“You can’t be an effective internal process consultant (IPC) and have career development as your first priority.” These were the jaded words of wisdom imparted by an experienced practitioner at a workshop recently. What is it about the IPC role that led a respected international consultant, writer and speaker on the subject to reach such an alarming conclusion? Can anything be done to resolve it?
Many IPCs work under learning & development or organisation development banners and carry functional as well as consulting responsibilities. Hands-on engagement in the life of the organisation can provide opportunity for relationship-building, internal experience and credibility that external consultants may find more difficult. IPCs may, nevertheless, find it more difficult to gain access to key decision-makers than their external counterparts and find themselves marginalised if they pose difficult questions.
There are a number of issues and dynamics that may explain this phenomenon. IPCs are fairly likely to evoke, encounter and expose organisational defences when they, for instance, test strategy and policy against implications for organisational culture and climate. Such exposure can engender anxiety and embarrassment and many leaders would find it easier to hear critique from an external party than one of their own employees.
By way of analogy, it’s one thing to provide a hospital surgeon with the right equipment to carry out an operation effectively. It’s quite another thing to question whether surgery is the right intervention in the first place. IPCs who reframe matters in such ways are very likely to be experienced as problematic or even disloyal. The look on the leader’s face betrays the underlying question, “Are you with us, or not?” The wrong answer may well turn out to be a career decision.
I’ve noticed that, at times of pressure when managers are feeling most committed or vulnerable, the voice of reason is easily mistaken as the voice of treason. Paradoxically, at precisely those moments when the IPC could add greatest value by bringing insightful learning perspective, his or her input is least welcomed or heard. How is, therefore, the IPC to exert effective influence?
The first step, I think, is to build positive on-going relationships with decision-makers during ‘peacetime’. When the winds of change begin, managers often batten down their hatches and are impervious to critical input. The important thing is, therefore, to influence the understanding of leaders during ‘normal’ time so that the decisions they make in turbulent times will be, hopefully, wise ones.
The second step is to establish opportunities for working together with leaders on small-scale projects where they can see the benefits of an IPC perspective proven. Examples could include building a new team, creating a group development plan, providing advice on a training programme. Such ventures build a platform of relationship and credibility that will, over time, encourage others to seek you out too. They will also provide you with valuable case material for internal marketing of the IPC role.
Thirdly, offer leaders a range of consulting interventions rather than use incisive blows as your opening gambit. For instance, “We could do this or this, or try exploring this angle first. Which would you find most helpful?” A more nurturing approach provides the leader with choice in the process and, thereby, reduces potential for a defensive response.
Finally, recognise that although an IPC can offer helpful insight and expertise, it’s up to the leader to decide whether to take it on board. This calls for serious engagement on the part of the IPC combined with a corresponding degree of professional detachment. The IPC who bleats and raves for feeling unheard will only annoy rather than attract. Do your best and learn to let go.