop and expand one’s experiences over time. The topics range from internal service line opportunities to other service line opportunities, to external opportunities such as joining a board.

Anyone interested can dial in and ask questions or just listen. This framework also helps assurance professionals update their “Me” diary and leads career conversations to better questions about what comes next.

“We are in the business of developing careers,” Kutz says. “Building tomorrow’s leaders today starts with transparency, which builds trust. We can either be a part of their thought process or not, and I’d prefer the former. My hope is that each professional can learn more about who they are and what their options are.”

The winning formula

EY’s quest to reduce attrition is working. During the past few years, the firm’s annual Global People Survey results show that EY’s central region assurance group realized a 12-point increase in its employee engagement index with steady climbing results year over year. And this was achieved during a busy time of year in a highly regulated environment. In addition, the central region assurance group has realized a higher concentration, compared with history, of boomerangs returning to the firm.

So, what’s at the core of EY’s winning formula for increasing engagement and reducing attrition? The people.

“Our people have the answers,” Kutz notes. “You just have to capitalize on the opportunity to get them involved.” Leaders must set the tone and be catalysts for change, but their engagement needs to be fun, not forced. It’s not always about what you do, but more about how you do it. And, when it comes to measuring success, look to build it into existing processes.

“You’ll never be surprised once your analytics are built into the way you operate and offer accountability,” says Kutz.

Finally, success at EY hinges on being consistent for the long haul.

“I am not claiming victory yet. We continue to learn by diving deeper into our success indicators through predictive analytics and other qualitative measures,” explains Kutz. “More importantly, I believe in the power of our people having a voice in the business. Doing so creates an innovative culture that is fun and agile—it’s our culture, it’s our exceptional EY experience.”

“Leaders must set the tone and be a catalyst for change but their engagement needs to be fun, not forced.”

This article is written by Beverly Crowell, for Talent Development Magazine

  Wendy Tan   Jul 03, 2017   Article-Consulting, Engagement, Resource for Performance Conversations   Comments Off on Elevating the Employee Experience   Read More

The Power of Pause

WOMEN REPRESENT ABOUT half of the nation’s workforce yet still make about 83 percent of men’s median wages, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They’re also underrepresented in the c-suites and boards across nearly every industry. In other words, women are working just as hard but aren’t seeing the full benefit of their efforts.

As talent management professionals, we work with many of today’s Fortune 1,000 companies. They invite us in to help their employees take ownership of their careers. Our formula is time-tested and successful but only when it’s lived out beyond the classroom and put into practice.

Employees leave our sessions knowing what to do, but the actual doing is quite hard. And it’s a little tougher for women. Why? A woman’s focus is almost never solely in her career. She’s juggling multiple priorities, so intentionally managing her career is an easy one to push down the to-do list.

What does it mean to manage one’s career intentionally? We talk about career management in the context of five critical questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. How do others see me?
  3. What’s changing in the world of work?
  4. What are my options?
  5. How can I achieve my goals?

Answering these self-reflection questions requires muting the noise going on outside and focusing on the inside.

For women, that means not checking their text messages and see who forgot their school lunch, holding off listening to a voice mail from an ailing parent, and not stopping everything to add a calendar reminder to pick up eggs.

But muting is necessary for a process of discovery to unfold. So, if you are a leader of women, help them press mute and concentrate on what’s going on inside the place they work: what’s happening now, what’s going to happen, and what will make them the best professional now and in the future. Then walk them down this five-step path.


What do you hold most dear, what do you do better than anyone else, and what do you really love doing? We talk about these three areas in the terms of having a good career fit.

Being able to be articulate one’s skills is critical. In much of our work, the stereotypes prove true—women have a harder time articulating their specific skills (not just “I’m good with people”) and speaking about them as if they’re owned. We have seen exceedingly skillful women unable to passionately and vehemently defend their almost innate abilities, and we often see women rating themselves lower in their skill sets.

And while women may have a harder time articulating these skills, they inherently possess many savvy behaviors that are key to navigating a successful career. They tend to score higher on their ability to listen well, collaborate, be comfortable with diversity, and build relationships through teams. In build- ing these relationships, however, women can suffer from putting their own interests last. So, while they might know what they are passionate about doing, it’s not uncommon to see the female talent to hang tough and do work they don’t enjoy for the sake of the team or peace at work.

