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Keeping Cool In Front Of The Consultants


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KEEPING COOL IN FRONT OF THE CONSULTANTS

The arrival of consultants can send shock waves through the ranks of any corporation. After all, many engagements are at heart cost-cutting exercises that may force thousands of employees to start scouring the want ads. "Like it or not, consulting firms are used by companies to make ugly decisions executives don't want to make themselves," says W. Sanford Miller Jr., chief marketing officer at Cigna Corp. "That's a huge business for consulting, and it's a way for management not to get blood on its hands."

So what's a manager to do when a consultant comes calling? Is it the opportune time to trot out all those ideas that your boss has repeatedly rejected over the years? Should you open up and tell all? Or should you be careful not to criticize the company and its management?

For starters, you should know who you're dealing with. Do some research on the firm before the consultants arrive. "Prepare yourself for the interview," advises David Lord, editor of Consultants News, which covers the business. "Find out who the consultants are and what they've been asked to do. Discover what they've done in similar engagements at other companies, and then you can make some informed decisions about what to do." It also pays to know which senior executive was responsible for bringing in the consulting firm. That could tell you a lot about their

agenda.

DON'T GO OVERBOARD. Otherwise, according to consultants, the best advice is to be open and honest. That's especially true if the consulting firm's assignment is aimed at improving the company's operations rather than outright downsizing--or "chain saw consulting," as it is sometimes referred to. As John M. Jacobs, who is in charge of the management-consulting practice at Coopers & Lybrand, puts it: "It's hard to understand why anyone would be close-mouthed. I would want to be linked as closely as possible to the outside consultant because it might enhance my position in the company." But don't go overboard: You shouldn't be too candid unless you are absolutely sure that your comments will be treated confidentially and that they cannot be traced back to you--and that isn't easy to guarantee.

Even if you're not likely to completely tell it like it is, never appear cynical or hostile. Such behavior is likely to backfire. "This is a people business, and a lot of middle managers don't understand that," says Tom Melcher, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant. "I've seen managers who were very defensive, and they really hurt themselves."

It may, in fact, take a bit of patience to keep an open attitude. Many times, you'll be interviewed by young, newly minted MBAs who know little if anything about your industry or your organization. Try to be helpful in educating the consultant about your operations and how they compare with what your competitors are doing. The more knowledgeable you appear, the more likely you'll be viewed in a positive light.

THINKERS AND DOERS. Be open to the need for change and improvement. That's why most consulting firms are brought into an organization. Managers who are protective of the status quo are likely to be seen as "in the way" or resistant to change because they fear the loss of their own personal power or status.

Most consultants agree that managers should willingly share their

ideas about speeding decisions, producing new products, or increasing the company's profitability. In some cases, consultants can give a boost to that idea of yours that you could never get off the ground.

Worried that you'll receive no credit for your views? "I don't think good people should be overly concerned about having their ideas stolen, because good people always have good ideas," says Jacobs. If the consultant agrees with your opinions, you'll likely get credit. If not, you may very well impress the consultant as a thinker and doer who is valuable to the organization.

If the project calls for client-consulting teams, you should volunteer to become part of the "change effort." For one thing, say consultants, you'll probably play a role in what your organization is trying to accomplish. And at the very least, you may pick up skills from the consultant that could well make you a more desirable candidate on the job market if you finally get the ax.

WHAT TO DO WHEN THE EXPERTS COME CALLING

-- Think carefully about who hired the consultants and why.

-- Never appear defensive or snide.

-- Be helpful and candid, but be careful with any serious criticisms of your superiors or the organization.

-- Share your ideas with the consultant, even if you've had trouble selling them to your boss.

-- Volunteer to sign up for client-consulting teams. That way, you'll play a role in the "change effort." You might even avoid becoming a victim in a cost-reduction drive.

DATA: BUSINESS WEEKJohn A. Byrne in New York


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