Flawless Consulting: Consulting Skills for Trainers

by Designed Learning

Learning & Development Trainers become Full Partners

Today’s most effective learning and development (L&D) professionals are acquiring consulting skills. L&D professionals who understand the business intimately are in a position to advise managers on fundamental training issues, so that training and development can be effectively used to support the business strategy and growth. However, this requires partnering with the managers.

It’s clear that in almost every organization those responsible for training are evolving from a source of expertise and service into professionals who advise managers about fundamental training issues. In every situation, trainers must compete with outside organizations offering a range of training programs and services.

While circumstances and expectations are changing, internal managers often continue to see training and trainers in terms of the old model. They expect trainers to implement standard programs on demand, even when those programs address symptoms rather than root problems.

How do today’s training professionals help organizations move in new directions? How can trainers themselves better understand their emerging role as consultants? Today’s most effective trainers are acquiring consulting skills.

Influence But Not Control

Simply put, consulting skills are the key to getting expertise used. According to Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting, A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Career Developement_IDPUsed, “A consultant is a person in a position to have some influence over an individual, a group, or an organization — but has no direct power to make changes or implement programs. It takes leverage and impact to get our expertise used and our recommendations accepted.”

By this definition, most people in staff roles — including those in the training function — are consultants. They can advise, recommend and plan. But they are not in a position to implement. That choice belongs to the managers they advise, and the decision hinges on the consultant’s ability to persuade and show value.

For many who have filled an in-house training role, this is a totally new model, shedding some light on why managers don’t take — or even seek — recommendations from trainers. Cecelia Horwitz, an education and organization consultant for Eastman Kodak says, “Many trainers know the content, but they don’t know how to use it with management. Management therefore doesn’t invite them into discussions on the important issues.”

An Expert or A Pair of Hands?

Jeff McCollum, who formerly directed education for AT&T Consumer Products, adds: “Often, clients look at trainers in one of two ways. You’re either an expert called in to take responsibility and fix the problem, or you’re a pair of hands summoned to apply a solution the client has already decided on. Usually, neither role works very well for the trainer or the client.” Only when trainers move beyond these traditional, limited definitions will they become effective consultants.

Rick Osborne is one of a group of line managers from Kodak Canada Inc. selected a few years ago to approach training as a consulting task. He and his follow managers will eventually rotate back into the line, to be replaced by a new group of consultant trainers. He recalls, “At Kodak, the traditional view of training was the same as at many corporations: Managers would call in training people and tell them what the answer was, and perhaps have them gather data to justify the answer.”

“I thought that was the way it had to be!” Osborne continues, “But over time I realized there could be much more to the training role. Learning consulting skills lets trainers move away from being ‘yes persons’ and toward being partners with the client, looking together for real solutions to the real problems.”

McCollum agrees: “One of the keys to functioning as a consultant is to develop a partnership with the client. That way, the client is more invested, more committed. If the partnership exists from the beginning, the client is engaged from the top and more likely to own — and act on — the outcomes.”

Becoming Consultants

Flawless Consulting Workshops train professionals to become consultants by emphasizing several essential components. Consultants learn the importance of being authentic: They must put themselves into the position of their clients. And they learn to complete each of five steps in the consulting process.

Completing these steps is as important as being authentic. Marilyn Kobus, a management education consultant for Digital Equipment Corporation, calls the steps “a terrific framework, an excellent way to organize the process.”

Well Begun

The first step, contracting, is probably the most important. It sets up the ground rules, the roles and responsibilities, the expectations and the boundaries. A contract doesn’t have to be written, but it does have to be explicit. If it’s not crystal-clear, the entire project could be jeopardized. When projects fail, most experienced consultants realize the problems stemmed from poor contracting.

“I always remember the old adage, ‘Well begun is half done,’” says McCollum. “The contracting stage can begin the process well. When you’re functioning as a consultant, it’s where you make it clear that you’re not just a captive supplier. It’s where you say what your needs are — for instance, access to information and to the client’s time — in order to ensure a good outcome.”

What happens when a client won’t agree to provide what the consultant knows is necessary to get the job done? Or when a client asks for a training program the consultant believes won’t get to the root of the problem?

“You have to know when to hold and know when to fold,” says Kodak’s Horwitz. “When you’re a consultant, it’s sometimes OK to say, ‘I understand what you’re trying to achieve. But what you’re doing here won’t get you there.”

Osborne adds, “As long as your own manager understands and supports what you’re doing, the whole organization gains in the long run.”

Work Under Way

The second step in the consulting process is the discovery phase. Using data collection and analysis, the consultant is able to arrive at his or her own sense of the problem. Access to people and information is fundamental, so this needs to be negotiated during the contracting phase.

The third step involves feedback to the client and the decision to act. In simplest terms, this is the planning stage of the process. The consultant reports findings and works with the client to set ultimate goals for the project and to map out action steps.

At this point the issue of resistance is most likely to arise, especially if a client feels uncomfortable with the consultant’s conclusions. “Resistance is tough,” says Osborne. “In a traditional training situation, a client resisting your conclusions or recommendations can throw the whole project off the track.

“But when you work as partners,” he points out, “you’re far more likely to be able to name and defuse the resistance. That keeps the project moving in the right direction.”

The fourth phase in the consulting process is implementation, carrying out the plan. This phase is about building commitment among employees for the new program. Rather than installing the new program, process, etc…upon employees, it is important to engage them in the change.

The Final Phase

The fifth phase involves evaluation and appropriate follow-through. Did the project work? Should it be more widely applied in the organization? Should it be terminated? Did it deal with the real problem, or should a new project — perhaps with a new contract — be initiated? Implementation and evaluation are very project-specific. That means the consultant’s guidelines are more general. But it’s essential to be authentic and to carry out the terms of the contract.

Does It Work?

Theories are great, but they don’t mean much unless they work in the real world. Those who practice the consulting skills model have become true believers.

“At first, clients look at you like you’re from Mars,” says Osborne. “But then they come around. My vice president for manufacturing has gone from doing 80 percent of the talking while we’re together to doing 50 percent. Now he gives me the annual operational plan and the three-to-five-year business plan. We work together to build an educational and development strategy to complement them. That’s a big change.”

At Digital, where the consulting skills program was offered widely to employees, Kobus believes, “The result of using consulting skills is better quality, more on-target results. When client and consultant truly collaborate, what comes out of that is greater than either: it’s synergy.”

Returning to the concept of authentic understanding, Kodak’s Horwitz says, “The skills of the consultant aren’t all you need. You’ve got to understand the client’s business, and business in general. But the skills are very useful because they focus on understanding where the other person is coming from, clarifying the issues, holding off judgment, and being truthful.”

She adds, “The acquisition of skills like these isn’t an event: It’s a journey. And it’s a journey worth taking.”


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