Finally, what about values? What matters most to women? We’ve gotten a variety of answers over the past 35 years—everything from spending time with family and friends to challenging oneself intellectually.What is consistent is how women rate satisfaction with their values given their current work situation. It’s common to see female talent more dissatisfied. Perhaps this is related to their willingness to tough it out for the sake of the team, the organization, or the family. In our own experiences, we’ve put major promotions on hold to care for young children where the value of family trumps the value of a career.

One value we do see more often with women is the desire to feel appreciated and respected. It’s important to them that their tough-it-out mentality is recognized: Hey, can’t you see the sacrifices I’m making here—appreciate me!


The days of having your manager tap you on the shoulder and point you to your next job are over. Today, no one manages their career in a vacuum and no one truly works alone. Even if you work in a remote office, you’re still connected and how all these connections view you is important.

To know the opinion of others requires feedback. And, while women are generally eager for feedback, it’s not uncommon to see them ruminate on it. In fact, one of us is still talking about the feedback we received from a boss in 2005. It was accurate feedback—about pouting in a meeting—but still, stings.

Perspective from others is effective when women keep their emotions in check. We encourage them to stick to the facts and ask for specific examples when the feedback is fresh. Then step back and look for the truth within it. If you’re not sure, ask a peer or mentor. Mentors are a powerful resource; women benefit from learning from someone who’s walked a mile in their shoes.

We’re talking more to women’s groups about the power of personal branding in today’s workplace. It begins by asking the hard questions like “what’s my reputation at work” or “what do people say about me when I leave the room?” If you don’t ask, you won’t know if your brand is getting in the way of the career you want.

“Once a plan is in place and women are excited about it, our experience is that they will pursue their goals with a tenacity that’s often unmatched by others.”


Careers grow and evolve within ever-changing cultures and environments. A critical step in any career management is knowing exactly where you stand amid this changing environment and arming yourself to see opportunities where others may not.

To grow in today’s complex organizations, it’s essential to build a rich and diverse network. The key word here is diverse. We often see women looking more for networks at their own level and not higher-level networks that may help advance their careers and knowledge. Conversely, it’s not uncommon to see their male counterparts being more strategic about who they want in their network. They take the “you never know unless you ask” approach.

Managing one’s network is a conscious responsibility and the prescription for personal and business success. Know what you want, who can help and how, and what you can offer in return.


Here is where we see women in the workplace both thrive and struggle. Typically, we find that women aren’t as upward-focused as men but they do see multiple career options: Up, down, sideways, a little of each, or growing right where they are. The barrier is the either-or mentality they often take. Do they pull out all stops to get ahead or just keep their heads down and hope it all works out? The right answer is yes.

We recently spoke at a Women in Leadership Conference and career options was a highly charged topic. The women in the room openly voiced the concern about saying no to any opportunity that comes their way. By saying no, many thought they were giving into the stereotype that women don’t really want to do whatever it takes to get ahead. The fear prompts many women to say yes even when it may not be the right fit.

Leaders can support women more fully here by realizing that we employ a whole person and that whole person brings to work values, skills, interests, and perspectives that may not align with every opportunity. It’s why self- awareness is so critical. Saying yes or no should begin with who you are, not what others want you to be.


Careers happen, planned or not. You won’t achieve even the clearest, most realistic goals without commitment and focus. It’s this focus—or lack thereof— that can be a real roadblock for women. It requires putting themselves first. They can do so by reaching out to other women as mentors for guidance, form- ing career action teams where they support and hold one another accountable, or even asking for very specific development ideas from people in their career network, including their manager.

Once a plan is in place and women are excited by it, it’s our experience that they will pursue their goals with a tenacity often unmatched by others. But it starts with having the courage to press pause. Do you have what it takes?


“For women in the workplace, the key to continued growth is intentionally muting the noise.”


Written by Beverly Crowell and Beverly Kaye on Talent Quarterly, The Boss Issue.


