A Consultant is Not a Leader

By Laurent Duperval

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During a recent hotel stay, I discovered the show Hell's Kitchen. For those who don't know it, here is a brief synopsis of my understanding: A former English chef is asked to come into a poorly-performing restaurant in order to help get things running smoothly and take care of the most glaring issues. Sound familiar?


In the episode I saw, Chef Ramsey (the consultant), was called in by a couple who were orchestrating a re-opening of their restaurant. Ramsey's job was to taste the food, determine how good the service was, and to recommend and help improvements to the whole system. Sounds familiar?


In the course of his work, he found out some nasty things: the head chef was a complete incompetent; he and the assistant chef did not get along and did not communicate at all; the waiters were put on the spot because of poor performance in the kitchen. Some waiters had to lie outright to the customers in order to cover for the blunders of the chef and his staff. Customers got up and left either because the food was unsavory or the restaurant did not provide rapid service. The whole thing was on the verge of collapsing. Sound familiar?


By the end of the show, Ramsey had orchestrated a full turnaround: new look, new menu, new approach to servicing the customers. Yet, with all that work, he still couldn't get things to change until the very last minute. Why? What occurred during that episode can serve as a case study in dealing properly with a consultant.


Tips of the Trade


Listen - A good consultant has expertise which you do not have in a given area. Listen to them. The point of hiring a consultant is to improve your condition, not to have someone tell you how good you are. Otherwise, why hire her at all? My mentor, Alan Weiss, said it best: "If you want unconditional love, get a dog."


A consultant's role is not to validate your existence. A consultant's role is to tell you how things really stand, to take a hard look at your business and address the needed changes, with no emotionally attachment to the outcome. Being defensive will not help you.


Public Support - In the episode of Hell's Kitchen, the owners listened to everything Ramsey said without pushing back. However, they didn't manifest their support of his ideas in front of their staff. Whenever Ramsey tried to get the staff to move faster, to change their behavior, or to step up to the plate, there was very little noticeable change. Ramsey swore, cussed, and insulted with little effect.


You can choose to have a consultant deal directly with your staff, or you can deal with him and relay the information to your staff yourself. Either method can work quite well. However, a consultant has no impact on your staff unless you publicly vouch for him and instruct the staff to work with him. If you do not, you reduce the consultant's effectiveness and you foster resentment among the staff.


BFF - No matter how effective a consultant is, there must be an end to the relationship. I have seen companies where the same consultant has been employed in a similar capacity longer than most employees. The bulk of the business's knowledge is in the hands of the consultant. Losing her would deal a severe blow to the organization. This is especially typical in smaller firms.


The consultant cannot be the one who holds the keys to your business's success. It has to be repatriated internally in one form or another. Otherwise, you become her hostage and in effect, she begins to control your business. Any interaction with a consultant needs to be limited in time and in scope. In a TV show, the duration is limited to the time it takes to get enough footage for one episode. How long should that investment be for you?


Dirty Work - Ramsey repeated over and over to the owners that their main chef was incompetent. Ramsey did not have the power to fire the chef, even though he knew it was the only thing to do. Being a leader in an organization is great when things are going well. But when things go bad (as they often do) it's not as much fun.


Announcing layoffs, salary cuts, and diminished hours is dreaded by most leaders and it can be easy to outsource these tasks to a consultant. When all is said and done, though, the responsibility comes back to you. When you have others take care of those nasty jobs, it casts a pall over your leadership abilities. It sends a signal that you are only willing to be a leader when things are going well, but that you are a coward when things are not. To be an effective leader, you must accept the good and the bad. Only then will you be seen as an effective leader with integrity.


Step Up - After a particularly bad evening, Ramsey asked the staff how they felt things went. The head chef replied that it went great. The assistant chef correctly asserted that it was terrible, mainly because of the head chef's behavior. No matter how much Chef Ramsey yelled, screamed, and ranted, the behavior of the head chef did not change. The head chef felt that it was his kitchen and that Ramsey had no right to tell him what to do.


Things did not change until the owner no longer abdicated his leadership to Ramsey, who was seen as a “star”. On the last day of shooting, things were so bad that the very existence of the restaurant was threatened. That's when the owner finally stepped in and began giving orders to his staff and to his head chef especially. Like magic, things started improving. Food was delivered on time, the head chef and the assistant began communicating, and the patrons left with a smile on their faces, ecstatically extolling the virtues of the restaurant. This would not have happened if the owner had not stepped up to the plate and finally assumed leadership instead of delegating it to a third party.


I am a consultant. I consult on leadership and communication issues in the workplace. My role is to improve my clients' long-term condition. I am not a dog. I am not a hired gun. But most of all, I am not your replacement.


When you hire a consultant, you must get the most out of your investment. However, the only way you can achieve this is by listening, discussing, and implementing. It is not by abdicating. Beware of any consultant who wants you to forgo your leadership powers. Because no matter how convincing they are, they can never be you.


Laurent Duperval is the president of Duperval Consulting which helps individuals and companies improve people-focused communication processes. He may be reached at laurent@duperval.com or 514-902-0186.