What I Tell My Team
Ask the hard questions. As a thriving consultancy, our primary vocation is providing insight that adds value to our clients. To meet this objective we have to play enlightened court jester, asking the unaskable questions those inside the company cannot ask.
We also have to set the stage, carefully constructing an atmosphere of trust where we can mine issues deeply, uncover hidden orthodoxies, serve as a mirror, and always point out reachable possibilities for growth. We also have a duty to name the obstacles. Sometimes there are “family-style” secrets inside companies and denial as thick as prison walls. Be respectful on this quest. People, especially tough people, are really tender.
Stay away from their politics. Court jesters have the uncanny ability to speak of matters no one else in the system can touch. They stay free of political hairballs. They don’t take sides. To play court jester well you need to have an innate mix of wisdom and whimsy. You also must have such strong conviction that you are not swayed or influenced by their organization’s politics. Stay above that fray, even if well-intended people try to hip you to the pitfalls, personality, and power struggles of that institution. Ultimately, we are paid for objectivity.
Assume full authority. While clients want insights and objectivity, what we really provide is the courage to take calculated risks. To imbue this spirit of courage, we must radiate a genuine confidence. Confidence does not mean knowing things you don’t know or having answers. Rather, confidence means that we assume full authority of the process and the results. Almost unconsciously, people inherently trust others who take full responsibility for their work. We are hired to make a difference, to find areas of growth where the company has not been able to do on its own. This exploration calls for different eyes, different experiences, and different mindsets that created the situation. Do not waste time trying to be like them or trying to fit it; this is not a playground.
Set and maintain clear boundaries. Sometimes clients get pressure and they transfer the pressure to you. Do not accept it. The best thing you can do for them is to stay focused. Be polite, but politely refuse these distractions, gently reminding them of the main goal. As the old gospel song says, “keep your eye on the sparrow.” Most often, these boundaries are threatened when clients are trying to subtly persuade you to engage in their politics, that proverbial mountain that you have no business climbing. Stay on the narrow road and politely refuse this detour.
Trust the process. Growth strategy and innovation are wayfinding processes. The insights and answers always emerge. Some anxious clients want previews when there is nothing real to show, just a bunch of models of possibilities. If we were to share at this stage and they liked one of these strategies, it creates a problem. At this point everything is subject to change based on the progressive learning. Better to avoid these types of entanglements by just pointing to where we are in the process, but not distilling results before the wine of possibility has fermented.
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Michael Graber is the co-founder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis. Follow Michael @SouthernGrowth
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