  Wendy Tan   May 16, 2017   Article-Consulting, Career Development, Resource for Performance Conversations   Comments Off on The Power of Pause   Read More

HR Consulting Skills

by Designed Learning

“I was never only staff. I wanted to make a contribution and work in a partnership role with my clients. In fact, some of my clients in production and marketing used to say, ‘Are you sure you are staff? You certainly don’t act like staff,’” says a human resources professional from a large manufacturing organization. Her remark exemplifies how staff professionals today are reshaping their roles by becoming consultants. No longer is their mindset “I’m only staff.” Now they are contributors who care about the business as well as the soft issues: “I’m a partner.”

Affecting the Bottom Line

Staff positions in many organizations may constitute up to 40 percent of the workforce. Among the qualities engineers, personnel, systems analysts, purchasing agents and human resources professionals have in common are expertise and the desire to have some impact. Often, however, they have limited direct authority over the application of their expertise. In the face of dramatic reductions, however, many staff organizations are reevaluating their role. Human resource groups are seeking to move beyond serving as policemen, implementers of ineffective policies, experts with solutions in hand or pawns available for manipulation by powerful line managers. Staff professionals concerned with an organization’s human resources want to partner with managers as equals, collaborating to discover solutions to the challenges facing their organizations. They want to help solve problems and make a difference to the bottom line.

Playing a Consulting Role

Organizations need human resource professionals to become consultants who can be liaisons between departments or divisions, retaining their status as experts in their field and acting as a channel or broker for the human resources function. In his book, “Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used,” Peter Block describes a consultant as someone who has some influence over an individual, a group, or an organization, but who lacks direct power to make changes or implement programs. Often consultants are thought of as a “pair of hands” to implement a predetermined solution to an existing problem. At other times, they are asked to fix something with their expertise. Consultants often appear as solutions in search of problems. If the solution works, the line person who chose the solution is a hero. If the implementation fails, the staff consultant becomes the scapegoat.

Frame of Reference Changes

The idea of partnership requires a new frame of reference for both managers and human resources staff. Managers need to work with human resources consultants to solve problems while continuing to take responsibility for their problems and remain involved through to the implementation of solutions. For human resources staff, new perspective is more complex. The task is to maintain the position of technical expert while keeping line manager clients involved and responsible for solutions to their own problems. Consultants are changing the way they begin to work on assignments. Human resources professionals are characteristically people who want to serve. They commonly delve into assignments with good will, expecting management support for their recommendations. If support is not forthcoming, problems will follow. Consultants must know how to establish quickly a foundation of commitment and responsibility

Being More Helpful

Most human resources practitioners come from an earnest perspective: “I only want to be helpful.” They are reluctant to articulate their own wants and needs. Client managers usually express clearly their wants and needs; staff people often find it difficult to do the same, even when what they want is rarely selfish or idiosyncratic. They simply want to enhance the organization’s effectiveness. Their advice is provided to make the organization’s work more effective and productive. Jeff Delanoy of Michigan Consolidated Gas works handin- hand with his internal clients, recognizing that his needs and theirs have a common foundation. “Expressing my needs is  new tool I never used in the past. Before, I thought I had to do whatever they wanted. Now I know they have as much responsibility for meeting my needs as I have to meet theirs. Instead of causing problems, this attitude wins respect.” Similarly, Althea Duggins, a department trainer for Hewlett Packard has learned to say, “Here is what I want so I can make the project successful. I want it! It’s not just what the project needs to be successful.”

Consulting Skills

Staff resource professionals need to learn to keep clients focused on their problems. As developed y Peter Block, a clear process can be established for human resources professionals to manage relationships with clients:

  •  Contracting for the work.
  •  Making an independent diagnosis of the problems.
  •  Giving feedback about personal and organizational data to facilitate decision making.
  •  Carrying out the plan.
  •  Evaluating the main events.

Successful consulting projects — whether they last ten minutes or ten months — follow these five phases in sequence. Skipping one (or assuming it has been taken care of) can invite trouble. Skillful consultants are competent in the execution of each step. Successfully completing the business of each phase is the consultant’s challenge.

Contracting is Essential

A contract, written or not, is an explicit agreement of what the human resources consultant and the client expect from each other and how they will work together. “Every project I’ve had that has gone south, when I analyze it now, has failed because the contracting work was not done well,” says Arnie Winkler, a senior human resources development consultant for Pacificorp Electric Operations. “Now, I get agreement every time on the boundaries and objectives of the project. We agree on the kind of information we are going to get. We define my role and the client’s. We agree on the product I will deliver and what support and involvement the client will give me. And we set a time frame.” Consultants must practice asking for what they need to serve the project. They need to discover how to hold back from offering solutions, instead concentrating on making sure their clients retain ownership of the problem. They should learn to identify their clients’ concerns about exposure and loss of control, and learn to identify all the players. In addition to the primary client (typically a manager) and the people working in the project or area of operations, there are workers in other areas who provide assistance or information. Higher levels of management — for the consultant and the client — are often forces to contend with, as are people affected by changes that might occur. All need to be considered and addressed during the contracting phase. “I volunteered for an experimental assignment to coach first line foremen to be better leaders,” recalls Michael Cristiani, a former consultant staff manager with McDonnell Douglas Electronic Systems. “I had an agreement with the manager who made the assignment, but I soon realized I did not have the cooperation of the foremen themselves. When I began to discuss a contract with them, I realized I also needed to contract with the general foreman and even the superintendent. I finally decided to start at the top, with the program manager of an entire aircraft operation, and work back down to the foremen. Specifying what they and I needed at every level yielded the cooperation that made the project successful.”

Giving Feedback

A consultant often must reduce a large amount of data into a manageable set of issues to feed back to the client. Conveying this information effectively requires consulting skills that include providing all relevant data, even when this information is not a part of the assignment. Consultants need to be able to give descriptive rather than evaluative feedback. This can include data about the client’s personal behavior in handling the problem with the targets of change. One personnel specialist in the systems division of a high-tech conglomerate was empowered to play a consulting role rather than merely offering technical expertise. The manager she was supporting complained of excessive turnover because of inadequate pay and proposed a plan to increase pay to about 40 people. The personnel specialist recognized that the manager thought compensation would be the simple solution. She interviewed several former employees and concluded that pay was not the problem. Instead, she found another major dissatisfaction to address. The company solved the problem effectively and with considerably less expense. To manage the business of the feedback phase, consultants should structure and control feedback meetings that elicit client reactions and involve them in the choice of next steps. Consultants also should learn the importance of being present at meetings when action steps are determined.

Dealing With Resistance

No matter how reasonably data and recommendations are presented, clients resist, a reaction that can be puzzling and frustrating. Consultants must learn to avoid viewing the resisting client as stubborn and irrational. This can deteriorate into confrontation. Skilled consultants understand that clients need to express resistance directly in order to learn how to handle a difficult problem. Unless resistance is expressed and addressed, there is little chance the client will genuinely accept and use what the consultant has to offer. The skills to deal with resistance include being able to identify when it is occurring and supporting the client to directly express to resistance. Consultants need to understand that an expression of resistance is not a personal attack on their competence.

Working on Partnership

In effective organisations, line and staff work together to solve problems and to take advantage of opportunities. This requires everyone to work in a partnership that is mutually responsible for successful change. While the line manager remains the client in such a partnership, the human resource staff partner takes on a consulting role, working with the manager toward an outcome beneficial to the entire organization.
Consultant must learn to manage relationships as well as the human resource issues associated with projects. Effective consulting increases the potential for a human resources professional to have a strong and positive impact on the bottom line. In this way the human resources consultant become a business partner, committed to organizational success, instead of someone relegated to “mere” people problems.

  Wendy Tan   Mar 26, 2015   Article-Consulting   0 Comment   Read More

Consulting Skills for Engineers

by Designed Learning

Engineers do not operate in a vacuum. They need the support of managers or internal clients. Collaboration with clients requires blending engineering expertise with consulting skills. Clients must be engaged in the process from defining the problem to implementing the solution. As consultants, engineers need to develop trust in the relationship. When trust is established, clients are more willing to commit the money, time, and resources.

Engineers hold the key to progress and problem solving in an increasingly technical world. They are often seen as experts with the wizardry to solve complicated problems. Managers sometimes expect miracles from them.

But engineers do not operate in a vacuum. They need the support of managers or internal clients. Since engineers seldom control operations, they must collaborate with others in the organization. Without these relationships, their expert solutions might go unused and their clients can be dissatisfied. What’s more, the engineers will find themselves frustrated.

Collaboration with clients requires blending engineering expertise with consulting skills. Clients must be engaged in the process from defining the problem to implementing the solution. That’s the foundation for commitment and responsibility.

“Engineers sometimes have trouble de-emphasizing their technical competencies when called in to solve problems with internal clients,” says Dave Bryson of Chevron Inc. “But once engineers force themselves to begin talking about the personal aspects of projects, they’re good at it. I enjoy watching engineers learn new aspects of consulting,” he says.

Different Relationship

By temperament and training, engineers focus on the technical aspects of a problem. But in today’s organizations few problems are purely technical. When the focus is solely in that arena, important issues get lost. Who manages the problem? What are the incentives to handle technical factors in a certain way? How can resistance to solutions be reduced? These non-technical issues can affect virtually every problem.

In a traditional setting an engineer recognizes that management issues surround a project. Returning to the office, he or she discusses with other engineers all the issues negatively affecting the project. But they aren’t in a position to solve the situation. By contrast, engineers acting as consultants share a whole array of pertinent information — technical and contextual — with their clients.

Fixing the Real Problem

Charles Fields, formerly an engineer with Hartford Steam Boiler and now a Designed Learning affiliate, tells how he returned to one location five times to fix a technical problem regarding a furnace. He learned on his first visit that operators were not following the maintenance procedures. They were so busy that no time was being spent on preventive maintenance. Not wanting to complain, the operators did not bring up the matter with their supervisor. On his fifth return trip, Fields called the lack of maintenance to the manager’s attention. Once preventive maintenance became a priority, the problem was solved. Acting as a true consultant, Fields recognized that the technical problem could be solved with a non-technical approach.

Getting the Bigger Picture

“If the widget broke, I’d fix the widget or tell them how to fix it”, says Frank Talbot, staff engineer for Chevron Corporation in San Ramon, California. “Now I get outside of purely technical issues and look at the human factors. I’ve learned to ask ‘What is the client contributing to the problem?’”

Talbot recalls being called to a plant where the coupling on a compressor was broken. After a week’s work he made a few recommendations about instrumentation and controls, his area of expertise. But four or five other recommendations focused on the way line managers could prevent the problem from recurring, such as better training and documentation. A surprising number of recommendations were adopted.

“That was a first for me,” says Talbot. “It never occurred to me that a plant manager would welcome the advice of a technical guy beyond the widget level. Earning that welcome takes specific skills.”

Different Views of the Problem

Cost is often a stumbling block for staff engineers who want to solve technical problems in the best possible way. Managers, on the other hand, are charged with holding the line on costs. What the engineer thinks is necessary, the client will see as “over-engineering,” viewing engineers who hold their ground as stubborn and inflexible. Consulting skills help narrow the gap between these two positions.

Charles Fields recalls an engineer sent to investigate a boiler failure who wanted to perform additional tests. When he learned the tests would lengthen the outage by two days, the plant manager resisted. Instead of insisting on the tests, the engineer encouraged the plant manager to express his concerns.

The manager felt pressured because production was behind schedule. The engineer convinced the plant manager he was on his side and they quickly eliminated the cause of the boiler failure so the manager’s operation could return to production.

In extreme cases, clients pressure engineers to take shortcuts, sometimes demanding a quick and dirty solution that is unacceptable or even dangerous. In such situations, engineers have to learn to hold their ground. “It’s important to avoid establishing possible courses of action as your way and my way,” says Richard Bergman of Corning Inc. A collaborative approach is essential.

Cost Issues

More organizations are charging back for the work of staff engineers. This means corporate engineering departments must compete with external engineering consulting firms that bid on projects.

Staff engineers are sometimes restricted in the ways they can set prices, priorities and shift resources. This can prevent them from competitive bidding. Internal engineering departments must support corporate overhead, putting them at a pricing disadvantage. While staff engineers base quotes on time spent, clients prefer a set price. More effective contracting helps staff engineers and their clients better understand each other’s situation.

Charles Fields describes a time the home office sent an account engineer to find out why a regional manager could not provide an engineer for a temporary assignment. The manager cited limited resources. Instead of arguing, the engineer lent a sympathetic ear, encouraging the manager to describe the larger picture.

The company’s accounting procedures did not provide compensation for the time and expenses of an engineer who was temporarily reassigned. Since the engineering manager was measured on profitability, assigning an engineer would affect his results. The engineer arranged a meeting with accounting, data processing, and the regional managers. Together they worked out a simple procedure to transfer expenses across regions.

Not Just an Expert or a Pair of Hands

Engineers can be pigeonholed into roles that block collaboration. They are often called on to take over a problem in a situation when a vulnerable or threatened manager plays an inactive role, simply judging the proposed solution. If the project doesn’t work, the client blames the engineer. To avoid these pitfalls, engineers must understand the factors that result in these unproductive expert-client relationships.

At the other extreme, an engineer can become a pair of hands, accepting the manager’s plan of action and implementing it without exploring the overall situation. Often a manager wants the staff engineer to do some undesirable chore. Some engineers welcome this role because they like collecting data and creating designs. They may be less comfortable at the communication necessary to uncover the larger problem. A good contract includes knowledge of the larger problem and the right to influence decisions. Without this foundation, the result is likely to be unsatisfactory.

Neither role — expert or pair of hands — requires collaboration. If engineers want to work as partners, collaboration is essential. As consultants, engineers need to develop trust in the relationship. When trust is established, clients are more willing to commit the money, time, and effort needed for a successful project.

One engineer worked on the relationship first when she arrived at a pulp and paper mill to make a risk assessment. Because the plant manager seemed upset, she asked, “How do you personally feel about having the assessment conducted?” Disarmed by her personal concern, the manager confided he was upset because past risk assessments had taken long. The engineers acted like policemen, he told her, and there had been problems with the home office. Getting these concerns on the table early enabled the engineer and manager to work out procedures that addressed anticipated problems and yielded a productive working relationship.

There is power in being a true consultant. The engineer is neither an expert solving problems all alone nor a pair of hands implementing someone else’s solutions. True consultants give the relationship with the client as much attention as the technical issues.

Contracting is Essential

The point of maximum leverage for the engineer-consultant is in the contracting phase of a project. Internal consultants often undervalue the process or overlook the essential steps of contracting. These are some of the steps:

  • Make personal connection
  • Communicate and understand how the problem was initially defined
  • Negotiate the roles and responsibilities of all participants
  • State what you want from the client
  • Be clear on what the client wants from you
  • Deal with resistance
  • Agreeing on a definition of success and failure
  • Focus on what went well

Richard Bergman of Corning agrees. “Once I jumped into a project and got going, even though I had nagging questions. In meetings with the project leader, I provided him with the data he wanted. He, however, made his decisions in private. I realized that my services and abilities were being underutilized. Clearly, I’d skipped over the contracting portion of my involvement. I became a pair of hands.” Realizing what had happened, Bergman was able to stop the project long enough to negotiate a more appropriate role.

One Project — Many Contracts

Good and complete contracting must be done with everyone participating in the project. An obstacle to good contracting can be confusion over reporting relationships between corporate offices and field operations, or both. Sometimes the contract must be triangular. For example, feelings of rivalry, vulnerability and intrusion can complicate a project involving a staff engineer from corporate headquarters, a manager and a local engineer. The engineer-consultant learns to bring these concerns out in the open to make the relationship work.

Charles Fields relates a story of a plant manager of a utility who requested a corporate engineer to oversee the dismantled inspection of a large turbine. When he learned that the plant engineers did not know he was coming, he asked them how they felt about working with him. After some give and take, they told him they didn’t like the idea of a “hot shot” from corporate telling them how to do the project. He acknowledged their feelings as natural, paving the way for a discussion of how they could work together. “Had this step not been taken,” says Fields, “those underlying feelings would have slowed the project and made for a miserable relationship at the plant.”

Engineers often must contract effectively with multiple clients, not only managers but on-site employees who might be distracted or removed from their regular duties. Keeping everyone informed takes time, energy and commitment to communication.

A Matter of Practice

Dave Bryson of Chevron has learned the value of consulting. “Engineers first want to fight the model for contracting taught in Designed Learning workshops because they are concerned about showing weaknesses”, he says. “Once they take it step-by-step, the pieces get more comfortable. Once they feel it’s okay to not have all the answers, they know they can work collaboratively with clients. Waking up to these new dimensions of their work is good for the engineer and the organization.”

  Wendy Tan   Mar 26, 2015   Article-Consulting   0 Comment   Read More

Consultative Selling

by Wendy Tan

The bigger and more complicated a sale is, the more important it is for sales consultants to differentiate themselves by their consulting skills and partnership they build with their clients. They need to discover their clients’ underlying needs and deal with their concerns, so that customers need to feel understood and supported in making a good decision. This makes customer retention automatic.

Consultative Selling

The adage “hammer looking for nails” has been applied to the sales consultants who see every problem through their lens and suggest a solution that they can sell to their clients. We are all selling something, whether they are ideas, products or services. The difference is our values and skills in selling.

The first type of sales consultants are those who assume that they are the expert and prescribe solutions to the clients. They listen superficially to their customers and assert that their solutions will solve the problem. Selling the benefits of the solutions regardless of the client’s specific situation is typical.

I have attended a sales talk where the speaker positioned himself as the expert in property with a listing of his numerous personal acquisitions and the proclamation of large capital appreciation and fantastic rental yield. He even claimed, “if only you had listened to me then, you could be enjoying these gains too. But you did not.” Within this statement is an unstated judgment here that people who did not listen to him are not clever or astute. We have all occasionally met salespeople who listen poorly and instead continuously to sell the benefits of products. Sometimes the pressure exerted makes it difficult for the customer to say ‘no’.

The advantage of taking an expert role in selling is that it is faster and makes the sales consultant feel powerful. However, this is likely to be a short term relationship. If the prescribed solution does not meet the customers’ expectations subsequently, the sales consultant is blamed and chances of repeat sales will be destroyed.

The second type of sales consultants are like a pair of hands who take orders from the customers. The image of a waiter comes to mind. They also do not ask about the customers’ situation, preferences or problem. These sales consultants tend to be passive and react to customers’ instructions. This could be a sales engineer who waits for customers to tell him their specifications or an insurance agent who simply sells travel insurance when asked by their customers, without finding out changes in the family that might warrant more insurance coverage.

The advantage of being an order-taker is that it is easy and fast, if not brainless and it does not require much skill. This also seemingly makes it easy for the customers. This is often the focus of basic sales training in most service organizations – “smile and delight your customers by doing or giving what they want”. The disadvantage of being an order-taker is that there might be missed opportunities. If the sales consultant had understood the customers’ needs better, he might be able to sell more to them. The other disadvantage is the lack of differentiation in the type of relationship these sales consultants have with their customers. Sales consultants are the touch points with customers and if a lasting impression is made at that point, customer retention becomes automatic.

The third type of sales consultants require the highest level of skills and let’s label them as ‘collaborative’. They ask the right questions to understand the customers’ situation or problems and offer a range of options for the customers to make a good decision. They might even talk about the pros and cons of each option.

The advantages of such collaborative sales consultants are obvious. They sell more to customers and build a longer term relationship with them. Customers feel understood and supported in making the right decision and will come back in future. The disadvantage is that this requires more skills and takes a longer time, at least in the beginning. However, this might be a worthwhile investment to retain customers and have repeated sales.

Across all three types of sales consultants – expert, pair of hands and collaborative, product knowledge is essential. However, additional specific skills are required of such collaborative sales consultants. They include:

  • making a connection with the customer;
  • asking the right questions to understand customers’ needs;
  • paraphrasing to show the customer that you understand;
  • asking customers for their concerns and reactions to your suggestions;
  • giving support to the customers; and
  • building long term partnership with customers.

Partnership selling is eventually based on building a relationship with the customer. Underlying product knowledge and collaborative selling skills is a genuine interest in the customer and a desire to serve the customer. This is a competitive advantage that gains customers in the long haul and assures success in the marketplace.


Click here to download the PDF

  Wendy Tan   Mar 26, 2015   Article-Consulting   0 Comment   Read More
Copyright ©2013-2020 The Flame Centre.